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

Across the country rural towns and villages have suffered the loss of services, infrastructure, and population, but one thing that is not in decline is community spirit. In the first of a five-part series, we visit Tournafulla, Co Limerick, and see unwavering local determination to keep the village on the map.

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

Tournafulla has long got a kick out of holding the record as the longest village in Ireland, its main thoroughfare stretching nearly a mile and a half from end to end.

But now the West Limerick community worries that the more obvious distinction could be that it is the country’s emptiest.

At midday on a weekday in the middle of the tourist season, there are no visible business premises open.

Late in the afternoon, one of the remaining two pubs will unlock its doors. The other one will follow for a few hours after 8pm.

The only other business fronting the Main Street is one people don’t much like to see in action, though affection for its proprietor is strong.

It is the funeral home owned by Pat Roche, who also had the last shop in the village, closed since 2012.

“They went bit by bit and all of a sudden we woke up one morning and there was nothing there,” says local resident, Helen Broderick, remembering the small shops and local businesses of the past.

Former shopkeeper Pat Roche, who owns the local funeral home, one of the village’s only remaining businesses.

Liam Lenihan, retired schoolteacher, chair of the local development association and former chairman of the Limerick GAA County Board, shares those memories.

“There were 10 shops in the town at one time. They’re all gone. There were 200 farmers supplying two creameries. There’s now about 20 left in dairy,” he says.

“There was the post office — gone since 2007. There was a garda station — gone too. There were four pubs — now there’s two and they’re only open a few hours and how long they’ll continue is hard to say.”

The church too is more often closed than open, its Sunday Masses continuing but its weekday Masses gone from every second day to once on a Tuesday.

Even the little hairdressing business run from a room in a local woman’s house has finished since her recent passing.

“The chitchat room — it used to be,” says Tara Costello who works at the small nursing home her mother set up. “The older people used love going there for who they might meet and the news they might hear.”

That illustrates what for Liam Lenihan is the most immediate challenge facing Tournafulla, where he grew up in the thick of constant company and conversation.

“Where do people meet? That’s the biggest problem. Where do people bump into each other in the course of a normal day and chat and share news or just see another living soul? Isolation is a huge problem.”

Tara Costello with Lir Nursing Home residents Margaret Colbert and Noraita Brosnan.

To those passing through on a fine summer day, it’s not isolation that comes to mind but an idyll.

Tournafulla sits in a dip in the gently rolling hills of West Limerick, served by a warren of small roads, their hedgerows bright with fuschia.

Its busy small town neighbour, Abbeyfeale, is 15 minutes drive in one direction; Newcastle West, bigger and busier again, is about 20 minutes away in the other.

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Another 20 minutes or so beyond that brings the tourist beacon of Adare, and 15 minutes more — traffic and tailbacks permitting — and you’re on the outskirts of Limerick City.

But that presumes firstly that you drive — for there is no bus readily available to people in Tournafulla whose nearest bus stop is at Devon Road close to Templeglantine, 6.5km away.

It presumes your love of fuschia and a sun-dappled winding road is compensation for having to navigate 13km of the twisting routes every time you need a pint of milk.

And it presumes an endless summer, when in reality the dip in the hills that give Tournafulla such a sweet setting on a cloudless day can also trap the village in mist and rain in even the mildest of seasons while frost and ice can seriously hamper travel and snow completely halts it.

Jennie MacDonald admits she was seduced by the location when she arrived here from London 15 years ago, her cockney accent not yet tempered by her immersion in Munster from where her family originally hailed.

“When I first came here I thought this place was just amazing. Look at the views. To stand up on the hill where I live and look around, it’s fabulous. I’m a gardener. The whole place looked like a garden — heaven, I thought.” At 70, she’s still gardening and still quite mad about the place but a little more realistic about the challenges it brings.

“While we have cars and can still afford to run them, that makes all the difference. If we didn’t have cars, we’d be totally and absolutely annihilated.

“I worry about what will happen when I can’t drive. Already my eyes aren’t that good and my man’s got bad arthritis.

“We’ve got a man up the road who is 90-plus and still driving but if they took his licence away from him tomorrow he’d die because that’s his independence gone.”

