The battle for rural Ireland
Richard Curran’s documentary was a reminder that simply shouting stop is not going to change anything about rural Ireland’s decline
Richard Curran isn’t the first and sadly won’t be the last to run the rule over the demise of rural Ireland, as he did on the The Battle for Rural Ireland documentary on RTE One last night. It’s usually around this point that there’s mention of John Healy’s No One Shouted Stop: Death of an Irish Town, a book published in 1968 about the decline of his native Charlestown in Co Mayo. Every single week, you get more stories about changes which are chipping away at the viability of the parts of this country beyond the urban centres – rural public transport is currently in the frame as Bus Eireann plan to cut back on their services. We know rural Ireland is in decline – and has been for some time – but it’s clear that we don’t know what to do about it.
The initial focus for Curran’s programme was his own situation. After a few decades living and working in Dublin, the Carrickmacross native and his family upped sticks and moved to Donegal. It’s probably one thing to read about and hear about the decline in rural Ireland, but it’s definitely another thing to actually experience what is happening beyond the cities and towns (indedd, many bigger towns around the country are not immune from the impact of decline). As Curran began to wonder about the future for his children – if they would have to move away from where they’d grown up to get jobs and careers – his focus shifted to what was going on in other rural parts of the country.
There were no new findings on the show simply because there are no new findings to be had. We’ve done this kind of forensic examination so much that the reasons for rural Ireland’s decline are well chronicled by now: a lack of jobs, a lopsided focus on Dublin as an economic growth generator and the slow, steady movement of people from rural towns and villages to the capital and abroad in search of employment opportunities. If you’ve grown up in rural Ireland, you’ll recognise this situation because it’s the same situation which your grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and older brothers and sisters have faced over the decades. Rural Ireland has always had this problem to some extent or other and has dealt with it in the only way it knew how and got the bus or train or car to the big smoke.
There have been many well-meaning attempts made and solutions produced over the years about how to correct this situation, from employment to planning. Many might feel that the answer to all of this is to simply get those big multinational companies to focus their foreign direct investment on the areas outside Dublin, but that’s going to happen for a variety of reasons (there was no mention of patchy broadband on this occasion). As we saw with Charlie McCreevy’s decentralisation scheme in 2003, moving civil servants around the country like chess pieces isn’t the answer either.
Changes in work habits are also worth noting. Twitter Ireland boss Stephen McIntyre talked on the programme about how companies now like to cluster in cities and bring all their employees together to see what collaboration can achieve. It used to be that we thought technology would mean a nation of people working remotely and in magnificent isolation, but that has not really turned out to be the case, hence another reason for the focus on urban conurbations. Forcing employers and businesses to go where they don’t want to go is not going to work. Rural Ireland has to compete with this change in the global employment sitution.
The old way of getting a big factory or business to open up in the area is just not going to work. For a start, there just isn’t enough of them to go around every blackspot in the country. For another, we know all too well that those enterprises are nimble and mobile and cut and run when costs become cheaper elsewhere. New ways of working require new ways of thinking and rural Ireland hasn’t had a good run of that in some time.
But it was clear from Curran’s programme that this is not just an economic problem. Rural Ireland is not merely just some business case in search of a solution that you can pivot as if it was a start-up. You can prepare all the reports and policy documents in the world but they’re not going to make a blind bit of difference because the problem is far deeper than that. This is about what we as a society really think about rural Ireland. Is it just somewhere that’s nice to visit to go for a walk at the weekend and that’s about the height of it?
A huge number of us come from there and some of us probably have occasional daydreams about moving back if we live elsewhere, but we’re realists and know that’s not going to happen for a bundle of reasons. Some, like Curran and his family, will leave the cities and exurbs and go back, but the majority will stay put and will probably consider themselves to be rural many years after leaving the countryside. Rural Ireland thus becomes this place we once knew so well, a place which is still close to our hearts and a place whose decline we mourn, yet we can’t and won’t do anything about it.
It’s not just down to the government to change this situation, as many seem to think. Sure, they have a part to play – the continuing growth of Dublin as the country’s main hub and the massive infrasructural problems caused by this are down to government policy and planning (or lack thereof) – but that’s not enough anymore. The responsibility also rests with any and all of us who bemoan on a regular basis what has happened to rural Ireland. Those who live there will naturally enough have a lot to say about this too, but there also has to be a serious dose of realism all round when it comes to tackling what decades and generation of decline have created. There’s no point talking about the communities coming together and taking things into their own hands if those communities don’t have the tools and wherewithal in the first place to do this. The help to help themselves in the first place must be there.
The rot in rural Ireland’s fortunes set in before most of us were born and just became the accepted norm with every passing year, which means the problems are deep and ingrainted. Simply paying lip service to the need for a change is much easier than actually doing something about it. Many will find themselves agreeing with one contributer to last night’s show, Liam Heffron from Moygownagh in Co Mayo, when he said it would be better if the government had the balls to say they’d no interest in rural Ireland rather than continuing to claim otherwise. The time for shouting stop ended a long time ago, but watching Curran’s show, and the debate afterwards on Claire Bryne Live, you didn’t get any sense that a change is going to come anytime soon.