Escaping the decay of rural Ireland: Getting busy living in and reviving the community of Asdee

This week the dwindling community of Asdee in North Kerry unveiled a detailed and ambitious plan outlining how the parish tucked along the banks of the River Shannon can escape the sentence of decline and decay which has been served on so much of rural Ireland. Getting busy… Colm O’Connor reports.
Escaping the decay of rural Ireland: Getting busy living in and reviving the community of Asdee
Karol Kissane, Mary Mulvihill, and John Kennedy of the Asdee Community Development Association.

In all matter of life and existential ambition, we look to Andy Dufresne. Inside Shawshank, he tells ‘Red’ of his hopes for a brighter future far from the soul-destroying misery of the Maine penitentiary.

The sage Morgan Freeman fillets the plan describing it as a “shitty pipe dream”, resigning himself to living out his life behind bars. There would be no Shawshank Redemption. Dufresne will not be trapped forever though. "It comes down to a simple choice, Get busy living or get busy dying." 

THE PAST

Overview of Asdee Village in Co Kerry. Asdee Community Developmaent Association in North Kerry invites the people of the locality and surrounding communities to the launch of the Asdee Socio-Economic Development Plan (2020-2025). File picture: Domnick Walsh 
Overview of Asdee Village in Co Kerry. Asdee Community Developmaent Association in North Kerry invites the people of the locality and surrounding communities to the launch of the Asdee Socio-Economic Development Plan (2020-2025). File picture: Domnick Walsh 

John Kennedy is tracing a finger through the map of his childhood during the 1960s in Asdee. 

He says: “We had a shop in the village and below that was the community centre along with the national school and the church. Further down the road was the Jesse James bar, then you had Kissane’s which doubled as a shop and a bar. Christy Walsh had a shop and then you had the post office which was run by the Doyle family. Every house in the village was occupied and there was so much life.” 

The hinterland was well catered for also with Tom Pius Walsh’s shop situated on the approach road from Ballylongford while the Ballybunion side of the parish had a booming hub of businesses. 

John says: “You had The Store bar and shop, the creamery, and O’Sullivan’s. All were busy. The centre of life then was the local creamery, it was the meeting place every day for local farmers. 

"From early morning you’d have a stream of farmers stopping at different places, collecting messages, and talking football and farming.”

Agriculture was not the only driver in Asdee. Fishing played a big part in the lives of many while big construction projects at Tarbert Island and in later years at Aughinish Alumina near Foynes meant labouring was in plentiful supply. 

A constant demand for home builds also kept many locals ticking over in terms of work. Kennedy is one of Asdee’s most famous sons.

A stellar football career saw the sharpshooter win All-Ireland SFC titles in 1984, 1985, and 1986 but as he was putting Asdee on the national map (along with a report of moving statues in 1985) a combination of other factors was beginning to erase it.

Kennedy says: “In the '80s a lot of people emigrated to England due to the lack of work here and the fact that farming was not as profitable. After that the other big reason for decline though was the closure of creameries in the '90s when bulk milk collection was introduced.” 

The unintended consequences hit small businesses with the force of a wrecking ball.

“The shops started to get quieter as people didn’t have a reason to come to their village. This wasn’t just the case in Asdee, it was across North Kerry, across the country. But all those things combined and everything suffered as a result. Shops closed down, sons and daughters left to move to bigger cities and towns; houses were closed up when parents died.

“Rural Ireland was crippled,” says Kennedy.

Karol Kissane has fond memories of life in Asdee as a child growing up in the '80s. 

“There were eight classes in the school in 1984 and we had four teachers. Back then the village was the centre of my universe. My family had a pub and there always seemed to be something happening. We also had the ‘school’s field’ which was a tiny patch of ground behind the community centre. During the summer holidays, seven evenings a week, there would be crowds of kids there playing ball and having fun,” he says. 

Karol Kissane , Mary Mulvihill and John Kennedy of the Asdee Community Development Association pictured in Asdee.
Karol Kissane , Mary Mulvihill and John Kennedy of the Asdee Community Development Association pictured in Asdee.

