Urbanisation is one of the great, surging tides of the age. Sixty years ago 30% of people lived in towns or cities.
By 2008 that had reached 50%. Already more people live in towns or cites than in the countryside and that figure is expected to reach 60% by 2030.
This trend has inevitable consequences for the quality of life available outside of urban centres. Unless this change is managed properly it will have a negative impact on the fabric, viability and depth of local, parish-sized societies. Failure to prepare for the inevitable depopulation will have a snowball effect and sharpen the sense of isolation and abandonment some communities already feel.
Though we still have one of Europe’s highest ratios of post offices to population many have closed. Cattle marts have almost been replaced by overly dominant meat factories. Local dairies have been replaced by milk lorries, often unseen because they visit farms at night so a whole production process has been de-socialised.
Rural schools are closing or being amalgamated. The closure or reshaping of local health and hospital services adds to a growing sense of down-grading. The programme to close or cut services at rural Garda stations adds to that sense of being marginalised. Isolated families and communities now have a new apprehension about crime. Their remoteness from support once imagined reliable and permanent is very real. So too is the prospect of a reduction in public transport options made inevitable by declining populations. This sense of gloom is not helped by a policy of almost blanket planting of coniferous forests which have made whole swathes of our countryside dark, depressing monocultures where nothing other than sitka spruce trees grow.
Changing attitudes to drink have made thousands of rural pubs insolvent and their closure has greatly diminished many communities.
Now banks are to withdraw from towns and areas that are not commercially attractive. Though some services will be provided by post offices — if there is one in the area — or mobile banks the loss of a bank is a significant blow to a town, especially if there is only one in the area. State-controlled AIB is to close of 67 of 267 branches to try to cut costs by almost a fifth, or €350m within two years. Another state-controlled bank Permanent TSB bank is to close 16 branches.
All of these closures combine to have a devastating impact on communities in the firing line yet there is a very real feeling that their concerns are dismissed as sentimentality or nostalgia for another Ireland in another time. This is especially so as rural communities are regularly told that they can find nearly all of these services online as if a virtual existence can replace being a member of a real breathing, proactive community. And most gallingly those who make these suggestions have no experience of trying to do business on what passes for a broadband service in rural Ireland.
This change is inevitable but we must do much more to make it a social, commercial and cultural success. Anything less would be a betrayal of our heritage.
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