The rebirth of rural Ireland is down to the hard work of women

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the drive and the creativity of people living and working in rural Ireland, writes Fergus Finlay

The rebirth of rural Ireland is down to the hard work of women

DON’T have a long bucket list. But one of the things on it has always been to be invited to speak at a literary lunch. Not too many people (apart from me, that is!) would put my name and high literature in the same sentence. But hey, a man can dream, right?

Anyway, I’ve made it. Last Saturday I spoke to an enthralled audience of what looked to me like deeply intellectual and charming people, at the first literary lunch I’ve ever been asked to speak at. (If you end a sentence with a preposition, does that disqualify you from the use of the term literature?) Held them in the palms of my hands, I did.

Well, maybe it wasn’t me (if I’m being honest!). I wasn’t even asked to do anything particularly literary — just to talk about some of my favourite books, which always

include biographies, thrillers, and (surprise surprise) some books about politics. The real literature came from Eithne Hand, who introduced and read some inspiring poetry (some of which was also very funny), and from the novelist Mike McCormack.

To my shame, I haven’t read McCormack’s work. After listening to him read a really moving and funny few pages from his novel Solar Bones, I set about rectifying the omission over the weekend. You have to just go and get it, dear reader — I can’t begin to describe it. I’ve never read anything before that is both measured and breathless, hilarious and sad, all at the same time.

Incidentally, one of my favourite political thrillers, which was on the list I brought with me to Portumna, is The Manchurian Candidate. Written in the late 1950s, it’s based on the absurd premise that the Russians and the Chinese conspire to have their man elected as president of the US.

They pick someone (a blowhard, lying, unpleasant Republican), give him an evil genius to manage him, and set about creating the circumstances through which he will be propelled into office. Crazy, isn’t it? You’d really have to wonder how author Richard Condon got that idea past the publishers.

But the real point of mentioning all this isn’t to write about my literary genius (and I beg you to keep your comments to a minimum). It’s to write about one of the things that never ceases to amaze me — the drive and the creativity of people living and working in rural Ireland; especially — if a departure from gender neutrality can be permitted for a moment — the women.

The Shorelines Art Festival in Portumna is in its tenth year. Started as a tiny voluntary festival, it has grown to the point where it represents a full year’s work for people who are still volunteers, and also to the point where it fills the entire town, for one weekend, with art, drama, literature, music, and film. All over the weekend people were wandering from one exciting event to another.

A lot were fetching up in a building that used to be a workhouse. It is perhaps the last surviving workhouse in Ireland, in the sense that all its buildings are intact. Its atmosphere is compelling — despite the welcome you get there now, there’s a chill of history and sadness in the air. It ought (but it isn’t) to be a central facet of public policy that places like the workhouse in Portumna are properly supported to ensure that they stand forever as testament to the sad and futile dreams of the past.

All along the road to Portumna, of course, and all the way back to Dublin, there were thousands of other signs of what turned out to be sad and futile dreams. On every pole and strung across every bridge were hung dozens of green and red flags to cheer the Mayo supporters on their way to Dublin. It must have been an exciting journey up to Dublin — and a pretty sad journey home. (Portumna itself was of course bedecked in the maroon and white of Galway — no futile dreams there!) But here’s the thing.

There’s huge slog in putting on a festival — reams of paperwork, management, and administration. Even securing small grants from bodies such as the Arts Council demand a lot of accountability — depressing work if you’re a volunteer. Endless hours are put into developing a programme, getting venues and kitting them out, securing artists and speakers, making sure there’s something for everyone in the audience.

The payoff is a town that’s alive and full of colour and fun, that’s capable of showing what it can do. Festivals like these show Ireland, and especially small-town Ireland, at its best. But they depend entirely on people being willing to give up winter evenings, sit on committees, foster relationships and iron out problems — always working on a shoestring.

Women such as Noelle, Margaret, Dolores, and many others (they know who they are, as the saying goes) deserve a huge vote of thanks.

There are women like that in every town in Ireland, of course. The rest of us might grumble about the poor roads, the lack of broadband, the fact that the economics of the town were so badly hit during the recession.

Women like that just get on with the job. They might have nothing in common except the sense that art and colour can show how alive a town really is, but that’s enough for them.

I’ve written about this before. There was a time when I was pretty sure that rural Ireland was dying. You would visit towns such as Ballydehob in West Cork, or Boyle in Roscommon, and see the holes in the wall where ATMs used to be.

Or you’d notice that some of the staples of living in a rural town were gone. The chemist shop had disappeared, there was no hairdresser’s salon, even the pubs weren’t open every night. And of course towns like this were (still are) way down the list when it comes to investing in industrial development, new schools, housing, and broadband.

But wherever you go in Ireland, all the signs are that rural Ireland, if not thriving yet, is alive and well and fighting back. Festivals are a big part of it. But a huge part of it is women who won’t take no for an answer. Women who get things done.

This week, of course, the biggest of them all — the Ploughing match — will draw tens of thousands of people to a field near Tullamore. The event has been run for more than 40 years, and developed into a world-class event, by a woman (of course!) Anna May McHugh.

It’s often the thing less noticed, mind you. You tend to see mostly men at the opening ceremonies, or on the reviewing stands. There is an age-old tradition in Ireland that women are in the background making sandwiches and tea.

Apart from the intrinsic injustice of that, it’s another way of selling ourselves short. The levels of skill, focus, and sheer hard work that I’ve met in groups of women all around Ireland are a resource that only stupid people don’t want to tap into. They’re the real leaders. The rest of us should be making the sandwiches.

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