Simple pleasures ward off seclusion threat

In the second of a two-day series on rural Ireland, Michael Clifford reports on how community programmes are helping local people to cope with loneliness and isolation

WHEN the day in question comes around, John and Dan Murphy take off from their home in Glencar, at the foothills of the McGillicuddy Reeks. They drive the 10 miles or so into Killorglin where they meet the bus.

Aboard, there will be some old friends, and, here and there, a strange face. There might even be a few women, wives or girlfriends that come along on some of the trips. Most of the men are up around the brothers’ own age. John was 71 last August, Dan is 69. Nearly three quarters of the men are single or widowed.

The bus is organised under an innovative scheme to provide outings for men in rural tracts of Kerry. In effect, its purpose is to, in its own small way, tackle the scourge of rural isolation.

The faces the Murphys know come from towns and villages scattered around south Kerry, Glenbeigh, Caherciveen and Waterville.

“You would know some of them,” says John. “You’d know some from way back, but you wouldn’t be meeting them in the normal run of things.”

Encounters may have occurred down through the years, on fair days — which are now a thing of the past — or, in latter decades, at marts. For a day, old sparks of humour will be renewed, memories taken out and parsed for nostalgia, events chewed over with like minds. For a day, there will be as much company as a man could want this side of a crowded house.

The days out connect the Murphy brothers to a social scene that is otherwise hugely restricted by the realities of rural Ireland. Glencar is effectively in the interior of the Iveragh peninsula, from where mountain climbers begin assaults on the Reeks, but is otherwise hidden from the wider world. If you’re looking for rural isolation, you’ve come to the right place. The brothers live on a farm in a corner of Glencar known as Doora, a place of great natural beauty, blessed by nature, but cursed by peripherality.

John and Dan have farmed this land all their lives. Their nearest neighbour is nearly a mile away. St Stephen’s Church is a four-mile drive, and it’s the same distance before you encounter a shop or post office.

“When you’re reared here you don’t much notice that it’s away on its own,” says John.

In one sense the brothers are fortunate, in that they are not dogged by the fear that assails many elderly people living in rural Ireland. The roads are only fair to middling, and the area is so far removed that any prospective burglar would hardly consider it worth the effort. In any event, man’s best friend ensures that these men sleep soundly in their beds.

“We’ve had the dogs for years,” says John. “There’s no fear that a stranger would come across here.”

Fortune also favours them with the wherewithal to still be driving.

For many of the demographic in rural Ireland, transport is a far more complicated facet of life.

The Murphys’ involvement in the outings came about as a result of a phonecall from an acquaintance from nearby Glenbeigh. Kevin Griffin works for the South Kerry Partnership on the Rural Social Scheme, which is designed to assist farmers on low income and provide social services in rural areas.

A new programme for rural men, funded through the state agency Pobal, was being organised. Griffin wondered how the men would be fixed for a day out. They were thinking of getting together a group of men to head up to Croke Park, check out the place, take a trip around the museum.

The brothers were interested. Who else would be going? How much would it cost? But in general, it sounded like something new, a flight of fancy from an existence where the opportunities to interact with other human beings is limited.

“After Kevin phoned, sure we said we’d try it, and it was very interesting. We went up to Dublin, to Croke Park. Another day we met Mary McAleese.”

Last month, the brothers boarded the bus in Killorglin for the latest outing. Three buses, provided by Kerry Community Transport, travelled South and Mid-Kerry picking up 85 men and four women in total. The convoy then took off across the mountains to West Cork. There was a stop for tea and scones in Glengarriff, and then a ferry ride out to view the exotic character of Garnish Island. From there, the party moved onto Bantry and a three-course lunch and a visit to Bantry House.

The pleasures are simple, the cost only €40 a head, but the value for those who travel can be incalculable, providing a fillip to the mundane routines of daily life, and, above all, a chance to socialise with like-minded fellows.

The initiative has been a huge success. The only problem Griffin has encountered is the natural resistance among men in particular to anything that involves change or participation.