She’s willing to change with the times, she says, stressing she did a computer course run by the local Leader group because, she says: “We weren’t supposed to need anything physically here — we’d have online banking, online shopping, online friends.

“That’s all very well but we haven’t got internet worth talking about. Even the phone signal can be spasmodic. And if there’s a storm, you may as well be talking to yourself. We can’t get the Saorview either — we have to pay for Sky for the telly.” And yet for all the obvious difficulties the location can present and the desolation it could bring, when the call goes out for people to come and say what’s on their mind, the car park at the community centre is suddenly alive with puttering engines and there are many hands to shake.

Tournafulla resident Jennie MacDonald moved from London 15 years ago to a rural idyll, but now aged 70 says she worries about what will happen when she can no longer drive.

Like so many rural communities whose fortunes have faltered in recent years, there remains a fierce determination to hold on to what remains and build on it for the future.

Helen Broderick is a founding member of the Tournafulla Sustainable Living movement and speaks with the urgency of a woman who hasn’t time to look backwards.

“Tournafulla Sustainable Living is exactly what it says on the tin,” she explains. “We’re all about promoting what’s in our own community and trying to establish not just businesses and enterprises, but places where people can actually engage again, because that’s what we have lost more than anything else.”

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Late last year, the group started a café in the community centre. It opened a few days a week, run by volunteers, offering simple soup, sandwiches and cakes, and it was an instant hit.

“We ran it from October to Christmas and it was a tremendous success from day one. Some of the residents from the nursing home would come and they just loved it because it was something so different from their daily routine.

“We had mothers who were at home all the time with young children and an hour before the school collection they would come to the cafe and sit and chat and have a cup of coffee and meet people.

“We had retired people who are maybe a bit lost since they stopped working and we had people who work on their own most of the time. We scoured charity shops for delft and everything was mismatched but we put down a big fire each day and honestly the atmosphere was brilliant.

“It was great for the volunteers too. It was work but it was getting them out and socialising too so you’d enjoy every bit of it.”

The initiative ran into insurance concerns, however, and it didn’t reopen in the new year but the delft is packed away and only waiting for reuse.

“We’re still very much going to do it, there’s no question about that,” Helen says. “Hopefully it can be in the community centre but if not, we’ll find some place.

“In fact, we’re expanding the ideas in our heads while we look for somewhere. The idea is that we would start to use local bakers, so that money would go back into the community.

“And we have a growers group locally so if we were doing salad bowls and the like we’d use their produce, because if you’re eating locally and eating what’s in season and the money’s going back into your community, that’s sustainable living.

“We’ve had a setback but we proved there was a demand for what we provided and a will to provide it so that’s the research done and dusted if you like.

“Watch this space, we’ll get it up and running.”

A derelict cottage in Tournafulla, West Limerick. The village has been decimated by emigration.

Helen envisages a regular market too and has gathered a list of local crafters she believes would join the growers and producers in selling their wares. And the ultimate goal is a community shop.

She has been to Loughmore in Co Tipperary where two local women have set up the Loughmore Tea Rooms and Community Shop that has become an impressive example for other villages similarly bereft of amenities.

That project is assisted by Leader under the rural community retail initiative which draws heavily on the experiences of the Plunkett Foundation in Britain, named after the pioneer of the co-operative movement, Horace Plunkett, which is helping communities restore shops and services in small towns and villages across the UK.

“Those two wonderful women in Loughmore are phenomenal and they are a tremendous help to others thinking of doing the same,” says Helen.

“They told us a story. They have a half door in the cottage where they set up and when they opened the café and the little shop there, an oul’ fella came up to the half door and he threw in €10 and he said will you give me out 20 Major.

“So they went and got him his cigarettes and he went away and two of the older ladies sitting at the table having a cup of tea said out loud, we thought he was dead for years where did he come out of?

“It was funny and we all laughed but there was also a sadness attached to it because in fact that man had not engaged with people for years and that’s what happens in places like this.

“It’s very difficult I suppose for any urban dweller to realise just how isolated and isolating the country can be and you have to put a huge effort into making sure that that doesn’t happen.”

