FERGUS FINLAY: Villages and towns outside of the Pale will die without urgent action

Main Street Ballydehob

DO you know Ballydehob? It’s a beautiful village, way down in the south west of our country.

Roaringwater Bay is around the corner; there’s archaeology and history all over the place; the actor Jeremy Irons has restored a beautiful castle nearby. The people are warm and welcoming, and totally committed to their community.

And it’s dying. Picture this for a moment. Last Friday night, at 9.30. Three pubs were open in the town. In one of them a traditional Irish seisiún was getting under way. Apart from the five or six local musicians who gather every Friday night to share their tunes, there were maybe ten customers. They rotate the seisiún around the pubs on a Friday night to try to attract a bit of business. Up near the top of the main street a small pizzeria was doing a modest business — maybe eight diners. Two teenagers walked slowly up the street.

And that was it. Nothing else was open, at half past nine on a Friday night. And nothing much could be open, by day or by night. There’s no supermarket in the town now (the one petrol station has some basic groceries, and it closes at eight). There’s no butcher, no greengrocer, no pharmacy, no bank. Restaurants which were once part of the pride of West Cork, with legendary reputations, have all shut.

Everything is gone. The community is trying to raise money to buy the AIB building to turn it into a community amenity. But the community itself is dwindling. Young people can’t wait to emigrate, even though they are broken-hearted doing it.

I love Ballydehob. I love its people and its character and its charm. And nothing has made me feel bleaker and sadder in years than to see it facing this desperate struggle for its very existence.

Over the weekend, I saw Baltimore, Glandore, Union Hall, Schull, Castletownshend. All the same. Shops closed. Streets dark. Communities struggling for hope and a future.

And I’ve seen it all over Ireland — right up the west coast into the north west, right up through the midlands. I drive a lot up and down to Cork, and often I leave the motorway on the way home and drive up the old Cork-Dublin road, just for relief from the boring monotony of motorway driving.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped for petrol in one of those little towns on that road — it might have been Urlingford, or maybe Abbeyleix. When I was paying for my petrol I remarked to the woman behind the counter that it had been more than a year since I had stopped in the village. “Aren’t you lucky,” she said. “Some of us have to live here.” The thing about this is, I remember all those places from before. Not just from the years of the Celtic Tiger, when all the estates and hotels were built — that are now all barricaded and empty, and in some cases ugly and derelict. But from the 70s and 80s and 90s.

Times were tough then too, but there was a sense of hope and community. People were proud of their own place, and proud to raise their families there. Now they’re increasingly resigned to saying goodbye to their families, one by one.

Why is it worse now than it was in the really tough years of the 1980s, when emigration was just as high? Why does it feel so much as if these communities are having to live through the economic outlook of the 1950s all over again?

I’m guessing one of the reasons is disparity. I live in the suburbs of Dublin. We shop around for the best broadband packages — whole swathes of West Cork and the west of Ireland don’t even have mobile phone coverage (and that’s astonishing in this day and age). We see property prices beginning to rise again — in the places I visited over the weekend there seems no possibility of the ghost estates ever fulfilling a useful function. Even the awful weather of the past couple of months has been kinder to us in the east, by comparison with the terrible battering the west coast has had, setting them back even further.

There’s a commission looking into all this — CEDRA, it’s called, or the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas. Pat Spillane is its chairman and it has a number of members who are all working on a voluntary basis. Looking at its website, it seems clear that up to the middle of last year it held a number of public meetings, and gathered and presented a lot of evidence about what was happening in different parts of rural Ireland. In all the presentations, the picture is the same — declining unemployment, significant barriers to job creation, communities struggling to survive.

The commission seems to have gone quiet since its period of public meetings ended, perhaps because they are concentrating on preparing their report. They have a difficult brief. They’re supposed to recommend a strategy to ensure that rural areas, to the maximum extent will, contribute to and benefit from economic recovery, and to inform Government priorities in implementing future actions.

Mind you, they were constrained right from the start by one of their terms of reference, which also requires them to “be cognisant of pressures on the public finances in making recommendations”.

I’d certainly wish CEDRA well, and hope that they will be listened to when they do issue their report. But what’s intriguing, and infuriating, about all this is a different point.

IT IS possible to stir up community action about issues. The current debate about pylons is a case in point — it is one area where local action has certainly stimulated government responses (and they’re the right government responses in my view). The rebirth of rural Ireland depends on decent infrastructure, and decent infrastructure is more likely to happen with community support than in the teeth of community opposition.

But where is the community anger about the death of communities? How are banks, for instance, allowed to walk away from towns and then offer their property for sale to the local community? Why isn’t it some kind of condition of our support for them that they are forced to leave a community gain behind? As we slowly emerge from recession, we have to recognise that a two-speed Ireland is in no-one’s interest. Ballydehob, Castlerea, and Urlingford are every bit as crucial to our national development as Sandymount or Glasthule. The last thing Ireland needs is a return to the days when it is possible to look forward to a brighter future inside the Pale, and another generation of hopelessness if you live in rural Ireland.

Forty-five years ago, journalist John Healy published a book called No-one shouted stop about the death of his home town in County Mayo. It caused a major rethink of public policy at the time, and led to a fresh emphasis on regional development.

It’s time, surely, for such a rethink again. Only this time, unless someone shouts stop, it’s not a town or two that will die, but a great deal of our history and character as a country.


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