Cultural mores, and particularly the human condition of the male, make tackling rural isolation all the more difficult, Instinctively, many men react to an invitation as something to be wary of, but inevitably, those who succumb have the time of their lives.

“You’d have to get around them,” Griffin says. “Get one of their friends to suggest it to them or something like that, rather than making a direct approach. Getting your foot in the door is the big thing. But it’s always the same. Once they come at all, they love it.”

Another pair of brothers living within 10 miles of the Murphys’ as the crow flies, are the 80-year-old Piggott twins. Their whitewashed cottage hugs the shores of Lake Caragh, a magnet for fishermen and artists. John and Pat are not as mobile as they once were, but they keep well. Pat can still belt out a tune on the squeeze box, as he once did regularly with famed musician Liam O’Connor.

While the setting is rural, a smattering of farmhouses and high-end bungalows ensure the Piggotts are fortunate in their neighbours. Neither man has ever been to Dublin, and what would they want there anyway?

“I used to cycle when I was young,” says Pat. “I had a hip problem last year, but that’s sorted. We never had a car here.”

On Fridays, one of the brothers will go into Glenbeigh in a taxi, the other staying at home. On Sundays the same routine applies for Mass. They each go every second week. Kevin Griffin calls on them regularly, as do other neighbours. The dangers of rural isolation lurk around homes like the Piggotts’, but their outgoing personalities and a welcoming house ward off the dangers.

The brothers are on Griffin’s mailing list for the outings, but aren’t really interested. Neither is as mobile as they used to be. The steady stream of visitors to their home ensures that they remain a part of the local community. When Griffin visits, he might mention the outings, but he doesn’t push it. They have their own armoury of weapons when it comes to dealing with isolation. The needs of some are far greater than others.

DEPOPULATION

THE onslaught of the recession has exacerbated rural isolation right across the country, particularly with the flight of the young from the land. No more is the option available to commute to bigger towns from farms, or rural outposts where people grew up.

Now it’s simply a matter of leaving. The result is a growing imbalance in demographics and that is already having an effect.

The Iveragh peninsula is best known as accommodating the Ring of Kerry, a route of great natural and scenic beauty. But, as they say locally, you can’t eat the scenery. Beyond the road that rings the peninsula, and the tourist attractions set against nature’s better side, the areas is largely rural and in long-term decline. Out there, isolation is a constant threat, as it is in many similar parts of the country, particularly in the West.

At the heart of much of the issue is economics. The boom years masked for the best part of a decade the changing nature of the economy as it affects rural Ireland. With plentiful work in the construction sector, the decline of manufacturing when unnoticed. Now that the bubble has burst, depopulation is taking hold.

The area around the market town of Caherciveen, the main hub on the peninsula, illustrates the problem. Through the years of the boom and bubble, a long-term decline in population was arrested. The 2002 census put the population of the town’s electoral division at 2,043, up from 1,962 six years previously. By 2005, it had risen to 2,119. Yet despite the 2011 census showing a huge increase in the national population, the town’s had dropped to 2,008, according to the provisional figures. In the rural areas around the town, the decline is even more marked.

In recent years, Caherciveen has suffered a number of blows. Most recently, the financial services company Fexco cut back on its operation in the town, resulting in 60 redundancies.

One good employer in the town is the Legal Aid Board, set up when local politician John O’Donoghue was justice minister.

However, most of the staff working at the facility live as far away as Killarney, which is a 40-mile drive.

Otherwise, there is just tourism, which can be uneven, and farming.

The strategic plan for the local partnership states: “While agriculture is the main industry in the area, it has been in decline in recent decades. It is characterised by small-scale, part-time farming on poor quality holdings. Much of the land is mountainous and is uneconomical to farm. A significant proportion involved in agriculture are one-person households and have an age profile of 40-65.”

Farming under such circumstances is difficult. It has no attraction for a younger generation. A report into farming in the area canvassed farmers about the future. Despite the average holding being in the family for over four generations, few were confident that it would remain so.