That effort is evident in the activities at the community centre, Halla Tadhg Gaelach, named after the poet Tadhg Gaelach O’Suilleabháin, who was born locally.

Card games are on the agenda one night, music the next, indoor bowls, meetings, keep-fit classes, a monthly céilí that brings hundreds from all over Co Limerick and well beyond, school concerts and other annual events.

It is the one remaining manifestation of the Celtic Tiger era, opened in 2001 after a successful five- year fundraising and building programme run by the Tournafulla Development Association.

It now has to be maintained on post-Celtic Tiger pockets and the association needs to find €10,000 a year to keep it open, but so far they haven’t come up short.

Ann O’Kelly, a member of the board of directors and the brains behind Tournafulla Free Range Eggs, says there is no point in being daunted by the responsibility.

“We have to keep it going. People gave so much when we started fundraising in 1996 and if you didn’t keep it going you’d be letting everyone down.”

Further down towards the end of the mile and half is the other main place where the community gathers in numbers — the GAA pitch.

Four years ago the club was hit with a crisis after 11 of its senior hurlers departed to look for work in Britain and further afield.

Tournafulla GAA Club president Timmy Horgan and former chairman Liam Lenihan.

Lifelong club member, Timmy Horgan, says it was a huge blow to club and community. “We lost a generation. They were the backbone of the team at the time. But things have taken a bit of improvement since. We still have the full range of teams, from under-sixes to adults. It’s a struggle with numbers but they are training and competing — even with a bit of success from time to time.

“It did have an impact on everyone — the loss of so many— but if we were to lie down, what solution would that be? You have to fight on. You have to think of the younger ones coming up.”

“We have big plans,” Liam Lenihan adds, outlining the biggest phase of development since the pitch opened in 1985. There is to be a new clubhouse, a meeting room and an improved access to the pitch.

“We raffled a car and made €86,000 from that and we’ll start the work before the end of the summer hopefully. You’d have 80 kids in the field here of a Friday evening. You do it for them.”

At the Lir Nursing Home, near the church in Tournafulla, the residents are past working age and long commited to living out their days in the village, but unemployment and emigration have a very real effect on them.

“It’s heartbreaking really when someone has no-one left locally,” says Tara Costello. “Isolation would be the big thing for them.

“It’s a wonderful village really and if there’s anything ever on in the hall, they always come up and bring our residents down so there is a lovely community spirit there.

“But slowly I think there’s a danger of it dying. People’s lives are getting busier and busier and it’s harder to look out for others. It’s something we’ll have to work at.”

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Inevitably, the one occasion the scattered community all gather for is a funeral. They were waiting for the announcement of one on that fine day when the village looked so alive.

It was to be one of the saddest kind, that of a young wife and mother in the final hours of a battle with cancer.

Pat Roche was expecting the call, and though it is his livelihood, a death never leaves him unmoved.

“I started in the grocery shop in 1975 when my sister took it over and in 1978 I decided I would start a funeral business. At the time there was no such thing as funeral homes in the country— all the removals were from the hospital or the home.

“It was always secondary to the shop because that was a good business. Even though we’d competition — there was a shop and post office the other side of the church and a pub with a shop too — we still did fine.

“But they were long hours, seven days a week. You had to be here on a Sunday because of the Masses and the matches too.

“When my sister decided she wanted to retire, I said I would too and we put the shop up for sale but that was in 2010 and it never sold.

“We let it then for a while but the people who were running it couldn’t make a go of it and it’s been closed since 2012. It’s hard to see it all shut up — a fine building that used to have people in and out of it all the time and no use for it now.

“I have regrets but you can’t dwell on them. The post office was a big loss to the community too.

“When people went off to get their pension, they were doing their shopping elsewhere and of course on top of that, the big supermarkets came along and you couldn’t compete with them.

“My funeral business would be small and there’s always a sadness about it but in another way too, it’s very important to the families that they can be looked after locally.

“When someone dies here, you have the church and the funeral home close together and up the road is the community centre where they can gather after the burial.

“People need their community around them when they’re grieving. It’s at times of death you see the community spirit is still very much alive.”

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