Special Report (Rural Ireland): Lively Exchange of ideas about the future in O’Gonnelloe

In part four of our special on rural Ireland. Caroline O’Doherty visits O’Gonnelloe in Co. Clare.

IT IS quite literally a small point but O’Gonnelloe would like its apostrophe back.

Some time in the 1980s, probably when the computerisation of official records became commonplace, the occasionally omitted apostrophe disappeared entirely, the G dropped to lower case and O’Gonnelloe became the Ogonnelloe that now appears on road signs, maps, and just about every other document that references its existence.

“It’s amazing how things can happen without being noticed,” muses Michael McNamara, retired teacher and local historian who never went anywhere without his apostrophe when he was growing up in the village. “We’re trying to get it back to where it was because with an apostrophe, it becomes the name of a person and through that person, you have the history of the place.

“How easy that will be given that practically all the official records spell it the new way I don’t know but we’ll have a go at it.”

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Lively Exchange of ideas about the future in O’Gonnelloe

Old petrol pumps rusting at the side of the road.

That’s as much looking back as O’Gonnelloe wants to do, for the east Clare village — a-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot on the road between Killaloe and Scariff — is resolutely looking to the future.

This year it began the Pow Wow, a series of discussions open to everyone in the locality, to get people sharing ideas about they how could strengthen community ties, develop their area’s natural assets, and kickstart local enterprises.

The first consensus to come out of the series was that these kinds of gatherings should continue, be it formally or informally because, although it sounds like a suburban stereotype, people found they had been living close by for years without knowing who their neighbours were.

That’s mainly a legacy of the Celtic Tiger period when O’Gonnelloe went from a village of about 400 people to one with a population of 700. The newcomers were a mix of retirees, rat-race escapees, and returned emigrants, as well as those priced out of the market in bigger towns.

Even the country’s best known lottery winner, Dolores McNamara, made her home here, her Lough Derg Hall property occupying a secluded spot by the lake.

To keep the exchange of ideas going, the community set up a Saturday morning coffee shop in the small kitchen of the old schoolhouse which had been in limited use for parish events and meetings but which is now getting a new lease of life as the O’Gonnelloe Exchange, the headquarters for the new movement.

It’s nothing fancy: Half a dozen tables, two pre-loved sofas, a blackboard chalked with the treats of the day, volunteers behind the counter, a world music mix on the CD player, and the enticing smells of percolating coffee and buttered scones all around.

“We turned the kitchen into a coffee shop for 200 — not bad,” says Donal O’Connor, chairman of O’Gonnelloe Community Centre Ltd which is in the process of taking over ownership of the schoolhouse from the parish and has rebranded it as the Exchange.

It is looking to be a worthwhile investment. On its first day it was only meant to open until 12.30pm but there was a steady stream of new arrivals long after, word probably having spread that the almond slices were gargantuan and that if you weren’t there, you were definitely missing out.

If the coffee shop becomes no more than a talking shop, that would still be considered an achievement.

The village has had no shop for the past six years and no centrally located pub since 2011, when the adjoining restaurant also went, though the Pipers Inn can be found tucked up in the hills.

The post office went long before, no one can recall when the petrol station closed and there is no cafe or other obvious place for people to meet and chat.

Around one table, Angela O’Connor, Sheila Lynch, Deirdre Denning, and Maria Castles were doing exactly that. The women have lived in O’Gonnelloe for between 15 and 20 years and while they have become good friends, they recognise it can be hard for newcomers to make connections and even for long-time residents to maintain contact, without a central meeting point.

“There is a great sense of community in the primary school and when you had children in the school you met everybody and you knew everybody,” says Sheila. “Once you move out of that, as we have now, you don’t meet people as part of your daily routine and you’ve no centre that natur-ally pulls people together.”

Deirdre recalls that’s how she first became friends with Angela. “We met first at the school gate, carrying one child and holding the other by the hand. There’s a natural connection there so you have your group of people, but that doesn’t necessarily serve the wider community.”

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Lively Exchange of ideas about the future in O’Gonnelloe

In the ‘80s, the occasionally omitted apostrophe disappeared, the G went lower case, and O’Gonnelloe became Ogonnelloe.

Maria nods in agreement. “If you don’t have children and if you are not in the GAA or not going to church, you are really out of the loop.”

They all agree it would be lovely to have a shop and fulltime cafe back in the village but are realistic about the prospects. “It’s probably not feasible but something like this, where nobody’s depending on it for their livelihood and it just needs enough support to make it worthwhile, that could work,” says Angela.