Kissane finished secondary school at 16 to come home and work on the family farm. Four years later he returned to education, sat his Leaving Cert as an external student, and secured a place in Cork IT. From there he got a degree in Business Studies and went onto work for Bank of Ireland in Dublin where he qualified as a chartered accountant and tax advisor. In 2010 he married Caroline, a Dublin native, but life in the capital was not for them.

“We decided that to raise a family we needed to move out of Dublin. I had a one-bedroom apartment while we had the opportunity of a fine house in Asdee,” Kissane says.

Son Tommy (9) and daughter Emily (7) are Asdee to the core now and attend the same school as their father.

Mary Mulvihill is another former pupil of Asdee National School. Like Kissane her recollections are franked with days of happiness. 

She says: “Asdee was a wonderful place for a girl to be growing up. We had a football and a basketball team which was rare enough in a rural parish. We had an annual festival and various clubs but sadly all of those just faded away. The August bank holiday weekend used to be a huge highlight as children with a huge parish festival. But then it was just gone.” 

Mulvihill is a self-confessed home-bird. She went to secondary school in Listowel and followed that with a degree and a Masters in Business Studies in IT Tralee. Her three strands of education were within a 40-minute drive of home. 

She says: “I lived in Tralee for a few years but then bought a car so I could commute, that is how much I love Asdee.” 

THE PRESENT

Owen Kennedy and Lorraine McElligott of the Asdee Community Development Association pictured in Asdee .
Owen Kennedy and Lorraine McElligott of the Asdee Community Development Association pictured in Asdee .

Mary Mulvihill could not imagine living elsewhere. 

She says: “Asdee was always home. I never had that desire to go to Australia or abroad for a few years like many of my peers. Ironically, I have travelled a lot with work in recent years but I’m always looking forward to getting back.”

Mulvihill counts herself lucky. North Kerry could never claim to be a global epicentre for jobs in the marketing and communications sphere but that is the role she holds with Dairymaster in Causeway — a 30-minute drive from home.

She put down more roots last October when she married Brian Coughlan, from Asdee. She did not go far.

On one side of the village looms Cnoc an Áir where, legend has it, Fionn MacCumhail once battled villainous foes. Down the other side of the village is the mighty Shannon, on the final stretch of its meandering journey towards the Atlantic.

With so much to see and do, the challenge for Kennedy and company is to entice that passing cavalcade to stop a while, have a coffee, a scone, a walk, an experience.

Kennedy says: “I feel if we can work as a part of a jigsaw with the rest of North Kerry then we will be onto something. When you grow up with natural amenities all around you, you take them for granted. We have long beaches, an incredible hillside, a winding river.

“It is all about harnessing the potential of those things on our doorstep. We want people to be aware of what is here and then plan to stop and enjoy these things.” 

What struck Mulvihill — who was appointed as the secretary along with Fiona Enright — was the willingness of locals to roll up their sleeves and get to work on resuscitating the community before it was too late.

She says: “People got involved in their own interests, hobbies, or strong points. We have people from so many backgrounds — accountants, architecture, business management, marketing, graphic developers, project leaders, construction, agriculture, and IT and these people get involved in the areas where they can best support the group.

“The Community Employment scheme was a huge positive and people like Jim O’ Connor who recently retired and now Jackie Kissane were huge drivers of this. From the very outset the focus was on what we had to offer: the rural lifestyle, the natural amenities, a different pace of life.

“We set about creating the village of the future, a place where people could build their lives. This is about building both a community and a destination.” 

Time and again Kennedy comes back to the salient point about this project. 

He says: “This was not about an individual or a group, this was about the community." 

The Association wanted the input of the entire parish. A working group went house to house with a survey so that as Kennedy said “everyone had their fingerprints on it". 

A key turning point was the support from Bord Iascaigh Mhara which administers the Fisheries Local Area Action Group (Flag) funding. The Flag strategy is focused on coastal rejuvenation and on the renewal of practices and skills in the fishing, aquaculture, and maritime related sectors. Funding from this was used to secure professional research, guidance and facilitation in the development of a five-year plan which was officially launched by RTÉ’s Katie Hannon at the Community centre hall on Thursday night.

The findings from the survey were then collated, crunched down, debated, and discussed. Every idea got an airing. Everyone had a voice. The committee engaged the services of Paul O’ Raw, community consultant and facilitator, and Dr Brendán Ó Caoimh, geographer, analyst, and social researcher (“We can’t thank them enough,” Mulvihill says) to ensure that there was professional and outside oversight of the work.

