PICTURESQUE Piltown is certainly punching above its weight in terms of community spirit, pride of place and entrepreneurial activities.
Although the village was bypassed in 2002 with the opening of the upgraded N24, Piltown has managed to retain a vibrant atmosphere combined with a quaint charm. Boasting a number of remarkable achievements, Piltown added to its already impressive offering last year with the official opening of the beautiful Pil River Park and Playground.
A perfect example of Piltown’s entrepreneurial spirit and strong community ethos can be seen with the phenomenally successful Iverk Show. Pre-pandemic, crowds from throughout Ireland and beyond flocked to the area for the staging of what is Ireland’s oldest agricultural show. A strong sense of community spirit is always on display as volunteers from throughout the parish and surrounding area work together to stage one of the largest such shows in the country.
While Piltown and its hinterland remains a strong agricultural area, this is also a very enterprising area which has admirably taken matters into its own hands regarding job creation. This can be seen through the achievements of Piltown Community Enterprise and Piltown Enterprise Centre which showcase the very best of community collaboration.
In 1980, Piltown GAA ran and developed a very successful ‘Big Draw’ which was the first of its kind in Ireland. Subsequently, the club decided to stimulate and encourage the development of an enterprising culture in the parish of Piltown and, in 1987, decided to run a ‘Start Your Own Business’ competition which resulted in Piltown Community Enterprise being created. A voluntary committee was established consisting of ten members drawn from local groups and organisations and possessing a wide range of experiences and skills.
Since its formation, the group has gone on to achieve all this and much more besides. Many successful businesses were fostered at the Fiddown Enterprise Centre, built on a site with funding from the local GAA and businesses, the IDA and a bank loan. The building, which had subsequently been extended to 10,000 square feet, was later sold to T. Butler Engineering which ensured that the company and its jobs could remain in the area. Following its sale, Piltown Community Enterprise purchased the Old Creamery Centre, located in the heart of Piltown village, which had entered a derelict state.
In 2011, with job creation once again becoming an issue within the community, Piltown Community Enterprise undertook the task of renovating this building with the aim of creating incubation units for start-up businesses. Due to its historical and heritage value the tall chimney on the Old Creamery Building, and part of the structure, had to be maintained which posed additional problems and costs. It was therefore decided to tackle this ambitious project in two phases.
Work commenced on Phase 1 in May 2014 and was completed in mid-March 2015 with the assistance of funding obtained from Kilkenny LEADER Partnership. Phase 1 resulted in the creation of a three-unit enterprise centre consisting of 6,300 square feet. Not prepared to rest on their laurels, and heartened by the response to their efforts, the committee embarked on Phase 2 and, under the 2017 Town and Village Renewal Scheme, obtained funding of €200,000.
Phase 2, which added a further 2,580 square feet, became a reality thanks to this funding as well as the group’s ongoing fundraising initiatives, and the assistance of Kilkenny County Council. It was officially opened by Minister for Rural & Community Development Michael Ring in March 2019. Already, businesses which had located in the centre have moved on to larger premises thanks to their successful incubation. However, along with providing incubation space for start-up businesses, the project has had many additional benefits for the area. A prominent building with considerable heritage value has been preserved and rejuvenated and has brought welcome activity back to the centre of the village.
Broadband for our Community (B4OC)
Brian Doyle, Jim O’Brien, Paul Walsh and Brian Fell burying cable.
Furthering highlighting how the community of Piltown is taking enterprising matters into its own hands, B4OC (Broadband for our Community) CLG was formed in 2020 by Piltown Community Enterprise to develop the parish’s very own top-standard broadband fibre to the premise (FTTP) network.
It was initiated on the suggestion of Kilkenny LEADER Partnership and funded through the LEADER programme. KLP’s suggestion was made in response to the implications of the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan (NBP).
The NBP funding of the commercially owned rollout of the FTTP network will only partially cover the villages of Piltown/Fiddown and will not be happening until 2023 at the earliest. Parts of the village had adequate, but not future proofed, high-speed broadband, while the rest of the communities have sub-standard connections.
Following a meeting, a multi-skilled, voluntary board was formed, consisting of Brian Doyle (Chairman), Mary Morgan (Secretary), Jill Dowley (Treasurer), Gerri Hickey (Liaison Officer), Kevin Barry (Vice Chairman), Paul Walsh, John Murray, Shane Hickey, Vernon Buckley and Pat Quinn.
Their range of skills and expertise, together with a shared vision of the project and the benefits to their community both now and into the future, has brought the project to fruition, making it the first of its kind in Ireland.
In all, 750 homes and businesses in a 3.4 square kilometre area now have, or will soon have, access to at least 150MB speeds and a future-proofed high-speed broadband service they can afford.
The board of B4OC believe access to reliable high-speed broadband is essential to attracting SMEs but the project represents much more than that. The community gains not only by having access to faster broadband for families, but there are also gains for local schools and other community buildings.
Businesses, and hundreds of families who struggled with speeds of between 1MB and 6MB also have the fibre power they need to work and study from home, to conference call and stream and enjoy the benefits of living in rural Ireland.
