All our lives were upended by the lockdown, but some more profoundly than others. Many were lucky to be almost untouched from an economic point of view, while others had their livelihoods extinguished. Some urban dwellers escaped almost unscathed while many suffered grievously — but it was those in rural areas who were most vulnerable to disadvantage and loss.
Here people were most likely to suffer isolation and loneliness, particularly on the long 15-hour nights of last winter in places where there was no pavement or street lights to facilitate even an evening stroll. Similarly, the mostly small, standalone pubs and shops dependent on local trade were more vulnerable to economic shocks than their better-integrated and busier urban counterparts.
We can’t blame it all on Covid, of course — for pre-pandemic rural Ireland was already in crisis. The virus has, however, blown its working parts high into the air, and nobody has any idea what the landscape will be like when the dust settles. There is simply no way of knowing how many shops, pubs, cafés, or places of entertainment are set to reopen when the present subsidies are removed. It is, however, a racing certainty that many will not.
The headwinds were, of course, already strongly against rural Ireland, because economic activity was relentlessly shifting towards urban centres. The majority of Irish farms are now part-time, with many of their owners travelling to work in nearby towns. Visitors to rural villages see streets lined with abandoned premises as shops, pubs, post offices, banks, and garda stations close down. This inevitably leads to a cycle of disadvantage, where less cash circulates locally and other businesses inevitably follow suit by going to the wall.
The one exception used to be areas where tourism had taken root.
Here, it was still possible to do what urban dwellers take for granted — buy a newspaper, fill up with diesel, or find a pub serving food. The disproportionate value of tourism for maintaining rural services is extremely clear — but now even this lifeline has been removed. Nobody is at all certain how many of the typically small, tourism-based businesses in rural Ireland can survive until the hospitality industry gets back to near 2019 levels.
There is, of course, much talk of the Covid crisis being rural Ireland’s opportunity, that it will speed the move towards carbon-neutral ways of living. Greater options to work from home will see people relocating to our villages and countryside areas, thereby easing the pressures for urban housing.
This brings to mind the compelling concept of a social village — strong, commute-free communities where people work, shop, recreate, and find schools for their children within walking distance of home. For most people, it’s a captivating image but something that presently may be just wishful thinking. Who wants to move to a rural village bereft of shops, restaurants, pubs, and a post office, while the Garda station operates nine to five in the nearest town?
If rural Ireland is to be saved, action is now required. There is an urgent need for the appointment of a minster for rural recovery to provide the focus and agile policy response that will be required to avoid further precipitous decline. The first task must be to expedite the proposal on turning vacant buildings into remote employment hubs where people can enjoy workplace camaraderie without the commute.
There is also a need for action to redress the urbanisation of Irish tourism where the national accommodation base is increasingly located within urban hotels. The result is that rural excursions are mostly confined to low-spend day trips by holidaymakers, which do little to support local service providers.
Incentives should be provided to encourage the development of small rural guest houses and B&Bs to replace the many that have left, or are about to leave, the business. This will only be successful, however, when going hand-in-hand with the development of tourism activities. We now need more of the innovative thinking that recently created St Declan’s Way pilgrim path, the Suir Blueway, the National Famine Way, and the new biking trails in the Slieve Bloom Mountains.
Building towards well-integrated social villages is the way ahead, but families will only relocate to vibrant communities where a high level of service and sustainability is on offer.
- John G O'Dwyer is an author and the chairman of Pilgrim Paths Ireland, which is dedicated to bringing economic benefit to rural communities by promoting Ireland's ancient trails.