Donal O’Connor holds a similar view. “We go into Killaloe or into Scariff for shops and whatever else we need. We don’t need to recreate what they have. We’re different to them. But what we do need is somewhere that the community can gravitate.” He’s echoing the mantra of Peadar Casey, another key driver of the community development movement and rat-race escapee who now works as an independent consultant on business development here and in the UK.

“You sell what you have,” he says of promoting the village, “not what you would like to have.”

So what does O’Gonnelloe have? Well, the Cliffs of Moher may have the most dramatic height but the actual highest point in Clare is Moylussa in the Slieve Bernagh range, which run along the back of the village. It also has the second largest lake in the country, Lough Derg, on its doorstep and Ballycuggeran Woods by its side.

There is scope to turn O’Gonnelloe into a hub for outdoor activities. We’re not talking the extreme kind here: Moylussa is a walk, not a climb; it would be more of a challenge to lose your way in Ballycuggeran than to find it; and Lough Derg for the most part is a kindly host.

There is a market, however, for people who like the outdoors but don’t necessarily want to be sweating adrenalin for a week afterwards. “It’s all here,” says Peadar Casey. “It just needs to be linked up. The Wild Atlantic Way was about pulling together the natural assets that already existed. It’s not complicated. They just joined the dots.”

MIKE Jones, a long-time neighbour of O’Gonnelloe having run the University of Limerick watersports centre at Twomilegate between the village and Killaloe for some years, is also a strong advocate of linkage when it comes to packaging an area.

“What it takes is for the community to sit down and say we need to do this together. Together we need to attract people to our destination. We can fight over them when we get them here but first we need to get O’Gonnelloe and Lough Derg on the map.”

Mike has recently left the UL centre to set up his own venture, appropriately called mynextadventure.ie to run kayaking tours around the lake for adults and children who want to explore its gentle wildness but want to stay upright and dry in the process.

Far from discouraging competition, he would love to see more people in the area come up with similar niche ideas. “The Greenway from Westport has been such a success because local people bought into it. They looked at the people going past their doors and thought maybe there’s some cottage industry I could be involved in that would bring me in a few quid.”

Off the water, he sees accommodation as being a service O’Gonnelloe could develop. Ultimately he thinks the area could do with a hostel and a hotel but for now, he believes glamping — camping with comforts— is the way forward. “There are some nice fields at the bottom of people’s gardens that if they wanted to turn into a bit of cottage industry they could open up to glamping.

“You could have some spectacular spots here where people could access the lake with woodland, fields and farms all around them.

“That would be an attraction in itself and then you could tie in other activities. It’s a chicken and egg thing. If there weren’t people hiring out bikes on the Greenway, there would be a lot less people cycling the Greenway.” The more immediate task for O’Gonnelloe, however, will be to join the dots within the village itself, linking its hidden attractions.

ALMOST by accident, a start was made on this when the community got together to build 1.3km of footpath between the primary school and the church. “The village is unusual in that it’s quite long, stretched along one main road, and it didn’t have a footpath. You couldn’t walk through your own village,” explains Donal. “We’d been talking about it for a long time and eventually we decided we’d just do it.”

Clare County Council provided the materials, the community provided the labour, the R463 ceded a strip of unruly ditch and vegetation about 2ft wide along its eastbound lane and, with a team of 40 volunteers working over the course of several weekends, the gravel path emerged.

One of the repeated calls during the Pow Wows was for the path to be extended to the far end of the village. Work is due to start on a mile-strong stretch in the autumn. Along the way, walkers will be invited to stop at several key locations, firstly at the old handball alley, currently almost completely obscured by trees, which will not only be an amenity itself when restored but also provides a public access point to the lake.

The Exchange is to provide a second stop, with hopes that it will be open full time to offer rest, refreshment, and information on all that is happening locally.

Further on, the next obvious stop is an existing lookout point which already offers fine views over Lough Derg but doesn’t explain those same views, leaving the visitor possibly unaware that they’re looking out onto Holy Island, a treasure trove of ecclesiastical ruins, many dating to the 12th century and even earlier.

Exactly how these stops will be developed is not yet finalised. A provisional plan drawn up by architects from the Small Town Studio project, who facilitated the Pow Wow workshops, will be unveiled next month.

The next step will be to see what work can be undertaken with local resources and what needs external funding. Even while grant applications wind their way through what can sometimes be a torturous route, there is a determination that the movement will keep moving.

Wifi has been installed in the Exchange and it is intended to set up a small business hub at one end of the hall with a few desks, power points, and a printer.