If farming dominates the economy in an area like this, then the culture is expressed to a large degree, through football. This is the heart of Gaelic football territory. Yet, in recent years, clubs have found themselves banding together in order to field decent teams.

Four clubs in South Kerry — Valentia, Portmagee, Sneem and Derrynane — now combine to field a minor team. The move is deemed necessary, but inflicts a blow on the sense of community which a club represents. Sneem is about 20 miles from the heart of Valentia. Between Kells and Castlecove, a stretch of 30 miles along the Ring of Kerry, no club has fielded a minor team on its own. The notion of the club representing the parish is fast fading in an area which was traditionally a GAA stronghold.

The Caherciveen club, St Mary’s, are the All-Ireland junior club champions. Yet much of its training takes place 60 miles away in Ballyvourney, Co Cork, to accommodate players who have had to go to Cork City to find work. Nearly all the other clubs in Iveragh train midweek in Killarney once the summer draws to an end.

Joe McCrohan, the rural development officer with the partnership, sees depopulation as the major threat to the area’s future.

“The young are immigrating,” he says.

“You see it more out in the country where elderly people used to rely on their neighbours. Many of them are no longer there to help.

“There is going to be an imbalance in the population and we’re already seeing that and it’s going to have to be addressed in a big way in the coming years.”

Driving through the town’s New St, McCrohan waves an arm across the rows of houses on both sides of the street.

“There’s only one or two families along here with small children.”

Once upon a not long ago, the street was teeming with children. This year, just six names were enrolled to start in the town’s boys’ national school.

GETTING INVOLVED

GATHERING and deploying the tools to fight against the forces attacking rural Ireland is no easy matter. A number of schemes have been put in place over the past 10 years designed to stop the spread of isolation. One of the big successes has been the Rural Social Scheme, which facilitates farmers on low income by providing a supplementary income for work carried out in the community.

Typically, the farmers present themselves for 19-and-a-half hours work a week. This could involve assisting in constructing walkways or other tourist infrastructure. As the scheme developed it also including visitation services for isolated elderly people. About 2,600 mainly men are on the scheme nationally, at a cost of about €1 million a week.

In an area like Iveragh, where the land is harsh and holdings often very small, the scheme has brought great benefits. There are 138 farmers availing of it, with 30 more on a waiting list.

“We have a big uptake with it,” says McCrohan.

“The vast majority on it are over 50 years of age and a large proportion are also single.”

Out of such schemes grew the Rural Men’s Outreach project. This was initially funded by the dormant accounts fund and involved engaging with 180 men over a large tract of the peninsula. Outreach workers visited the men in their homes, meeting them, and assisting in matters like entitlement queries and form filling. This then progressed to organising the outings that now take place four or five times a year.

All of theses measures take place on an incremental basis. Undertaking a cost-benefit analysis is extremely difficult. How do you measure the impact that socialisation can have on individuals, and the quality of life improvements for contact at a time of isolation?

“We’re turning a negative into a position,” says McCrohan.

“These men are getting out of their homes. The benefit to them is obvious, but even in a wider sense, older people have a lot to contribute to the economy and that should be unleashed.”

Tackling the long-term decline for an area is more difficult. A large hotel in Caherciveen, a product of the bubble economy, stands idle. But there are other initiatives. Local businesses such as the award-winning restaurant QCs have expanded to offer accommodation. A French patisserie has survived and prospered against all the odds. There are tentative plans to covert an old railway line, which ran from Killarney all the way to Renard, the departure point for crossing to Valentia Island, into a cycling track. Faced with harsh economic winds, the best can often be extracted from community and business.

“The two biggies are tourism and agriculture,” says McCrohan.

“We’re going to have to try to attact more tourism in particular. But socially, with the population imbalance, there is going to be a huge need to take care of the elderly, particularly those who are isolated. Whoever is left around is going to have to get involved.”

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