Project Manager and Chairman
Jim O’Brien is an IT graduate, who returned to college in 2018 after a career in construction. He lives locally and struggled to remotely access his course materials. He bought a dongle, moved to his garage, and finally got 13MB speeds, up from just 5MB. He is B4OC’s Project Manager and says the buy-in from local businesses and the wider community has been incredible.
“KLP and its philanthropic funding partner, the Tomar Trust, supplied technical assistance, planning, training and capital funding to the community to develop and advance the project. After that, the community drove on and did everything else,” he explains.
“Businesses donated bits, gave us other items we needed at cost and dug deep with us. My own father-in-law is a retired fitter, and he has been out in the trenches and up poles with me as we built the infrastructure. All of this has been built on private lands and sits into the landscape.”
Jim’s role involved a little bit of everything, including lots of negotiations and physical work.
“It’s a great job to have. Every day is different,” he says.
He likens the project to the story of ‘David vs. Goliath’. Major obstacles had to be surmounted, including getting fibre from one side of the railway line to the other which took six months.
The imposition of Covid-19 lockdowns also presented difficulties. Jim paid tribute to all involved and is grateful for the support he has received as Project Manager.
“The right people got involved at the start,” he says. “All the board members have different skills and contacts.”
Jim says many people in the local community were initially interested in the proposal – but also understandably wary.
“In the past, different broadband providers had promised the sun, moon and stars,” he says.
Jim says there has been very positive feedback from within the community and beyond. B4OC believes this is the first such model in Ireland and, along with KLP, aims to be a model for other communities in the future.
“We’d happily copy and paste this for other areas,” he says. However, he warns that there is a lot of work involved and a significant work still has to be completed.
There is a long road ahead, as another nine phases must be completed before both villages are done. However, given all that has been achieved to date, Jim is confident their goal can be realised.
“Piltown is known for getting impossible projects off the ground,” he says.
B4OC Chairman Brian Doyle has been working from home for years and was accustomed to dealing with sub-standard broadband.
“During the pandemic, many more people experienced what it’s like to work from home,” he says.
He also points out that there has been significant support from local businesses, not just in relation to funding but also with carrying out the actual work.
“There has been great support from the community and any people we called on,” he says. “There’s been a general willingness to help out. This is a network in which our community is invested.”
Given that laying fibre-optic cable is expensive, Brian says using the future-proofed FTTP model employed by the telecommunications industry was the only way forward.
“Doing it mostly ourselves meant that our costs were greatly reduced,” he says. “This is a service by the community, for the community which is owned by the community and run in its interest. It is a much leaner development model and operates on a not-for profit community-owned basis. We even hope to be able to pay a community dividend and the intention is that this money would finance other community projects.”
This community-owned model is similar to other rural broadband schemes that have successfully been rolled out in the UK, such as Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) in England which B4OC looked to as an example.
Jim O’Brien and Paul Walsh bring cable across the Pil River. Photo: Conor Reidy Photography.
Commenting on what has been achieved by B40C, Declan Rice, Kilkenny LEADER Partnership CEO said: “Community development and ownership of futureproofed FTTP networks should be as familiar as local ‘group water schemes’, of which there are many hundreds. Installing FTTP networks is not rocket science – in many ways it’s easier than a group water scheme to install.”
He continued “While a fibre network will require some seed money to get started, and needs wider landowner and community cooperation, as Piltown- Fiddown has shown, it can be done. By developing and crucially retaining ownership of the fibre network, a community takes charge of its digital future. It can set a cost that the community can bear, not that which the commercial market will maximise. And it can, in addition to having a maintenance fund, use some of the additional income to support other community projects. Piltown- Fiddown doesn’t have to be the exception; it should just be the pioneer.”
The positive feedback from local businesses and residents is proof of the success of this remarkable project. Kate Foley works in the office at O’Shea Farms/Iverk Produce, one of the connected companies in the locality now reaping the rewards.
“Since we were hooked up, we haven’t dropped connection once and have found it 100 per cent reliable,” she says. “Quality broadband is critical for a business like ours that employs around 95 at O’Shea Farms and a further 60 in Iverk Produce. This service will make this area far more attractive for everyone.”
Vernon Buckley lives locally and says the project has been transformative. “I work from home and had speeds of 2 or 3 Mbps if I was lucky and if it wasn’t raining or windy,” he explains. “Then I might have nothing at all. I now have 800Mbps and more. It’s superfast.”
He adds: “There were times previously when I couldn’t even send an email. Now I’m videoconferencing with students from Maynooth University based all over the country several days a week and watching Netflix with ease in my downtime. I don’t know myself. The community spirit and the volunteerism that made this project happen is simply incredible. You wouldn’t find it anywhere else.”
It’s clearly evident that Piltown is a community which other communities in the region and throughout Ireland could certainly learn a thing or two from. The village has undoubtedly set the bar for what can be achieved by other areas of similar size. With such dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers working for the betterment of their local community, Piltown’s future is in safe hands.
For more information on B4OC, visit www.betterbroadbandforpiltown.com