Sites for sore eyes


30 Oct 2003

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You’re in San Francisco for the weekend and it’s the usual problem. Where oh where will you find a dominatrix at short notice? The solution is near at hand however. All you have to do is log on to Castlebar.com, which closed its doors last October but various contact details remain, and you have eight to choose from, including Madame Mattison, ‘Glamazon Power Goddess’ or Madame Zoe, ‘Vivacious Busty Switch’.

Regina McGarrigle, project manager of Castlebar.ie, chuckles when I ask her if the dotcom has been a source of embarrassment. “Ah, it was more amusement than embarrassment. It wasn’t the worst of sites. I think the lady who ran it has a great great grandfather who came from Castlebar. She very kindly agreed to make sure that people who entered the site knew what they were going in for and if they were looking for the town of Castlebar, they were redirected. Very much in the spirit of the internet I guess,” she says.

Once you get over the initial shock and take the time to explore Castlebar.ie, you’ll discover one of the best-maintained community websites in the country. Launched in advance of Eircom’s Information Age Town (IAT) project six years ago, it took off when Castlebar secured one of the four runner-up spots and was given €1m to spend. Though the money ran out last Christmas, it’s testament to the success of the project that the site is still going strong. It sustains an average of two million hits, one million page impressions and 60,000 separate visits every month, and with nearly 50pc of visitors living within a 10 mile radius of Castlebar, the community remit is well fulfilled.

“I look after the main pages with a load of help from a lot of people around the community who are deeply into it. For example there are one or two professional photographers who give us photos – we have shots of the Mayo match (the ladies’ all-Ireland football final) from Michael Donnelly. They give us those for free and we also have a lot of groups who contribute to the Castlebar news section that is the kind of stuff that would appear in the local paper as well. Just little news items and articles – it could be the results of the local matches, it can be angling reports, it can be reports of the Chamber of Commerce, plays and concerts that might be on,” McGarrigle explains. You can listen to previous year’s pantos on real audio, view an impressive array of photographs or join in the debate and banter on the well-subscribed bulletin board.

Ask people how Castlebar is weathering the economic downturn and you’ll get a mixed response. “The town is booming,” says Vivienne Kyne of computer training company 21st Century. “There’s office space going up all over the place and on the retail side, we’ve recently taken in Awear, and we have Sasha and Benetton. We have a lot of shops that we’ve never had before. Argos is coming to town, we’ve Tesco and Aldi. The retail space is flying up.”

The big bad news has been the substantial contraction of telecoms manufacturer Volex, now down to 70 staff, having employed close to 1,000 at the height of the boom. The multinational sector retains strong roots in Mayo, however.

Baxter Healthcare is a major employer while Fort Wayne Metals announced 80 new jobs last year on foot of a €3.4m investment. In addition, Enterprise Ireland has recently announced funding for an enterprise centre on Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology’s Castlebar campus. Building is due to commence within the next two months.

Fuelled by the largesse of the IAT project, Kyne maintains that Castlebar is amongst the most web- and computer-literate communities in the country. There are currently eight broadband-enabled PCs available free to members in the county library and, according to Richard Hickey, in the library they’re always booked out. The library site is well maintained, if a little hard on the eye; you can search and reserve books online and there are plans to make old newspapers and local history material available too.

Mayo County Council’s website – www.mayococo.ie – is also well run and well put together. The extent and sophistication of a local authority’s internet planning resources usually gives a good indication of its commitment to the provision of online services in general. Mayo’s are well laid out and highly searchable, with none of the clunky and inscrutable PDF files you often get in this section of council sites.

You can’t yet apply online but head of IT Pat Carroll reckons that that facility should be there by the first quarter of next year. Within the same kind of time frame, it should be possible to pay for council services via its website and you will also be able to apply for higher education grants online, using an ‘intelligent’ application form that will tell you whether you qualify as you fill it in. “Because Mayo is such a peripheral county,” says Carroll, “and because it is so large – it’s 90 miles from top to bottom – any services that we can make available over the internet, we will.”

Internally, work on the council intranet is ongoing while an extranet for county councillors is also close to the introduction stage. Rick Love is part of the council team working on both projects. “We’re in the process of migrating a lot of our older systems onto the intranet and the ultimate goal is that everybody will be able to do their job through it. It will be one way of getting all the data in one place and being able to share data more easily between different sections of people.”

While the suite of Castlebar websites provides the community with a slew of high-quality resources, all that remains of the Castlebar.com site is clearly the shadow of a former shadowy glory. But despite another recent approach, the San Francisco city’s dominatrix community remains too fond of the domain name to sell up. “I think the actual site is more or less closed down,” says McGarrigle, “we did enquire about buying the name but got no response.”

By John Hearne