“We realised from the Pow Wow that there are a lot of people in the parish who were running their own businesses from home that we never knew about,” says Michael McNamara. “One man said to me, when you work from home it can be a very lonely place. Sometimes he would sit into the car and drive into Killaloe for a cup of coffee just to see another face and have a bit of company.

“From that spawned the idea of letting people hot desk — even for an hour a day or once a week — so that they don’t feel so isolated and so that if they have an idea, they might feel there’s someone else they can bounce it off.”

One of Michael’s seven daughters, Kate Quigley, who was key to getting the coffee shop going, loves the idea the old schoolhouse has a new purpose. “As kids we played chess here and badminton and everything revolved around here but then it kind of fizzled out. It was just a place for meetings. The social side went out of it.”

Another volunteer busy topping up both coffee mugs and conversation is Raquel Volpini Cox. The opposite to native Kate, she is one of the newcomers to O’Gonnelloe, having moved here with her Irish husband and their three sons in 2006 after living in Germany, the US, and Australia. With three teenagers at home, a husband whose work frequently takes him away, and a dissertation for her master’s in international tourism to complete, Raquel is a busy woman but declines praise for giving up her precious free time to get involved.

“There is no such thing as pure altruism. We all have a stake in this. We all want to belong to somewhere. I am from outside but when I’m busy with other people here I feel I belong. This is my first motive. And then if I can keep active in the community, I might find something that will take a commercial turn and I can do some business. And in the long term my sons might benefit because this will be a place with a lot of opportunities for them.”

Michael McNamara, who grew up at a time when potato growing was the mainstay of the O’Gonnelloe economy, also has an eye on the next generation. He says the Exchange and the movement behind it is “the most positive change in the parish in my lifetime”.

“It has spawned huge enthusiasm and long may it continue because with every community, you must not look just at today and tomorrow but into the future to see how it can develop and sustain its young people.”

Peadar Casey says flexibility will be crucial to O’Gonnelloe’s development. “It’s action research,” he says, laughing at the managementspeak of which he is occasionally guilty. “In other words, we’ll try it and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else. The market will ultimately tell you want it wants so you must be prepared to accept what it tells you. But if you get people behind a common purpose, anything can happen.”

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Lively Exchange of ideas about the future in O’Gonnelloe

Michael McNamara at the old national school building.

Lough Derg villagers get a canvas to design a community

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Lively Exchange of ideas about the future in O’Gonnelloe

Architects Ger Walsh and Eleanor Moloney at the old national school building in O’Gonnelloe, Co Clare.

For most architects the idea of designing a new city would be the ultimate dream but for Eleanor Moloney the village provides an equally exciting canvas.

“Architecture is seen as an urban discipline and I’m uncomfortable with that because you can’t look at a city in isolation or else the logical conclusion is that we all move into the city and that’s not a logical conclusion,” she says.

“It’s like the ring doughnut — one part doesn’t exist without the other. Both urban and rural need to be healthy in order to survive,” she says.

Small Town Studio, the venture she has set up with her college friend, Ger Walsh, gives its bias away in its name, its aim being to apply the best of designdriven architecture to the smallest of venues.

With the support of the Limerick City of Culture, the Irish Design 2015 initiative and the University of Limerick’s Fab Lab facilities, their first project was in Kilbehenny on the Limerick- Cork border.

There, with five students and six weeks at their disposal, they fitted out the community hall with a tailormade multifunctional stage that can be taken apart, rearranged and clicked back together to suit just about any performance or purpose.

It wasn’t going to transform the skyline or become a national landmark, but it turned an empty hall into a space with potential to host all kinds of activities and to a small community like Kilbehenny’s, that’s a transformation.

Invited to explore ideas for O’Gonnelloe, she and Ger organised a series of Saturday workshops in the old schoolhouse and were amazed with the response.

“About 60 people turned up for the first one and this odd thing happened. A woman said, I’ve lived here 15 years and I don’t know anybody. And everyone else said, yes we’re all in the same boat,” she says.

But what it also meant was that there was a pent-up desire to get involved.

“What I saw was an incubation of 15 years of people who had looked at their area, given it a serious amount of thought and had really good ideas about what they’d like to do with it. They just needed an invitation to get involved,” she says.

Eleanor is from a village herself, Poulmucka near Clonmel in neighbouring Co Tipperary. “It has a ‘slow through village’ sign but you’d do well to figure out that you’d passed through a village,” she says.

“It’s basically a crossroads with a pub in it but that’s enough for it to be considered a community and there definitely is a community there,” she says,

But community didn’t translate into opportunity so, like so many of her peers, Eleanor left for London where she put down roots only to feel the pull of home again when her first child was born. Back in Ireland, she returned to college to train as an architect, starting in the School of Architecture at the University of Limerick in 2005.

