The bottom-up approach to saving rural areas is crucial, says Bernard Kearney, who last year helped to set up a community shop in his parish, in Co Roscommon.
“We all have to be more community minded to save rural areas,” he says. “We have more facilities in our parish now than 30 years ago – a community centre and childcare facilities, housing for the elderly – but we no longer had any shops.
So, using funding from the community-centre budget, the locals opened a shop in Four Mile House – which, with Derrane, makes up Kilbride parish – to sell groceries, newspapers and other essentials.
"It cost up to €8,000 to fit it out and put in fridges. We'll pay it back over the next 12 months and then give any profits back to the community," says Kearney, who works for the community-development organisation Muintir na Tire. A shop worker is paid through a Pobal community-development scheme and supplemented by volunteers.
Kilbride Community Shop is open from 9am to 7pm Monday to Saturday and for three hours on Sunday mornings. "We all do our bit to help out," he says. "I collect the papers in Roscommon town" – about 10km away – "and Tuesdays are our busiest day, when local people come in to buy the Roscommon Herald."
Community shops are springing up in response to the closure of family-run stores in towns and villages. “I attended a conference on community shops in Tipperary last year. They are growing here, but they aren’t as big yet as in England,” says Kearney. England has more than 400 community-owned village shops. Some of them sell, at low prices, surplus food donated by supermarkets, to tackle food poverty.
Kearney supports the Save Rural Ireland campaign, which was launched in Dublin this week. “I think it’s a very important campaign. Unless someone puts down a marker to do something, nothing will happen.”
The campaign is led by Muintir na Tire, the Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers Association, the Irish Postmasters' Union, Macra na Feirme, the Irish Countywomen's Association and the Irish National Flood Forum.
The issues raised at its launch include the need for high-speed rural broadband, the continued threat of rural post-offices closures, the theft of scrap metal, the unavailability of insurance in flood areas, and the need for more rural GP cover.
The number of post offices has fallen from 2,300 in 1984 to about 1,100 now.
"When the post office goes, the shops go, the chemist goes and then the public bus service goes," says Liz Wall, national president of the ICA . "Rural Ireland is being totally destroyed. It needs help before it is too late for rural communities."