Rumours of rural Ireland's decline are exaggerated thanks to co-operative shops, cafés and pubs

Population decline isn't a problem for rural Ireland; but the lack of services and of economic activity is being addressed by voluntary co-operative groups
Rumours of rural Ireland's decline are exaggerated thanks to co-operative shops, cafés and pubs

Mary O'Neill, the chef of Middle Country Cafe & Crafts, Cloughjordan. Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22.

Preliminary results from Census 2022 show that the population of every Irish county has increased since 2016. This is welcome, suggesting that Ireland has improved its population distribution and slowed rural decline.

Electoral divisions (EDs), however — these are the most minor administrative areas published within the preliminary figures — show areas for concern. Outside of Dublin, population growth is largely concentrated around the main urban centres in each county. Consequently, wide inequalities exist, with the number of residents falling in 17% of the remoter electoral divisions.

However, Ireland remains a remarkably non-urban society, with 42% living rurally, compared with an EU average of 27%. Large numbers of Irish people still favour raising families in rural areas.

So, while rural Ireland faces many challenges, Census 2022 shows that population decline isn't the central problem. In documenting this country's best walks for my latest book, I  noticed that it is economic activity, rather than people, that is shifting towards urban centres, bearing out the census figures.

With small- and medium-sized farms no longer able to butter the parsnips and few other job opportunities available, rural areas have  become eerily quiet during the day, as people travel to work in the nearest big town. This is not necessarily a negative. The IDA cannot provide a factory for every parish and, at least, spending is returned by urban commuters to rural communities. Rural dwellers have come to accept this arrangement, since it allows them to continue living in their local area.

What they are concerned about, however, is local services. In most Irish villages, there are sad rows of derelict buildings that previously housed the shops, banks, post offices, and Garda stations that were the backbone of local economies. Their closure leads to a cycle of disadvantage, where less cash circulates and other businesses inevitably follow suit by going to the wall. 

Areas where I encountered tourists were, however, a notable exception. Here, it is still possible to do what urban dwellers take for granted: Buy a newspaper, fill with diesel, or find a pub serving food. The disproportionate value of tourism in maintaining rural services reinforces my belief that visitor spending is an underexploited resource that can be key to rural regeneration.

Attracting visitors to rural communities is one key to their survival, but is easier said than done when there is little remaining of a hospitality infrastructure. Green shoots are appearing in the form of meitheal, the ancient Irish tradition of communities working together. The hugely successful dairy co-operative movement at the end of the 1800s transformed rural Ireland. In the main, they were producer co-operatives, but now, in a new iteration, community enterprises aimed at meeting local needs are springing up nationwide.

One deeply rural place I visited recently was the Co Tipperary village of Loughmore, where co-operative ideas of self-help have taken root again. Once, such ideas found expression in the farmer-owned village creamery, but I sampled steaming coffee and melt-in-the-mouth scones within a thriving restaurant that operates under the co-operative principles of the Plunkett Foundation. Such enterprises must be owned by local people, operated on a not-for-profit basis, and aimed at meeting the social and economic needs of a community. And every shareholder has an equal voice in decision-making, irrespective of the amount invested.

The Cottage restaurant, Loughmore. Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22.
The Cottage restaurant, Loughmore. Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22.

Meeting these criteria seems a tall order, but Mary Fogarty, one of the founders of The Cottage restaurant, explained how the business has been transformative for the local community. "A decade ago, all seven businesses in the village had closed, with the result that you couldn't even buy milk or a cup of coffee. Maeve O’Hair and I then had the idea of starting a café and shop to serve the local community," Ms Fogarty said. "Our initial finance came from 300 shareholders in the community, who invested seed capital for the project. This was then supplemented by grant aid from North Tipperary Development Company and Tipperary County Council." 

"The Cottage, which opened in 2012, has completely transformed the place and brought life, joy, and hope to the village. Visitors are coming long distances to sample what we have to offer, as the village now has something to attract them. They are very happy with the idea of local people giving back to their community and the fact that we are people-driven rather than profit-driven. 

"Another benefit is that 18 young couples, who have recently returned to live in the area, can use the Cottage as a social hub and getting to know your place.” 

And what about staffing The Cottage in a time of labour shortages? 

"Fortunately, this hasn’t been a problem," Ms Fogarty said. "When we first opened, it was all volunteers, but then it became so busy we had to employ staff. The result is we have now created four full-time and 12 part-time jobs. There is also a panel of 20 volunteers, who are happy to give their services free of charge, when required. Sourcing fresh produce from  nine food producers in the area is another way we keep spending within the community.” 

There is a belief that co-operatives are difficult to manage because they tend to be over-democratic and undercapitalised.  "We don’t have that problem in Loughmore," Ms Fogarty said.  "Day-to-day management decisions are made by those working in the restaurant. We report to the management committee once every six to eight weeks. Any surplus we generate on trading is returned for use in the community at the end of our financial year."  This model can work in other areas of Ireland.

"There is huge scope," Ms Fogarty said. "We have helped 18 other community enterprises to open in Sligo, Waterford, Cork, Clare, Kilkenny, and Tipperary. The idea of self-help, co-operatives, and community consciousness is spreading all over the country. In our case, we have a great connection with the local primary school. There is an autistic unit where they send the kids down to us with a euro, so they can order sweets, pay for them, and get their change. They also have a green garden and we go up once a year and show them how to make soup." 

Loughmore has spawned a raft of imitations nationwide. My next stop was the South Kilkenny village of Windgap. Universally referred to as Wine Gap, it is tucked beneath rolling hills in deepest rural Ireland. My initial impression was of a place where local people had invested abundant elbow grease. An artificial lake had been created as a village focal point, which teemed with noisy wildfowl.

