Rural Ireland has changed utterly in recent decades, but there is more hope than sorrow about its evolution in the townlands visited by Síle Nic Chonaonaigh for TG4’s new series, Bailte.
In her travels to remote Gaeltacht townlands, the Glenroe actor-turned-presenter explores the influence of often inhospitable landscapes on residents’ lives, and both positive and negative effects of this cultural shift.
Bailte (townlands) represent “the smallest geographical unit we have and it is a look at how the townlands are now; how they’ve survived all the changes that have happened in the last decades.
"They’re not the same places they always were but the sense of pride in place still remains,” says Síle.
Born and raised in the Gaeltacht in An Spidéal, Co Galway, Síle feels that transformation on a personal level.
“Rural Ireland has changed for me as well because I get to have a car — my grandmother didn’t have a car."
"I get to have broadband, I go to work every day, I have my own bank account — all of those things are big plusses,” she says.
“But with those changes come other changes that aren’t so palatable, such as lack of contact, communities growing smaller, work not being available in those communities, so people have to commute or leave to get work.”
Although she agrees that “there is a sense that rural Ireland is not being looked after. There’s a lack of services for people living in the countryside,” social change may have as much to do with technology as Government policy.
During filming, she says, “one common theme everywhere we went was that one of the biggest changes is that people don’t visit each other anymore in the way they used to.
“There’s television, there’s internet; people are on social media, on the phone.
"I remember my dad talking years ago about being in the Aran Islands and the phone lines came in, and he said women who lived next door to each other and had been chatting over the fence could now phone each other while they were doing something else.
“Nobody wants to not have that ability. We don’t want to take away phones, television, iPads.
"We all need those as part of life now, but it does fundamentally change us because we get busier and it’s easier to send a text than to get in the car and drive two miles down the road and pop in for a cup of tea.
"We’re all really busy. That’s the reality.”
Many of those interviewed for Bailte are philosophical about their new reality, not least the last remaining family in the Donegal townland of Taobh an Locha.
As the youngest of his children prepares to move away to college, dad Hughie talks not of the pain of departure but of the opportunities afforded to the new generation.
He reflects on how the wheel of life turns, the locality filling and emptying of people.
“I was really feeling sad,” admits Síle, “but they were all really philosophical. They’re saying ‘this is how life is now’.”
The same was true in Baile na nGall in Kerry’s Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht.
Already hit by the decline of the fishing industry, its post office closed while Bailte was filming there.
“It’s a changed place. I’d have to admit that there’s a great sadness there that rural Ireland is changing, but it wasn’t sad for Phil [Uí Bhrosnacháin, former postmistress].
"Phil was saying ‘I’m delighted I’m retiring. I’ve been very busy all my life’.
“People turned up in their droves to toast Phil at the end of that working day. We went into her kitchen and there were about 50 people waiting to toast her and say congratulations, well done.
"People were really sad but they also said ‘nobody applied’ [for the job]. They understand.”
The double-edged sword of change was evident too in Cork’s Oileán Chléire (Cape Clear) after Storm Ophelia.
Ever a challenging environment in which to make a living, the island was pounded by waves that crashed over the roof its hostel, leaving manager Anne O’Regan surveying extensive flood damage.
“The place was devastated; walls that had been there for hundreds of years were broken,” says Síle.
“But on the same day it happened, neighbours started to arrive and lift the stones off the road and said ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine’.
“Anne had a good job on the mainland but came back because she wanted her sons to be brought up on the island.
"She thought that day she was finished, but people just started arriving and gave her such hope."
“It’s tough. She has three different jobs and she says that’s what this island is like if you want to survive, but the place is worth it — the community, the people, the sense of home, looking at the sea and knowing that this is where she’s rooted.
“Irish people have such a deep connection with place, and backed up by good neighbours, there’s no beating that."
Munster Episodes of Bailte
Presenter Síle Nic Chonaonaigh meets Mary Condon, whose family has lived in the area for seven generations. She learns of the area’s fishing heritage, how a new business thrives, and how the community depends on its lifeboat. This is illustrated at the annual Heilbhic swim, where Síle says: “The whole community was out and it was amazing to see the sense of community and the support for the local Coast Guard Station.”
Visiting the townland of Muiríoch and village of Baile na nGall, the series explores how the fishing community has had to adapt, and captures the final days of the local post office as its doors close for the last time.
“From Celtic to Christian times and onwards it’s a place that people have come to and where people still find great solace and energy. We talk to three brothers who grew up there and one still lives in the townland. The glimmer of hope is that one of the brothers has a son who is building a house in the townland, so life is coming back.”
“It’s storm-battered and remote, but people actively seek it out. It’s a place that’s extremely peripheral in one way, but also international in the course of its history,” says Síle, as the harsh reality of island life is revealed after Ophelia wreaks havoc on the local hostel.