We are either presented with the breathtaking images of the Fáilte Ireland videos and promotional material or with the negative or uninspiring picture that is portrayed of an area in decline. Much of the media or official coverage is focused on protests about post office closures or farm prices or supports — the view of rural Ireland as a problem.
For example, in public policy, the Dáil’s committee covering rural issues was entitled Social Exclusion, Rural Development and Drugs.
However, the reality is much more complex. There is no one rural Ireland. Rather there is a rich diversity of different types of people, doing different things, with different interests and backgrounds; far from the stereotype.
An event a couple of weeks ago that brought home this complexity was a film evening in a tiny village called Shanaglish in the Burren Lowlands which is on the border of Galway and Clare. It is off the beaten track, but an immaculate village, beautifully maintained, with restored stone walls.
The screening was in a painstakingly renovated blacksmith’s stone forge run by locals for locals with the turf fire on the forge and tea and biscuits; all very quaint and traditional. What we didn’t expect was the richness and depth of the cultural experience we were about to have.
Local man Tony Diviney made a welcome speech, explaining the background to the forge, how it was donated to the community by the family of the Loughnane brothers who were tortured and killed by black and tans; made famous by the writings of Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole Park. He highlighted how the forge was restored and maintained in their memory. Although the event happened 80 years ago, the emotional connection to that event was palpable. It was very moving, bringing us back to that time.
As the screening was by locals, we presumed that it would be something about the GAA or local music. What we did not expect was that that this would be the final screening of a documentary movie that had been shown at film festivals all over the world about the Syrian Druze minority in a village in the Golan Heights who were cut off from their own country since it was captured by Israel in the 1969 Six Day war.
The movie, Apples of the Golan, was carefully crafted, telling the story of the local population and their struggle to maintain links with their home country, with the export of apples being one of the few opportunities to cross the border. The movie was filmed on location by locals Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth.
Afterwards there was an opportunity to chat to them about the making of the movie and discuss the situation on the ground. Again, what we didn’t expect was a conversation led by locals of such depth and knowledge, it wouldn’t be out of place in the Royal Irish Academy or the Institute of International and European Affairs. Keith and Jill shared their experience of approach of the IS militia to the other side of the border, bringing current global issues home to us in a remote rural village.
Afterwards the audience strolled up to a seemingly quiet rural pub, Mikey Whelan’s. What we didn’t expect was a packed buzzing pub with a most extraordinary music session. You hear about the death of the Irish pub. It certainly wasn’t visible here. A local man, now living in San Francisco, Vincey Keehan, made a movie about the pub, Nights in Shanaglish with Paddy Egan, with a trailer on YouTube which captures the essence of what we experienced.
On the wall of the pub was that famous photograph of the workmen sitting on a beam over New York having their lunch. Seemingly, locals Sonny Glynn and Matty O’Shaughnessy were two of the 11 on the beam. Our history of emigration means that even the most remote villages have and have had for over a century connections with major global centres.
Shanaglish is a hidden gem. The truth is however that there is nothing special about Shanaglish. There are Shanaglishes up and down the country, none that are the same, but with their own uniqueness and attraction. Towns like Shanaglish break the myth of the rural stereotype. Rural Ireland is full of sophisticated, articulate people, highly connected both to the local place and globally, and with a multi-layered cultural richness.
Saying that, rural Ireland is not without its problems. It has been more severely affected by the economic downturn and is bouncing back more slowly. However vibrant communities can, with local leadership, do a lot for themselves to make their areas better places to live in. This vibrancy is a really critical building block of rural economic development. Without it, it will be hard to attract businesses and visitors.
Developing this local vibrancy is fundamental in making a success, the new initiative as part of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas called Rural Economic Development Zones, where communities work together to develop bottom-up plans for the development of their areas, leveraging support from national agencies. This richness and diversity is undervalued in Ireland and should, paraphrasing the LookWest campaign, harness Ireland’s rural potential and contribute to Ireland’s economic recovery. In other words, we shouldn’t pigeonhole rural Ireland as a burden and a problem, but rather if it is mobilised, it can be part of the solution.
Prof Cathal O’Donoghue is head of Teagasc’s Rural Economy and Development Programme and was CEO of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas.