When work began on Ireland’s first motorway – the M7 - in 1983, the people living along the route could scarcely have imagined how utterly changed Ireland would be by the time construction was finally completed 27 years later.  

It cost an estimated €2 billion to create this stretch of road connecting Dublin to Limerick but in Bypassed we look at the cost to the thousands of people who live in the towns along its way and consider how they have also benefitted.

Rather than spread the narrative across a number of towns, we settled on following a journey from east to west and, what will be familiar to many, the old Dublin to Limerick Road.

We travelled the highways and byways off the M7 to see what stories could be uncovered in the villages and towns we all remember from childhood trips, but now rarely pass through. Over the course of a year the crew met some wonderful participants who are trying to make a go of it in rural Ireland, with varying levels of success. Undoubtedly, the motorway has altered how many of these towns now function.

Many residents celebrate the lack of congestion but, of course, the vast majority of business owners regret the loss of passing trade. Through interviews and observation it was heartening to observe that large market towns like Naas, Portlaoise and Nenagh are thriving and have more than weathered the storm. But everywhere we went we met business owners who are battling the challenge of living and working in a bypassed town. Some are doing brilliantly but, inevitably, there are those who find themselves struggling.

As we travelled down that old route, it became abundantly evident from some of the tattered streetscapes that smaller villages and towns have really suffered since the coming of the M7. Some of the older residents are more sanguine about the decline, whereas the younger generation are prepared to put up a bit of a fight. Towns spent many years fighting to be bypassed, yearning for the passing traffic clogging up their roads to be shifted elsewhere, only to find that when the cars disappeared, so too did much of the business.

But there were plenty of stories to give hope. Like the teenage brothers in Mountrath who, fed up with having nowhere to go, started campaigning to set up a youth cafe in town, collecting signatures and agitating on their peers’ behalf. Or Heidi Higgins, an increasingly well known fashion designer based in Portlaoise whose presence in the town is a boost to local photographer Paddy Ryan.  

Our aim with Bypassed has always been to show a true picture of regional urban Ireland that steers well clear from the hysterical headlines heralding the immediate and inexorable demise of rural life.   

Ultimately, Bypassed is a quiet programme, whose strength lies in the blending of dynamic visuals of the motorway, some lovely old archive of the towns with the everyday stories of the people we met along the road who are simply getting on with life.

By Garry Keane, director and Anne McLoughlin, executive producer, Bypassed.

Bypassed, a Motive Television production for RTÉ, is available to watch on RTÉ Player now.