Not picture perfect but it changed a town’s mindset

IT was a picture that painted a thousand words, not one of them even remotely complimentary.

Captured at quarter to eight on a dull March morning in 1982, it exposed an ugly, repulsive side to a town that, even then, locals took great pride in describing as Beauty’s Home.

The Sunday morning monochrome snapshot portrayed a bleak image that shocked a community and led to demands for an immediate change in the collective mindset.

Not picture perfect: The newspaper front page story that shocked an entire community and led to great change

It highlighted a vulgar visual hangover, the morning after the night before on a near deserted street in downtown Killarney; the pavements and roadway strewn with discarded chip cartons, grease soaked paper bags, drained drinks cans, hundreds of cigarette butts and overflowing litter bins.

Bulging plastic sacks, from which crows and vermin gorged under the secure cover of darkness, were propped against shop doorways, awaiting collection by a weekend refuse service that was not due to commence for some time.

The impact of the photograph – which featured on the cover of the then fledgling Now and Then newspaper – could hardly have been more dramatic. It sparked an absolute outcry and topped the agenda at heated local council meetings. But it eventually brought change. Boy, did it bring change.

The late Cllr Michael Courtney, who also spearheaded Killarney Tourism Council at that time, was so horrified that he said his hometown, at times, looked like the dirtiest place in Ireland. And, there and then, if anyone disputed his assertion, they were reluctant to voice an opinion. The camera didn’t lie. The evidence was indisputable.

The late Fr Michael Murphy who was remarkably inspirational in the tidy towns campaign
Yvonne Quill: The dedicated chairperson of the Killarney Looking Good Committee

Fr Michael Murphy, then a curate in Killarney, later reflected on Cllr Courtney’s observation and suggested that there seemed very little appetite in the town back then to present its obvious assets in any positive way.

“It was one of my ambitions to start up a tidy towns effort. We did start it up but it got very little support at that time,” he later recalled.

It may have taken decades to achieve but Fr Murphy, who later retired in Killarney, where he passed away in January 2020, became a community hero after inspiring the town to its first ever overall award in the nationwide tidy towns competition in 2011.

The older brother of retired Bishop of Kerry Bill Murphy had previously sampled the sweet taste of tidy towns success in Sneem in 1987 and Kenmare in 200 and when he returned to live in the shadow of St Mary’s Cathedral, he was greeted by an entirely rejuvenated town, with a remarkable pride of place and a wonderful sense of self-worth.

Leading by example, Fr Murphy was the guiding hand in Killarney’s push for glory, leaving his home early every morning to set off litter picking chores on the streets and roadways and gently persuading many of those he encountered to join him.

The 1982 newspaper picture story that caused such outrage in Killarney

While he had been plotting and planning success for Sneem and Kenmare for over two decades, the slow-burning Killarney tidy towns torch had passed through several hands and it was a painstakingly sluggish build in terms of progress.

Under the auspices of the Killarney Working Group – a sub-committee of the town council – birth was then given to the Killarney Looking Good competition and that became the seed from which the remarkable tidy town success grew, at a steady pace, over the years.

The template for the competition was simple to devise but it worked well. It stood the test of time and had the desired impact. Token prizes were offered in several categories and it sparked an intense local rivalry amongst those hoping to get their hands on a simple certificate proving that they had the best hanging basket, the most colourful window box, the neatest roadside garden, the most striking newly painted premises, the most improved housing estate or the best traditional shopfront.

It was indeed fitting that the main sponsor and driver of the competition, The Kingdom, was the same newspaper, albeit with a different title, that highlighted the litter-strewn streets several years earlier.

The project revitalised streets, estates, buildings, laneways and many other parts of the town and it encouraged very healthy local competition.

A small army of tidy towns volunteers busy on the streets

Such was the standing of the Killarney Looking Good competition that government ministers and TV and radio celebrities were all more than willing to oblige when invited to launch the competition or present the prizes from year to year. It was a good news story – and they knew it.

Killarney may have been slow out of the starting blocks but, steadily, it began to gain extra marks in the tidy towns competition every year and the Holy Grail was eventually clinched in 2011. Even since then, Killarney is one of the main contenders.

The Killarney Looking Good Committee, spearheaded and steered in the right direction by Yvonne Quill, has seen so many volunteers taking to the streets top lend a hand in keeping Killarney looking its best and the town has a string of tidy towns gold medals to show for their great endeavours.

Volunteers and council staff have kept Killarney looking great

While the volunteers deserve real credit, the staff of Killarney Municipal District Council have been absolutely fantastic in their approach and their consistency in keeping the streets in such pristine condition. Every day, before Killarney rubs the sleep from its eyes, the street crew members are out and about working tirelessly and with great enthusiasm and pride to keep the town ahead of the rest.

It is in sharp contrast, in so many ways, to the grim snapshot of a horrid litter strewn street which was taken just shy of four decades ago. It’s truly amazing how a simple photograph can positively influence a collective mindset.

In the no punches pulled editorial message that accompanied that 1982 snapshot, it stated: “The remedy lies in our own hands but the tendency is to blame somebody else. What is needed is a positive and vigorous programme of action. The entire community must be involved”.

39 years on, it is surely a case of mission accomplished but vigilance is and always will be necessary. For Killarney, the proud pacesetter in the national tidy towns competition and the Irish Business Against Littler League, there can be no going back. And there will be no going back. The proud locals will make sure of that.