The protagonist of my latest book is a local librarian called Hanna Casey and I’ve created a fictional county for her to live in. It’s on the southwest coast – say somewhere between Cork, Kerry and Clare – Wild Atlantic Way country where the stunning scenery brings hosts of summer holidaymakers and the local council is bent on keeping the tourist numbers up.
We’re talking feelgood summer reading here, so Hanna starts out as a sad divorcee living in the back bedroom of her monstrous mother’s retirement bungalow, and ends up independent, re-empowered and reinvigorated, taking her time before taking the plunge into an affair with a younger man.
So far, so fictional. But as well as writing what in effect is pastoral comedy, I wanted to explore the realities of contemporary rural Irish life. Not the version that comes with shamrocks, leprechaun hats or even the excitement of a visit from Top Gear, but the actual downsides of living and coping with the goose that, at least for the moment, is laying golden eggs.
In my novel a scattered, dysfunctional community comes together to oppose the closure of its local library, the value of which hadn’t even been noticed until it came under threat. My characters’ belated awareness of the need to assert their own cultural requirements is a reflection of a growing concern in the real rural Ireland; how do you maintain a balance between branding and selling your locality as a tourist destination and maintaining it as a place where you yourself would want to live?
In the countryside, where a sense of isolation often results in high stress levels, local schools, post offices, libraries and social services are vitally important. Their absence or presence is barely noticeable to tourists who turn up for a few days in one place and then move on to the next. But, for the people who run the B&Bs and the boat trips, juggle farm work with shifts in call-centres, teach, keep shops and own small businesses, they’re necessary for a healthy community life. They don’t, however, matter to a mind-set that sees the countryside as a sort of theme park in which the primary function of those who actually live there is to provide increasing streams of tourists with a dash of local colour.
That’s a view that makes sense if your sole concern is to thrust Ireland to the forefront of an aggressive global marketplace. But clearly there ought to be more to our thinking than that. In any given locality the actual point of seeking to increase tourist figures is the economic benefit that ensues if your efforts succeed. That’s what provides the option to build a desirable and viable future in the place where you grew up or have family roots. In Ireland, having that option is still a significant matter; most of us over the age of 40 can remember a time when emigration was the norm. You left because you had to, choice didn’t enter into it. And, in tourist areas at least, the spectre of emigration has never really gone away. A serious shift in exchange rates, one terrorist incident, even a couple of lousy reviews on TripAdvisor, and last year’s destination of choice can become this year’s wasteland.
Rural Ireland knows that it has to keep ahead of the game. People adapt – brilliantly in most cases – rebranding what they have to offer in accordance with perceived fashion, and watching with eagle eyes for discernible trends. Foodie breaks become wellness weekends; walking trips are resold as adventure experiences; and cultural tourism has knocked plain old holidays into a cocked hat.
And nothing wrong with that, you might say. But if cultural tourism is to be anything more than a cynical catchphrase, the living culture of an area is just as important as a carefully-packaged version of its past. As voters, we empower central and local government to choose where to target our tax-spend. But we also need to consider the results of choices made on our behalf. How, for example, do we justify investing in a centre that interprets an area’s heritage for visitors if we fail to invest in the cultural future of those of us who actually live there?
Communities require focal points, and local libraries are a brilliant example of what that means in practice. Library buildings are centres for community information and venues for book clubs and other gatherings, as well as repositories of books and digital material. They’re cross-generational spaces serving groups and individuals from childhood to old age. They offer a portal to other libraries and resources via the internet. And if you’re isolated, housebound or suffering from rural Ireland’s lack of consistent broadband, their mobile library services provide physical links to the mother ships which can change people’s lives.
In fact, as a breed, local and community librarians ceaselessly challenge the constraints of isolation, and not only in the countryside. As an author who lives both in Ireland and Britain, I’m often in a position to admire their dedication and enterprise. London’s Hackney, for example, has a Telephone Book Club for housebound and handicapped readers, whose age range spans more than seven decades. According to Chris Garnsworthy, the librarian, the changing face of Hackney is increasingly affecting the club’s older members; their day centre has closed, the local pub is boarded up, and the church has turned into six trendy flats. But by creating a new sense of community the book club’s existence has mitigated a damaging sense of dislocation.
The kind of change Chris describes is familiar here in Ireland, and maybe it’s inevitable. Indeed, there’s a case for calling it preferable to the “heritage” approach that, for fear of losing their perceived attractiveness to tourists, refuses to allow rural communities to develop. But if change is important, so is continuity; and, if our tourist destinations are genuinely to thrive, so must the people who live and work and rear families in them.
The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy is published by Hachette Ireland, £13.99. Mary Kennedy launches it tonight, June 8th, at 6pm, in Hodges Figges, Dawson St, Dublin 2.