The countryside is becoming a no-go area for the vulnerable

Independent and resourceful by nature, rural dwellers took last week’s Storm Darwin in their stride.

Nevertheless, it was another body blow to rural Ireland, this time a natural one on top of man-made problems of Government neglect, not just in the recession years but in the boom years that preceded them.

Unemployment and youth mig ration has weakened much of rural Ireland, leaving remote rural areas more dependent than ever on farming alone, itself an industry going through great changes. In social terms, some places have been denuded of the human capacity to help themselves.

And the worst storm to hit the country since Christmas 1997, and one of the five most powerful ever seen here, can only accelerate the flight from the rural areas worst hit by migration — unless this force of nature convinces the Government to really tackle rural disadvantage.

Even now, a week after the 170 km per hour winds of Storm Darwin, rural back roads are lined with fallen trees, and power and telephone wires at half mast.

There are signs everywhere of how people had to literally cut themselves out of the wreckage of wind damage.

Their homes were freezing, without electricity, some without landlines or mobile phones, and broadband had been down for weeks.

Those without alternative fuels couldn’t even obey the warnings to boil water, if they had heard it. Generators became the new must-have item. The more vulnerable had no choice but to move in with relatives or friends in the town, even if it meant braving icy roads the morning after the storm.

Some may be slow to return to their homes in the country. Even farmers hardened by rural life have found it challenging to cope.

Since the start of the year, extreme weather has made farming difficult. It’s the time of the year for night work on livestock farms, attending to calving cows and lambing ewes.

Getting up in the early hours of the morning through the wettest January in 20 years was bad enough, while coping with flooding.

On February 12, with the Government warning people not to go outdoors, the farming jobs still had to be done. And the storm aftermath next day represents months of extra work on farms, mostly clearing downed trees, but building repairs will also be needed on thousands of farms.

Things were hardest for those where power cuts extended into this week. The biggest challenge arose on dairy farms, without power for milking or to pump water to animals, in many areas.

It’s enough to make dairy farmers think twice about the average Irish calving date of March 5 which Teagasc say is needed for efficient dairy farming, compared to the current March 14 national average.

Even when the power returns, and the wreckage is cleared up, livestock farmers face the worries of waiting for ground to dry up enough for slurry spreading, or for grazing before indoor feed supplies run out.

Even before last week’s storm, the Government had pledged up to €70 million for repair and remediation works following severe weather. This will enable local authorities in the areas worst affected by storms and flooding to restore roads, coastal protection and other infrastructure.

This is in addition to the €25m which the Government has already announced for Department of Social Protection’s Humanitarian Assistance schemes.

Directing some of this expenditure to rural areas will help to reduce devastation, and could be enough to persuade some people not to desert their homes in the country before the next weather disaster on top of the other rural privations such as distance from the shops and lack of public or emergency services, and bad roads.

With such disadvantages, the countryside is becoming a no-go area for the more vulnerable among us.

The impact of Storm Darwin must also be kept in mind as the Government works on the rural development plan for the next seven years.

Government attention should also be turned to the insurance business.

Already, many households and businesses cannot get insurance for flood damage. That has left a lot of farmers vulnerable, especially in the west and along the Shannon.

State authorities must also ensure that storm insurance cover can remain affordable for rural householders and businesses.


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