Damien Enright: Community spirit can ensure we pull through - together

Last week, I wrote about "small is beautiful" as a key to an improved environment for all living things after this Covid crisis is finally over. As I wrote, I saw, in the mind's eye, the village where I live in west Cork and from which my wife and I are temporarily exiled.
Damien Enright: Community spirit can ensure we pull through - together

Last week, I wrote about "small is beautiful" as a key to an improved environment for all living things after this Covid crisis is finally over. As I wrote, I saw, in the mind's eye, the village where I live in west Cork and from which my wife and I are temporarily exiled.

There, was the main and only street, straight and a kilometre long, houses on one side and the broad expanse of Courtmacsherry bay on the other. Driving, cycling or walking down the village from the outside world – Timoleague at the head of the bay, with its ancient abbey, and roads connecting to sizeable towns – Courtmac seems a 'sleepy' place, or so would writers of rural idylls describe it.

At weekends, the pubs do business, and the hotel. On weekdays, the two hubs of activity are the pier, on the left, and not far beyond it the village shop on the right. You may not meet a soul at either but if you do, you will be greeted with a smile.

Some years ago, Gill & Macmillan published two books I wrote about the bay and bay shore. I called the first A Place Near Heaven, for so it was, and still is. I called the second The Kindness of Place for it is, indeed, a kind place, kind to my family and me since we moved there 25 years ago.

Once, the community had boat builders, a railway station, a music hall, cinema, petrol station, garage, and a dozen other businesses. The last remaining shop closed in 2015, understandably too much work for the owner to run, singlehanded, six and a half days a week, week in, week out, all year.

Afterwards, to buy a loaf of bread or pint of milk demanded a return journey of 10km, alright for those with a car but a stretch for those having to walk, cycle or hitchhike the rare passing vehicle: there is no Luas in Courtmacsherry.

Soon, the loss of the shop was sorely felt, and the idea of a community effort to replace it was mooted in the pubs, the church and wherever locals met. A survey revealed that 96% of the 600 residents living within 2km were all for the idea. 34% of households volunteered administration skills and/or time behind the counter.

Also, they said what they'd like it to stock and what opening hours should be, vital information for success.

Enthusiasm burgeoned. The shop should not only operate as a convenience store but double as a second-hand book shop and tourist information centre.

It should display local history, the story of Patrick Keohane, the Courtmacsherry man who went with Scott to the Antarctic, the story of the Courtmacsherry lifeboat that rowed nine miles to reach the stricken liner Lusitania sinking off the Old Head of Kinsale.

Also, the magnificent walks of the Seven Heads and the cultural activities of the Historical Society and the Butlerstown Heritage Group all should be displayed. Like every corner of west Cork, Courtmacsherry is replete with treasures to be proud of.

The Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) was consulted. It suggested that the best way forward would be to set up a cooperative 100% community owned. Co-op status was granted in early Jan 2016.

A committee ('committee' deserves an impressive three syllables – 'cumm-it-ee' – in west Cork) was formed and the project was on its way!

Now, the money, premises to be leased and shelves to be stocked. It was do-it-yourself financing:

there were no grants or handouts. Shares in blocks of €50 went on sale. The response was staggering.

In four weeks there was sufficient funding to rent a building, fit it out with second-hand shop equipment and purchase the initial stock.

Now, much of the stock is local, fruit and veg from farms or gardens, bakery from artisan bakers, jams and chutneys home-made, art and craft generic, produced in the community. No wonder the 300 shareholders include ex-pats and strangers from USA and Australia proud to be part of an Irish community such as this.

Volunteers are at the hub of social life, conduits of local news, the life and soul of the shop. They come in all shapes and ages, retirees with time on their hands, younger people on holiday from school or university. Oldies having to 'cocoon' at home during the corvid crisis were replaced by youths.

Customers arrive with a story or two to tell, and leave with a new story to bring home. Open 9am to 6pm, 7 days a week, a venue for a coffee and a chat, an ice-cream from the challenging ice-cream machine or a browse through the extensive library, it is a life-support for the local people, a celebration of what 'community' truly means.

Information received with thanks from Dara Gannon.

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