Courage needed to rekindle rural Ireland

Vacant council houses in Ballina town. One feature of many towns is the vacancy rate of homes and businesses. As such, attracting people back into the towns must be a priority.

We are now at a point where the decline of small Irish towns will continue and accelerate, writes Michael Clifford.

A series currently airing on TG4 taps into both the enduring nature of some things and the changing nature of others. Ar gClub follows the fortunes of members of four GAA clubs.

Kilmacud Crokes is based in the Dublin suburb of Stillorgan and is a major beneficiary of the explosion in popularity of the GAA’s games in the capital in the last decade or so. The other three clubs, Na Piarsaigh (Galway), Na Dunaibh (Donegal), and An Gaeltacht (Kerry) are all of the rural tradition in the association.

The series illustrates the ethos and sense of communal bonding for which the GAA is well known. Much social capital is invested in the local club. It is also the font of many sporting dreams. While the series expertly captures the uniqueness of the club system, it also highlights the struggle against the flight from rural Ireland.

Last week, we saw how Kilmacud’s Under-12 camogie team must travel half an hour across rush-hour traffic in the city to train on a hockey pitch because all the club’s pitches are booked up. Meanwhile, the Na Piarsaigh club in Galway frets over its attempts to field a ladies’ team.

The GAA is thriving, but the rural parish, the system on which the association is based, is dying. One illustration of this is a recent minor final in the South Kerry division, based on the Iveragh peninsula. There are nominally 11 clubs in the division. Seven of them were represented in the two teams in the final.

So what is replacing the rural parish? One pointer is a Government report, a leaked version of which was published in the Sunday Business Post earlier this month. It lays out plans to concentrate housing and infrastructure between now and 2031 in five cities, five growth centres, and 34 towns.

This plan is designed to accommodate growths in population and further relocation from rural Ireland. It also is expected to alleviate the sprawl that is a feature of the big cities and big towns, and do away with most one-off housing.

For example, in Cork, towns such as Cobh, Carrigaline, Blarney, and Midleton are included in the plan. In Kerry, the towns of Tralee and Killarney are earmarked.

The plan makes perfect sense, but it’s nothing new. Fifty years ago, British consultants Buchanan conducted a major study on rural Ireland in the context of an inevitable shift from the land.

The report recommended concentrating development on a number of cities and large towns with the possibility of effective satellites in dozens of other smaller settlements.

It’s in the realm of speculation now, but there is a case to be made that if Buchanan had been implemented, the decline of rural Ireland could have been much better managed.

However, that would have been at a cost. Choices about development would have had to be made. Consolidation would have had to occur, which would have discommoded some. And even issues such as one-off housing would have had to be managed with a much tighter rein. All of this would have meant political upheaval.

So, after a few years of humming and hawing, Buchanan was quietly shelved in 1972. What we got instead was sprawl, unmanaged decline, developer-led planning, and the proliferation of one-off housing.

No political party was willing to put aside its immediate electoral concerns for the long-term greater good of the country in general, and rural Ireland in particular.

For most politicians the quickest way to electoral success was to pander to — and even incite — fears. The perception was rammed home that there were not votes to be harvested by offering to lead in a manner that had the best interests of future generations.

That political ethic persists today. The loudest noises about rural Ireland are made when pandering to fears about issues such as drink driving. Arguably, politicians and other interest groups actually inflate fears about rural crime.

Meanwhile, the difficult stuff, that which will dictate the future, is left aside because it’s too much trouble.

In the great tradition of politics, most public representative rushed to pander to fears instead of offering leadership that would involve pain for a better future.

We are now at a point where the decline of small Irish towns will inevitably continue and accelerate unless something drastic is done.

One outstanding feature of many of these towns is the vacancy rate of homes and businesses. As such attracting people back into the towns must be a priority.

Doing so is a big ask. In the first instance, it would involve people leaving their homes in the country and moving into towns. While some might see the possibilities and value in such a move, many simply wouldn’t contemplate it.

A number of suggestions for revitalising small towns were contained in a report by the Irish Society of Chartered Surveyors published last year. Most of these involve attracting business.

In a similar vein, a proposal earlier this year by the minister for state for older people, Jim Daly, is worthy of serious consideration.

A TD for Cork South West since 2011, he told the Irish Examiner that disused or abandoned Church property should be converted into new residential hubs for older people.

“One of the objectives in terms of caring for the elderly is to develop single residential units for the elderly who want to leave their homes but still want to live in a place called home,” he said.

The concept has much to recommend it. The health, security and social concerns about elderly people living in isolated areas are all taken care of.

Jim Daly
Jim Daly

These people would not have to leave their wider community, but merely move to the nearest town. The requirement for conventional nursing home care might be eliminated. And there is the benefit of an injection of life into the towns.

Abandoned church buildings, large structures, well built and located in the heart of towns, would make ideal hubs.

So it goes on paper. Bringing such an idea to fruition would require major buy-in, from the State, the Church, and from communities. It would also require leadership from politicians.

Asking people to re-evaluate their lifestyles and conditions later in life would be no easy task. It would involve persuasion rather than pandering, reassurance instead of inciting fear. Whether or not politicians in rural Ireland are willing to put the shoulder to the wheel in this manner remains to be seen.

But Mr Daly’s idea should be pursued. Others of a similar ilk deserve equal consideration.

The travails of rural Ireland are many and varied. And political coward ice going back 50 years has ensured that the decline has not been managed. Even at this late stage a major difference could be made to thousands of people and their communities with a little innovation, a little courage.

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