The fate and fortune of small towns and villages in Ireland will be a defining feature of our country’s future. If they can be developed as economic hubs that support communities and jobs it will help balance the evolution of the Irish economy between large cities and rural areas.
If they fail, then we will be left with a lop-sided society containing crammed cities while the rural economy bleeds. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis back in 2008 Irish towns and villages were savaged.
Emigration was rampant and it sucked out layers of younger people. Job losses and wage cuts decimated spending. Many local hotels and restaurants, built upon unsustainable debt, collapsed. It was a miserable time.
Being resident in mid-Cork I have the fortune of being within an hour’s drive of some of the most beautiful locations on earth. Sheeps Head, the Dingle Peninsula, Mizen and Kinsale are all less than an hour’s drive away. That arc contained a lot of broken communities after the 2008 crash. Yet now all of that is changing.
Towns like Clonakilty and Skibbereen have led this renaissance. Both have reinvigorated their town centres with improved street infrastructure. Despite the live threats to retail due to the explosion in online shopping, and the slow development of fast reliable broadband, these towns are, once again, hives of economic activity.
However, the most encouraging recovery, at present, is in Bantry. That town was numbed by the economic crash but is now alive and kicking. Hotels have re-opened, new shops have sprung up, a marina has been built close to the centre and the street pavements have been transformed. There is a palpable energy evident as you walk around.
The secret to this story, as is the case in other towns fighting the narrative that says they have no future, is a local community spirit. It takes a small number of energised individuals with the right attitudes to make good things happen. In Bantry this hits you first in the tourist office. That is run entirely by volunteers. Instead of moaning when the state no longer provided funding, the community took on the job.
An example of this spirit was in full flow last Tuesday night. A French cruise ship, the Dumont d’Urville, pulled in to Bantry in bad weather. Within 12 hours the locals had helped organise tenders and buses to bring passengers onshore to places like Bantry House. The tourist office opened early to help. A community in action.
Bantry’s resurgence is another example that can be employed by many towns that are underperforming. Instead of whinging about the Government or complaining about the cruel world, they should get organised.
Find ways to entice new uses for closed shops. Try harder to organise super-fast broadband that can support companies selling on the web and tourists surfing online for new destinations. Discard the politics of begrudgery and oneupmanship to provide a collective solution. Go and visit Bantry, Clonakilty and Skibbereen and ask them how all this is working.
I could list ten towns and villages in Cork, alone, that could do with a shot of enthusiasm. I’m sure in each you will find naysayers or people beaten up by the hard times who will argue their local communities are finished.
It takes a bit of vision and dynamism to shake up that conventional wisdom and change the direction of travel. Small steps of progress can make all the difference. New pavements, fresh street signage, rate holidays for new retail shops or cafes. The menu of ideas is long but it needs some cooks to make it happen. Any volunteers willing and able?
Joe Gill is director of origination and corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.