AS BUSINESSES, community groups and locals begin to return to a form of normality, a noticeable lift and sense of confidence is evident in the Blackpool area where community spirit has remained strong even during the most difficult periods of the pandemic.
With retailers reopened and outdoor dining returning as well as gyms, cinemas and other sectors, a new lease of life has been injected into Blackpool.
Blackpool GP and City councillor, John Sheehan said there is a “big difference” in the area since the easing of restrictions.
“With the lockdown, it was like Christmas Day around the place in that the shops were closed, the shopping centre, bar food stores,” he said.
“Things like mass, all of the community functions, none of them were happening so there was really a sense of fear around the place.
“If you contrast that to now, where an awful lot of people and particularly the elderly have been vaccinated, that has made a huge difference and then there is a lot more things open now and communities are slowly getting back, mass is getting back and religious services, the shopping centres, there’s more retail open but people, in particular, are feeling a bit more confident.”
He said there is much more of a sense of “optimism”.
“There isn’t that fear, though people are still cautious,” he said.
One aspect that Dr Sheehan recalled throughout the pandemic period was the sense of community around Blackpool which is said is “one of the natural things” about the area.
“One of the natural things about Blackpool is there’s a real sense of community,” he said, “everyone was looking out for one another and making sure that people had everything, particularly when people were cocooning and they may not have had family or support.
“People were very much looking out for that and going to see do they need help and that was very uplifting to see how people helped each other and I think that was reflected right throughout the city.”
He noted a “sense of relief” among many in the area as they begin to move more towards a sense of normality.
“People have also been able to do things, so people have been going to down to Youghal or the beach or for walks and they are coming back with a bit more life and a bit more news and things like that because, for months, people were living the same sort of routine so you’d meet someone and no one had any real news.
“What you’re finding now is people are much more open. They feel their lives are getting back to normal and there’s just that optimism that we’ll get through this.”
The reopening of hairdressers and barbers also made a “big difference to people psychologically”.
“It’s been one of those things people take for granted but you feel much better when you can get those day-to-day things.”
As a GP, seeing older people and the more vulnerable return to the shops, hairdressers and the local community was a particularly poignant moment for Dr Sheehan.
“One of the most rewarding things was vaccinating people where they felt they were getting their lives back,” he said.
John Hartnett, Blackpool Shopping Centre and Retail Park manager said that since shops and outdoor dining recommenced, “some sense of normality” has returned in the area.
With the shopping centre and retail park housing a host of businesses from gyms and restaurants to shops and offices, Mr Harnett said that there was no sector that was not impacted by the pandemic.
“I suppose in that sense we were all kind of together in it. I think that made it somewhat easier but of course, for the businesses that remained closed and have no work, then it was a different type of experience for them of course.”
He said it is difficult to describe the eventual return, having gotten so used to the restrictions and the ‘new normal.’
“We got used to Level 5 and then all of a sudden, one morning you come in and the lights are flicking on in shops and shutters are coming up and people are dusting out and it’s just like a new fresh day.
“It’s only after you see it all again that you remember how much you loved it.”
Mr Hartnett also commended a great community spirit in Blackpool and the area’s ability to retain its charm in the midst of the pandemic and the early days of Covid-19 restrictions.
“Blackpool has its own type of personality and that comes from the customer base that we have,” he said.
“We made light, and we had fun and in the queues, there was a bit of banter going on and there was a healthy respect for the elderly and those who were caregivers. There were no ‘mé féin-ers’ it was very much, ‘oh I’ll let that person ahead of me.’ That’s just unique to the Northside, I suppose and the personality of the place,” he added.
For the older people in the community who began to benefit from the rollout of the vaccine programme, a return to the shops and seeing people in person again was very much welcomed.
“Even people coming down for their pension very two weeks and people not being down for six weeks - I remember the elderly people especially who would be locked down for eight or nine weeks and didn’t come out at all and they felt like they were coming down to New York coming into Blackpool,” he said.
“They’re not going on planes and they’re not travelling so they live within their community and their life is their community.
“They see their friends in Blackpool, they talk in Blackpool, they buy their bread and meat in Blackpool, they pay their bills in Blackpool.
“All that stopped for them so of course, they were delighted to come out.”
With the return of most of their tenants, Mr Hartnett noticed a positive lift in the area and a change from feeling as if he was living in a constant Sunday morning, waiting for the shops and restaurants to open.
Mick Moriarty from the Baldy Barber in Blackpool had queues outside his door from as early as 7am on his first day back in May.
Speaking about that first day back, Mr Moriarty said it was great to see clients once again and particularly the regulars.
“It was great. I loved it. The buzz was great and meeting people. People were delighted to be out and the staff had not been talking to people for a while so it was lovely to get back.”
Mick Moriarty started in the barbershop in March 1966, following the footsteps of his father.
Altogether, they are 84 years in businesses with some of Mick’s clients going to him and his father for between 60 and 70 years and one client of over 80 years.
“He used to go to my father as well so [he is] a very, very loyal customer,” said Mick Moriarty.
With the return of even more businesses, Mr Moriarty said he noticed a change in mood among people in Blackpool.
“They’re delighted to see people.”
He said the past year has been “very, very difficult” and with some people in the area still quite nervous, however, the atmosphere in Blackpool has seen a positive lift.
“The atmosphere is good and people are walking around but people are nervous about meeting people.”
With a different mix of age groups in the area, he said a lot has changed the area over the past 30 years with many new people in Blackpool.”
Though in all his years in the area, Mick said he could have never imagined something quite like the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact.
“Never in my life,” he said.
“It’s great to get back to some normality. It’s great to see people.”
Cllr Kenneth Collins also noted a new lease of life in the area with the easing of restrictions and the return of many businesses.
“You can actually see that things are improving, and people have confidence now that with the vaccines, a lot more people and especially elderly are out and about and hopefully you have the likes of local shops that are benefitting from that as well.
“Shops are key here and to be fair, shops were instrumental in keeping people going. Small corner shops for essential things.”
Nadia Rice, Cork Community Art Link project manager; Ùna Hennessy, Cork Community Art Link social media manager; Beibhinn O’Callaghan, Cork Community Art Link assistant director and Podge Daly, Cork Community Art Link. Picture: John Coughlan
He described the return of sport as important for young people and “vital” for mental health though he said more amenities are needed for the area.
“It’s a historic part of the city and we just need to regenerate it and rejuvenate it and get things right,” he said.
He described the atmosphere following the return of many sectors as “positive”.
“People are upbeat and it’s positive for businesses as well.”
With possibilities such as the Blackpool/Kilbarry train station, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald is anticipating “huge opportunities” for the area.
“I think that will open up huge opportunities in terms of increasing retail trade in the Blackpool district,” he said. “Of course, with the housing projects that are on the way in the North East ward and North West, which border the Blackpool area, the area will be significantly populated over the next year and the demand in services will increase so they will all tie in hand-in-hand with each other as part of the growth of the Northside of the city.”