Rather than sweeping, grand ambitions the association targeted realistic goals, ones which may be modest in stature but big on impact. Kennedy says: “We got LED lights in the village, planted flowers, and painted buildings. There was work done on footpaths and signage. When taken on their own these are small things but when they are combined it makes people —  especially those passing through the village — sit up and take notice.” 

Kissane has a better insight into the death of rural communities than most.

As a recipient of a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, he had the opportunity to travel the world to look at different approaches to agriculture. 

He says: “One of the things that struck me was the impact of de-population in rural areas — you had communities wiped off the map. And that is why this project is so important. To raise a family here, it has everything that you would want.

“Even if I wasn’t farming, I would like to live here and you can see in recent months that the ability to work from home is becoming more and more the norm.” 

And he even feels that the kids have more opportunities now: “Back when I was a young lad it was really just soccer or football but my kids now have so much other stuff, there are Lego clubs, art classes, taekwondo, and more dance classes that I can keep track of.” 

And then everything fell out of step with Covid-19.

“Covid has been quite challenging but you could also look at it as giving rural Ireland a new lease of life. How many more people are working from home now,” Mulvihill says. 

“Living in a place like Asdee means that when you finish work you can be out enjoying a country walk or a stroll on the beach within minutes of turning off your computer. There is no need for massive commutes, no need for paying the massive cost of living that you associate with the big cities. We have high-speed broadband and the last few months have proven people don’t have to be working from offices in cities or big towns. This year has proven rural villages and communities are attractive places to live and work."

Kennedy says: “Six months ago the thought of life in a rural area was, for many, boring with very little happening. Then along came Covid. And suddenly the attractiveness of the big city isn’t the same anymore. Attitudes are changing. People are looking at rural parts of the country with fresh ideas. By improving the offering, everyone will gain.” 

"Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." — The Shawshank Redemption 

THE FUTURE

Karol Kissane , Lorraine McElligott , Mary Mulvihill , John Kennedy and Owen Kennedy 
Karol Kissane , Lorraine McElligott , Mary Mulvihill , John Kennedy and Owen Kennedy 

For Kennedy and the committee, Asdee’s future is already here.

The new energy-efficient lights shine in the village, ground has been broken on a walking loop up towards Cnoic un Oir. Small steps becoming giant leaps.

Kennedy has been around the track long enough to know that other things will require patience.

Upgrading work on the Community Centre ranks highly on his to-do list. It has served the parish well for over two generations, it is used nowadays for dancing classes and circuit training or hosting PE for the kids in the school next door. However, Kennedy sees new uses. 

He says: “In the environment we are in now we’d love to create an office hub for those working from home and given this is in the centre of the village this centre should be our hub.”.

A wastewater treatment is one of the more long term objectives. Connection to a sewage scheme will help remove roadblocks to those seeking planning permission, a task which is fraught with challenges at the best of times in the countryside.

More houses means an increase in population plus more work for local builders. The plan has numerous targets set out over the coming years, a playground in the village, community allotments, and a community garden, a 6km lowland loop walk, a 1km exercise path, a heritage trail, a river walk, and a social centre or café in the village.

Mulvihill accepts challenges and hurdles are strewn ahead.  

She says: “We have prioritised things we know are within our reach and are attainable in the coming months. We accept that the sewage scheme is longer term as that is something which is out of our control. We have been hugely fortunate with our local councillors over the years like Robert Beasley, Jimmy Moloney, Aoife Thornton, Tom Barry, Mike Kennelly, Mike Foley and before them, Liam Purtill, John Lucid in assisting us and we are confident of their support in the future.

“People in Asdee are cognisant of difficulties, but they are determined not to succumb to negativity.

"Instead, as evidenced by this plan, they are motivated by vision, hope, determination, resilience, vibrancy, and a commitment to working with one another and with other communities.” 

Kissane looks out across the vista from his home in Tullahennel.

He says:  “I have no regrets about the decision to move home. Neither does my wife who doesn’t miss the hustle and bustle of Dublin life.

“Just to see how happy our children are here tells us that we made the right call.”

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