Rural areas to reach out to neighbours abroad
Macra na Feirme’s Know Your Neighbour weekend will focus this year on those who have emigrated
Kieran O’Dowd, Macra na Feirme national president
Ireland has had a long tradition of exporting its young people to other countries. Most of the time this has been due to economic necessity and the dream of making a fresh start in a new land where talent and hard work would be rewarded.
In the very early part of this decade we, as a nation, saw that people from across the globe were coming to Ireland to work. We were experiencing unprecedented prosperity and economic growth. Many parts of Ireland, particularly rural communities, didn’t see income levels rise to any great extent during this period, but they did see significant development of recreational and social infrastructure, as well as the road network, which undoubtedly had a profound effect on the lives of the people living there.
I returned to live in Gurteen, a small rural south Sligo village, from Dublin in 2003 to find it undergoing massive change. The pubs and shops were busy with people working locally in the construction industry. People who had left in the 1980s and 1990s had returned home married with children. We also had a thriving immigrant community, who had settled in well and become part of the community.
Our local soccer team, Gurteen Celtic, was able to boast enough numbers to start a second team and take part in the Sligo and Leitirm District Soccer League. Things were good and the village was buzzing. We had two pubs doing food and a new hotel was built and opened in 2004. It made me feel all the more content to return to my local community and settle down there.
Some people still emigrated, but by choice. They knew they could walk into a job on a reasonably good salary when they returned, so they could travel and explore the world without any worries about afterwards.
Around this time I got involved in my local Macra na Feirme club, Ballymote Macra, which itself was a casualty of the good times in that its members were moving to Dublin and other urban centres for work. The ones who remained didn’t have much time to get involved in Macra activities.
I since joined another club, South Sligo Macra. Over the last few years, this club has seen members emigrate to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and of course our near neighbour Britain. Many went to work on farms in their adopted countries, leaving fewer young farmers living in the local community who will take on the farm at home and contribute to the local economy.
An extensive survey of emigration by University College Cork last year found rural areas were disproportionately affected, with one in four households losing a member to emigration. This compares to less than 11 per cent of househods in commuter belt areas.
Farmers are, and always have been, the bedrock of our nation. The agri food sector – from production to processing to the use of innovative and new technologies in all links of the production chain – has provided significant employment both directly and indirectly, and this has helped maintain economic activity in rural areas. Ireland cannot develop further as a nation and truly recover from the horrendous economic nightmare it has experienced in recent years without the Government realising there is a lot of work to be done to help and promote the rural economy.
It is great to see our capital city developing and experiencing resurgence, but this cannot be at the expense of the rest of Ireland. If the cost of living continuously rises in Dublin then it will become expensive and uncompetitive in the longer term to do business there and things may regress again. The Government has spoken about a spatial strategy looking after the rest of Ireland, but this needs to be done as a priority, as decisions taken today may haunt us for many years to come and we don’t want to look back and think what might have been.
The impact of emigration on Macra clubs has been very visible – entire groups of officers including chairpersons, secretaries, PROs and treasurers have left, leaving a significant knowledge gap and impacting negatively on progress. This impact is replicated within local communities where innovation and new business initiatives are stunted when young people with drive and ambition leave. Opportunities must be available to young people to stay in their own communities if they want to. The Government must prioritise training and education for young people and provide supports for local business development and growth.
Macra’s annual Know Your Neighbour Weekend aims to bring communities together to build relationships and have some fun. This year it takes place on July 12th and 13th and the theme is “Neighbours – Near and Far” in recognition of our many neighbours living abroad. Groups and individuals across Ireland will come together and hold events with their neighbours – from a coffee morning to a family fun day in the park – and we are asking them to try and include their neighbours living abroad.
With technology, these neighbours are nearer than ever – why not Skype your neighbours at the event and give everyone a chance to say hello? Another option would be to send them a postcard signed by all their neighbours so they know they’re still part of the gang at home.
I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you to organise a Know Your Neighbour Weekend event or go along to one locally, and get to know your neighbours near and far.