‘Everyone has someone gone, and everyone knows someone who has gone’
Donegal has been seriously affected by emigration in recent years but some locals expect ‘a huge return’ in the years to come
Raphoe village in Co Donegal . Photograph: Alan Betson
Donegal has been seriously affected by emigration in recent years, but some locals expect “a huge return” in the years to come, writes Rosita Boland
The population figures for Co Donegal over the last three censuses show a steady increase. In 2002, the county population was 137,575. In 2006, it was 147,264 and by the last census, in 2011, it had risen to 161,137.
On paper, it looks as if the county's population is thriving. But if you drive round south-west Donegal and stop to talk to people along the way, it's clear that in some areas at least, communities are now shrinking through emigration.
At Keeney's Bar in Glenties, owner Conal Keeney says in this village alone, 50 people have emigrated in the last two years. His own daughter is in Melbourne, and at the time of her departure, she was counted locally as "the 34th person to leave."
Keeney spent 20 years in England, returning to Glenties in 2000, when he bought the bar. This month, he is returning to England to seek work there again. "When I bought this bar first, the turnover was €6,000 a week. Now it's €2,000," he says. "There are 12 bars in this town, but only one of them is now open during the day."
There are two local customers in the bar. One is Adrian Brannigan, who recently returned from Australia to take up a job at the local fire station. When Donegal won the All Ireland last September, he watched the game in a bar in Perth. "There were twenty other people in the bar from Glenties, not to mention the people from all the other parts of Donegal," he recalls wryly.
Sitting beside him is Poggy O'Donnell, who has been out of a job for two years. He used to work as a barman in this pub. He worked as a volunteer, helping to organise Glenties' St Patrick's Day attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records by having the most people dressed as leprechauns in one place. (More than 600 leprechauns marched yesterday through the main street of Glenties but the bid to break the record fell more than 600 short of the 1,263 set by Bandon).
"Business-wise, it was the biggest day of the year in the town last year," O'Donnell explains. "Anything happening here is voluntary. Only for the GAA, the place would have nothing."
"There's no employment here," Keeney says, "and the youth of the parish areall gone, or going. The majority is in Australia, and some are in Canada. "
Until January, Glenties had a nightclub named the Limelight, which attracted between 1,000 and 2,000 at weekends. It is now closed, and for sale. A fortnight ago, the takeaway opposite the nightclub also closed. "If you take 50 young people out of Glenties, and 50 out of Ardara, and 50 from Lettermacward, it all starts adding up," Keeney explains. "There weren't enough people coming from the locality to keep the nightclub going."