FERGUS FINLAY: West Cork initiative could see rural Ireland bloom like its hedgerows

Mary Mitchell O'Connor TD officially opening a 1 Gigabit (1,000 Mbps) digital hub in Skibbereen. Picture: John Allen

There are signs now though that rural Ireland has lots of fight in it yet, writes Fergus Finlay.

MY SISTER Finola, a devoted resident of West Cork, seems to me to know the name of every plant in every hedgerow for miles around. If she’s baffled for any reason, my missus can usually make an educated guess. And if they’re both stumped, Finola’s husband Robert can usually fill in the blank. Or will pull a weighty tome on botany down from his book shelves.

Me, I’m a complete ignoramus. I know what fuschia looks like, but there it stops. So I’ve been learning all about montbretia, meadowsweet, dog roses and dog violets, hogweed, and ragwort. I’ve seen rose hips the size of tomatoes, and wild roses of all colours. The honeysuckle is gorgeous, and in a month or so, West Cork, from the look of things, is going to be drowning in blackberries.

Actually, I didn’t need to ask Finola and Robert — I could have read it in their blog, which they write not just about wild flowers but about all aspects of the life of west Cork. You’ll find it yourself if you google Roaring Water journal, and you might even end up as educated about the hedgerows as I am (although I’ll never remember all this new stuff I’ve learned).

But I needed to know because I’ve simply forgotten how stunningly beautiful the hedgerows of west Cork are. I’ve driven all over Ireland, in a few European countries, and even in the States. There are parts of America where the roadside is majestic, like a carpet of colour (although there are many other roads that are bleak and depressing). If you drive around the south of England, the roadside is beautiful and clean. It’s actually endlessly, unremittingly, clean — hedges all the same size and colour. All spotless, but after a while all utterly bland.

It’s not like that in west Cork. Drive the road from Skibbereen to Ballydehob, and keep your eyes wide open as you go. It’s a kaleidoscope, an adventure in colour. Sure, it’s unruly and sometimes unkempt, but it’s magical. When you do the journey you feel like going back immediately and doing it again.

Skibbereen
Skibbereen

I don’t know if it’s that wild untamed beauty alone that’s bringing the people back, but they’re back. A year or so ago I wrote here about what seemed like the death of west Cork — as a sort of microcosm of rural Ireland. But right now rural Ireland, if west Cork is anything to go by, seems a bit overcrowded.

There were traffic jams on Sunday in Glandore and Union Hall. You couldn’t find anywhere to park in Rosscarbery. Even in tiny isolated Gougane Barra on Saturday night there was a queue for the theatre (a brilliant production of The Big Fellow — about Michael Collins of course), and the interval lasted twice as long as normal so everyone could get a drink.

At the heart of it all, right now, is Skibbereen. The Skibbereen Arts Festival has been on, and it seems that every available inch of otherwise unoccupied space has been taken over for an art installation or exhibition.

I guess they’re not all equally good, but to my uneducated eye they created an amazing buzz in the town. On Saturday mornings the buzz is accentuated by the Skibbereen market, as eclectic a place as I’ve ever seen. From cheese to chocolate, from giant courgettes to organic food of all kinds, you leave with a contented smile (and an empty wallet).

But no region, can keep going on the basis of a festival. The hard graft of jobs and commerce, manufacturing products and delivering services people need, seemed to be beyond a rural economy that was dying on its feet. There are signs now though that rural Ireland has lots of fight in it yet.

Take the Ludgate centre, for example. It’s in the heart of Skibbereen town, and it officially opened its doors last week as a gigabit centre — offering broadband facilities that are three times more powerful than anything you can get in Dublin. It advertises 24/7 access, Google hangout pods, co-working, hot desking, meeting pods — all sorts of stuff that flies way over my head.

But what it means is that one part of rural Ireland at least is determined to catch up. And there seems no reason whatever why similar technologies can’t be available in communities throughout the country.

You might, like me, be old enough to remember the time when Mary O’Rourke was Minister for Communications, and never made a speech without referring to Ireland as the “e-commerce hub” of Europe or the world (or maybe the galaxy, for all I know). We never became the e-commerce hub of anything, because we decided to privatise the infrastructure, and we allowed it to be used as a plaything for profiteers.

So we’ve all had to catch up. Sure, the world giants of e-commerce came to Dublin, but as the recession deepened, there never seemed to be any prospect that they’d go anywhere else.

In fact when I was in Skibbereen last year — and it’s still the case in too many parts of rural Ireland — I couldn’t make a mobile phone call, let alone pretend to have anything to offer to the e-commerce world.

In this case public policy is still way behind the spirit and determination of a community. I’d love to see a dozen Ludgate centres throughout the country. They may be the modern equivalent of the old IDA advance factory. Those factories were built sometimes on the premise that “if you build it they will come”, and it often transpired that having the infrastructure for jobs encouraged the jobs to arrive.

In Skibbereen, it seems to me, the perfect mix may be emerging. There is boundless creativity in the area, an endless mix of ancient and modern crafts. When that is added to the trading and marketing capacity that some of the fastest broadband in the world can offer, the sky could be the limit.

At least I hope so. The possibilities of technology are beginning to attract people back, and new people in, to make their homes and livings there. In turn that will (I hope) lead to some of the other businesses coming back that seemed to disappear completely in the bad times.

Especially the small businesses — the hairdressers, the chemist shops, the grocery stores, the bakeries.

Small towns that lost all those seemed to lose a sort of essence, and it makes your heart feel good to see them beginning to come back.

OF COURSE, the uncertainties in the world around us — Brexit, the American election, political and economic uncertainty throughout Europe — have a bearing on all this. It would be entirely fatuous to pretend that Ireland, and especially rural Ireland, can ignore global realities and live in a world of its own.

But right now a heady mix is coming together. Unsurpassed natural beauty, allied with immense native creativity and talent, coupled with a commitment to the leading edges of technology and a welcome for the rest of the world — that’s West Cork right now.

There’s no part of rural Ireland than can’t boast similar assets. The fightback, you might say, is well and truly on.

There are signs now though that rural Ireland has lots of fight in it yet

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