Rural decline: Government action badly needed

Rural decline: Government action badly needed
Picture: Wikipedia

Residents of a small village in Cavan have started a campaign calling on families in urban areas to move there. That may appear to many city dwellers to be nothing more than a charming céad míle fáilte to newcomers. In fact, it is far more important insofar as it reveals the growing desperation of rural communities who are fighting for their very survival as they suffer an apparently unstoppable population decline.

The village of Bawnboy, with a population of around 300, has put out a call for families to relocate there, in the hope of expanding its community and preventing the school from losing a teacher due to declining numbers.

A local campaign group has placed advertisements in national newspapers and has started a Facebook page in a bid to attract families to move there.

Bawnboy has suffered. It had a railway until it closed in 1959. It had a Garda station until the doors were shut in 2013.

Nevertheless, it still has a lot to offer — good broadband connection, a beautiful lakeside setting, a thriving GAA club, and, above all, low-cost housing. Homes are on sale from as little as €79,000.

Bawnboy is not the first community to start a campaign like this. Nearby in Glangevlin, a similar initiative worked in attracting families to the area. That was all the result of community effort, rather than local or national government policy. It is time to change that, in order to give declining rural communities a chance to thrive and prosper.

It has been argued that rural Ireland is not suffering from decay or decline, and that the numbers of those living in rural areas has actually increased in the past two decades. Strictly speaking, that is correct as the latest census in 2016 shows there are now 1.75m people living in rural areas, up from 1.5m 20 years ago.

However, these figures are skewed by strong population growth strong in Meath, Kildare, and Laois, which are classified as rural but are really part of the Dublin commuter belt.

To consider the decline of rural Ireland, we need to look at Donegal, Mayo, Sligo, and Longford, among others, as well as parts of Galway and Kerry where populations of small towns and villages have been decimated in recent years. Signs being that about a fifth of rural pubs around the country closed between 2005 and 2018, according to analysis from the the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland.

Behind those statistics lie stories of family heartache and loss as young people go abroad or migrate to the cities for work. That causes its own problems, like rising rents and a housing crisis in the cities.

Relocating individuals and families to rural communities may not solve everything but it could become a win-win situation, given enough government support — relieving the housing crisis in cities while revitalising rural communities.

A vibrant rural Ireland is essential for the wellbeing of the whole country. Whatever happened to the decentralisation policy promoted by various governments more than 40 years ago? It was a good idea at the time; it is a better one now.

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