Like many villages, Windgap has gone into sharp decline. To reverse this decay, the villagers opened their new community centre in 2019. In contrast to Loughmore, where a building was repurposed, the Windgap project is housed in a new complex financed by  €170,000 of local fundraising and voluntary labour and €340,000 of grant aid. Manned by volunteers, it contains tearooms, a community grocery shop, and a sports hall.

The day I visited, it was so busy I was lucky to lay claim to the last table. Beside me, a group of older men were talking hurling, as you might expect in the land of the Cats, while also enjoying a substantial lunch — or would it be dinner, in the middle of the day? Outside, children from the primary school were queueing to use the sports hall, while a steady stream of customers arrived for groceries to the community shop.

Michelle O’Brien, of Windgap Community Development, described how, 20 years ago, the village had four shops, two pubs, and a post office. "One by one, these businesses disappeared, until none remained," Ms O'Brien said. "This was the reason we decided to take action. We visited Loughmore, and other communities, to try and understand what they were doing and this gave us the idea for a service centre in the village.

"We are a not-for-profit business, with anything we earn used to service the debt or re-invest in the project. Three of the staff are paid; aside from this, everything is done by voluntary labour. The centre is now the hub for village life. We get great support from the local people and it is now impossible to imagine the village without the community centre," she said.

The North Tipperary community of Cloughjordan has a café modelled on The Cottage, Loughmore. This village, with its spacious main street, must rely on its own resources for survival, since there is little passing traffic. The area has, however, a strong tradition of co-operative development: Ireland's only eco-village, which pioneers sustainable living, was established there in 1999.

Cloughjordan was described by poet and revolutionary Thomas McDonagh — who was born there — as a place "in calm of middle country, but this doesn’t create much income". So, the community borrowed this compelling moniker as the name for its signature restaurant and craft shop on the main street, and based on co-operative principles.

The Middle Country Cafe & Crafts, Cloughjordan.   Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22.
The Middle Country Cafe & Crafts, Cloughjordan.   Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22.

It is a Wednesday morning, yet Middle Country Café and Crafts is a hive of activity. Chef Mary O’Neil says that much of their fresh vegetables and bread are supplied by the Cloughjordan Community Farm and Riot Rye bakery, both located in the eco village. 

"We are a community co-operative with about 200 members and we try to source our supplies locally as far as possible," Ms O'Neil says. "We open five days a week, with a mixture of paid and volunteer labour; it is important the co-operative creates some jobs. The café was set up because there was a need in the town for a social hub, particularly for women who were less likely to frequent pubs. The main challenges facing the café are financial.

"We try to keep our prices low to facilitate locals, and because there is such a need for the service we provide, but costs are now rising so rapidly we may be forced to put our prices up." 

Not all community enterprises are built around food. One of Ireland's most unusual entertainment venues is rocking with visitors this summer. Headline acts, this year, include; Hudson Taylor, Aslan, Mike Denver, Villagers, and Gavin James. The secret is that Ballykeeffe Amphitheatre chimes with the times as one of Ireland's few dedicated outdoor venues. A disadvantage during the wet summers about a decade ago, this has, in the pandemic era, become the open-air theatre's selling point.

Beloved for its acoustics, the venue, which seats 850, is near the Tipperary/Kilkenny border. It was discovered when members of Tyndal Mountaineering club were searching for a venue for rock-climbing. They uncovered Ballykeeffe Quarry, which had been abandoned by Kilkenny County Council. It had morphed into a dump for old cars, rotting furniture, and household waste, while becoming a winter storage place for sugar beet.

Over time, climbers from other parts of Ireland began coming to Ballykeeffe, attracted by the challenge of the smooth, carboniferous limestone. With the venue now increasingly utilised, members of the surrounding community realised its potential. KBK Enterprise, a local development group, decided to turn Ballykeeffe into an entertainment venue by taking advantage of the spectacular setting, as had been done with the famous Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

In an unlikely reincarnation, the rubbish, furniture, and car carcases were removed, and the once decrepit quarry was transformed, mainly by volunteers, into an outdoor auditorium. Rebranded Ballykeeffe Amphitheatre, the quarry became a multi-purpose resource offering walks in the attached nature reserve, while rock-climbing now co-existed with a summer programme of theatrical presentations and concerts.

Matt O'Sullivan, chairman of KBK Enterprise, was a driving force behind the venture and says he is proud that a sophisticated operation is delivered by volunteer effort. 

"Initially, we found some acts were sceptical about playing Ballykeeffe, but now there is no difficulty; those who have performed here sell it for us, with many acts wishing to return again and again," Mr O'Sullivan said. "The summer at Ballykeeffe now creates a great buzz in the local area and people travel from all over Ireland for the concerts.

“We are a not-for-profit organisation, so nobody in the community gets paid a cent for providing top professional entertainment on almost every weekend throughout the summer."  

"It is entirely done by local community effort and we generally have about 30 volunteers working at each event. All monies generated are either used to pay off loans or are reinvested in the venue." Mr O'Sullivan is delighted that tickets have been selling well this year. 

"We are thrilled with the response so far. Some of our concerts have already sold out and the others are all selling very well. I think people were just waiting to get out and have fun at a gig." 

These community enterprises show that even the remotest areas in rural Ireland can be revitalised, and that the concept of self-help is now being applied successfully in many communities. There is a pool of volunteers in rural Ireland that can be mobilised to support the community. 

This creates a golden opportunity for the co-operative principles that transformed rural Ireland more than a century ago to be reapplied as a driver for community-enhancing services. Gazing upon the fruits of such local self-help in many remoter parts of the country, I found it easy to believe that rumours of rural Ireland’s decline had been greatly exaggerated.

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