Her timing was not great. “It was like a desert when we graduated and because myself and my husband also had a construction business, it was double trouble. We ended up in Canada for two years so we’re definitely the bubble-burst story,” she says.

She recalls the anger she felt at having to leave Ireland once again, this time with two young sons in tow.

“One of the most heartbreaking days I’ve ever spent was in the airport waiting to go. My parents couldn’t even drive us there, they were so distraught.

“I was extremely bitter when I got to Canada. I was like, I don’t want to see that place again, I don’t what to think about it. It was all Ireland’s fault,” she says.

But in Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta, while she had a job she loved, the distance from home allowed her get some clarity and her anger diminished.

“I came to the conclusion that the country was broke but it wasn’t broken, that in actual fact an awful lot of the country works really well and it’s never fully acknowledged or fully harnessed.

“There is a latent sense of community that already exists here and has been built up over years.

Canada doesn’t have that and no matter what way we try and urban plan it, this is something that comes from a very deep historical culture that you can’t manufacture.

“So this very new country showed me what my very old country could do if it could take that community structure and ethos and make it work to its full potential. That’s when I started to look at community architecture.”

Community architecture can be an abstract concept, she acknowledges but really what it boils down to is architecture by the people, for the people — involving people in the design not just of buildings but all kinds of infrastructure and amenities that allow their community to grow and develop.

“Communities need physical space. It could be a meeting house, a meeting point, a performance venue, business hub, sports amenity, walkway, cycleway, garden, interpretative centre, tourist attraction — or even just a public notice board to start with whatever it is that allows a community to start working to its strengths.”

Ultimately the aim is to enable communities create their own employment.

“We need jobs so we look to multinationals and give them massive tax breaks but there’s a difference between treating hunger and treating malnutrition. Your quick fix for the hunger is always the multinational it’s immediate but if you want to fix the malnutrition you need a far more grassroots, hands-on approach because out of that comes a group of people who will stay in an area, schools that will thrive, generations that will follow,” she says.

Ironically, Eleanor’s own life reflects the opposite to that concept, as she and her family now live in Emly, Co Tipperary but, with Small Town Studio still only in its infancy, she commutes to work at her job in Dublin.

“It shocks me the amount of people doing the same. I stay overnight a couple of nights a week. When I check in at the hotel on a Monday night, there must be 20 other people checking in with me.

“We are people living in two places, taking up two lots of space, yet the Government keeps investing in Dublin.”

She is critical of funding cuts for local authorities and says they don’t get the power or resources they need to work with communities in developing local assets. She believes it has created a mindset in some local authorities where initiative and imagination is stifled.

“When I hear the full sum ambition of their council life is to fill potholes or pick up litter I cry, I wilt a little. I think, guys can you not see how big you can be? You’re not seeing big enough. That’s what I see here in O’Gonnelloe – they are big and they can achieve big things.”

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Lively Exchange of ideas about the future in O’Gonnelloe

Luke Quigley out for a walk in O’Gonnelloe, Co Clare.

“We are people living in two places, taking up two lots of space, yet the Government keeps investing in Dublin creating a housing crisis, instead of investing so that people could work where they actually live. Much as she enjoys her work in Dublin, she is adamant she won’t move there.“My kids are only going to be kids for a few years and I want them to be surrounded by people who are interested in them."

She is critical of funding cuts for local authorities and says they don’t get the power or resources they need to work with communities in developing local assets. She believes it has created a mindset in some local authorities where initiative and imagination is stifled.

“When I hear the full sum ambition of their council life is to fill potholes or pick up litter I cry, I wilt a little. I think, guys can you not see how big you can be? You’re not seeing big enough. That’s what I see here in O’Gonnelloe – they are big and they can achieve big things.”

DAY 1:

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Community makes sure area stays safe despite the lack of a Garda presence

Special Report (Rural Ireland): ‘We would love to be employers, to employ locally and to invest locally’

Special Report (Rural Ireland): ‘Don’t pigeonhole rural communities as a burden’

Special Report (Rural Ireland): ‘We’ll get it up and running again’

Day 2

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Galway spirit shines through

DAY 3

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Locals will not give up on Borris-in-Ossory

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Locals will not give up on Borris-in-Ossory

MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Special Report (Rural Ireland): Decline has been a political hot potato

MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Special Report (Rural Ireland): Decline has been a political hot potato

Special Report: Rural Ireland must define its own vision

Special Report: Rural Ireland must define its own vision

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Post office’s role is vital to rural society

Special Report (Rural Ireland): Post office’s role is vital to rural society

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