In day four of our special report on rural Ireland we visit Ballydehob, Co. Cork.
It’s a little known fact that in modern Ireland’s darkest hour, IMF representatives made their way to the village of Ballydehob.
There, in a wood-panelled office in the village outskirts at the height of our most recent recession, the IMF picked the brains of petrogeologist Colin Campbell, a visionary proponent of the Peak Oil theory that global oil production has entered its end stage.
In his retirement, Campbell chose as his home a village where he’s within walking distance of all the basic necessities. And it was to this village the IMF came to make use of his energy expertise.
Back in the 1950s in rugged Connemara, the Oxford-educated Campbell’s first graduate assignment was to map the hills and valleys of pre-electrified Ireland.
The 12 arch bridge in Ballydehob was the setting last year for a headline-grabbing performance by West Cork Inclusive Dance. Picture: Emma Jervis Photography
“They had no running water, no electricity, a couple of cows and a few chickens and they cooked on an open turf fire. They enjoyed it as far as I could judge. They smiled a lot, they were happy people,” he said.
After his stint mapping the west of Ireland, Campbell embarked on an illustrious career in the oil industry that took him to far-flung destinations in search of new supplies. From Borneo and the West Indies, to New Guinea, Colombia, and Ecuador, Campbell worked for some of the biggest oil companies of the 20th century, including BP and Texaco. He met and married his wife Bobbins along the way and the pair eventually returned to rural Ireland to retire in Ballydehob.
There, Campbell established the Petroleum Analysis Centre and co-founded a quarterly journal with global significance printed by Inspire in Skibbereen, titled The Oil Age.
“Ireland gave me my first vision of living without oil and gas. Fifty years later I see the significance of that. Those were golden days,” he said.
Rural Ireland has seen plenty of changes since Campbell’s “golden days.” Now, his adopted village is undergoing a “reawakening” having taken a battering during the recession, according to postmistress Bridie Roycroft.
“It was a thriving village 35 years ago, there was lots of shops and loads of pubs, you could hardly park in the town,” she said.
Ballydehob is situated along Roaring Water Bay on the N71 between Skibbereen and Schull.
Traditionally, it has been a “pass-through place”, according to Bridie.
“But it’s waking up again now. We have a wonderful bar in Levis’s and a new cafe/ restaurant and a fabulous Thai place the likes of it you wouldn’t get it anywhere else in the country,” she said.
West Cork is home to more artists per capita than both Paris and London, Sam Thorne, artistic director of the Tate St Ives gallery in Cornwall said at the opening of the West Cork Arts Centre’s inaugural exhibit earlier this year.
Ballydehob is home to a disproportionate number of creative minds, not to mention international open water swimming champion Steve Redmond and down the road, one of west Cork’s best loved “blow-ins”, Jeremy Irons.
In a parish with a less than 1,000 people, there’s an open-minded positivity at work, something that can be difficult to cultivate amid parochial politics.
Joe O’Leary, frontman of Cork band Fred, can now be found behind the bar (and sometimes the shop counter) at the famous Ballydehob landmark pub that is Levis’ bar. Run by sisters Nell and Julia for many decades, the bar is over 100 years old. And while Joe hasn’t touched the treasured old-world interior, he and his partner Caroline have certainly had a hand in turning the village’s fortunes.
“The amount of creative people here is incredible and you can feel that, you get a real mix of people into the bar, lots of self employed people or with a trade or creating in some way,” he said.
Levis’ relaxed gig nights and impromptu sessions are drawing the young people back to Ballydehob. It’s a significant feat in a country of rural villages largely abandoned by younger natives seeking employment in bigger cities and abroad.
Joe’s decision to relocate to Ballydehob is a reversal of the norm. “I was kind of finished living in the city. I wanted the fresh air and countryside. I grew up in the countryside so it tends to keep calling you back. There’s a real community spirit here and that’s what I liked about living in Cork [city]. Nobody’s really anonymous in Cork and here is a microcosm of that.”
Across the road at Budd’s restaurant, holidaymakers heading to Schull have been given good reason to stop. Bedecked in the luminous colours synonymous with West Cork, the cafe/ restaurant opened in March and has proved a major hit with those ambling along the Wild Atlantic Way.
“So many tourists pass through here on the way to Schull — a magnet for tourists — or Mizen Head, but Ballydehob was always a little more low-key. It’s got a beauty two it, a real charm. We wanted to create a look that was inviting to passing trade, so we painted the building and put bright coloured furniture outside. It’s the first thing you see when you come into the village,” co-owner Jamie Budd explained.
“Ballydehob was struggling for the last few years like most other villages in Ireland. It was quite a few years since a new business opened and a hell of a lot had closed. There were a lot of empty premises in the village and there is still a few, so anything that was bringing new life was welcomed with open arms. We’ve had amazing feedback from locals. Ballydehob is back on the map again, there’s a really good buzz about the place,” he said.
With 14 staff, the business is “off to a flying start” according to Jamie, who is proud to be able to provide local employment.
The newly-revamped Tidy Towns committee is keeping the village immaculate and no doubt helping to tempt to investors. Local property agent Martin Swanton said buyers intending to retire to the village are snapping up property while sterling remains strong.
“Around 50% of the people buying are from the UK and the rest are Irish. Everyone that wants to buy around Ballydehob has been here before, they like the village. The community spirit is fierce important and I think it’s the mix of people that gives an additional attraction,” he said.
Bidding on a former butcher shop that closed 30 years ago is brisk, while entrepreneurs are eyeing a number of premises along the main street.
Home to far more than its fair share of inspired festivals, Ballydehob made headlines last year with a groundbreaking dance performance on the 12 arch bridge by West Cork Inclusive Dance, where people with and without disabilities shared the stage.
But no matter who you are or where you’re from, Bridie in the post office will have marked your card quicker than you can lick a stamp.
“I know everybody by name, I know their background, history and everything that goes with that. We’ve been writing letters, paying bills, sorting people out for years.
“Recently when a local customer’s partner died we helped sort out all the bills and paperwork, we provide that service free of charge, you won’t get that kind of service anywhere else.”
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