‘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."

At the village of Ardara, I stop counting the number of closed pubs and businesses after reaching nine. "There are very few pubs open during the day in most rural towns now, "states Ardara auctioneer and community activist, Steven McCahill. "There's nobody to go into them. In the past, they certainly would not have been closed during the day. During the Celtic Tiger, there was lots of construction around here, because it's a touristy area, and holiday homes were built. There was a very thriving industry of roofing, plastering, and painting - that's all gone completely," he says.

"The last big recession in the Eighties completely bypassed us, because it was the start of the mackerel fishing in Killybegs and that gave huge employment here, and elsewhere in south west Donegal... We didn't see the recession in the Eighties, because Killybegs was working 24/7... We don't have that back up this time."

McCahill puts the start of local emigration as beginning three years ago, and continuing since. "In the last three years, our young people have been leaving. But I'm hopeful that a lot of the people emigrating from here will come back. ...When people left before: they were going from no money to a lot of money. Now it's not like that, and the cost of living somewhere like Australia is high. Wages are based on working very hard to make money, with the result that if they see any opportunity at home, people do want to come back. I think there will be a huge return."

As McCahill points out, "In small communities of six or seven families, everyone who emigrates is noticed. In areas like Ardara, you are noticed when you leave. And when people start leaving, it restricts your ability to carry out community functions, such as volunteering. There's always been a very good community spirit here, with Tidy Towns, and voluntary-run committees and the fact people are leaving makes it harder on those left behind."

By now, the drop in numbers at local GAA clubs has become an established benchmark of emigration. A new trend that McCahill has noticed in rural Donegal communities is the drop in the number of children presenting for First Communion and Confirmation. "That's because their parents are emigrating, and whole families are leaving certain areas," he explains.

Donegal town is startlingly quiet. Many places, such as Dom's bar and restaurant, a large landmark building at the edge of the Diamond, are closed during the week, and there are very few restaurants serving food at night, other than on the weekend.

"My daughter is in London, my husband works there, and my son is thinking of going too," says Anita Halpin, who's looking at items in Forget Me Now gift shop. Her family is considering moving to Canada if things don't improve.

In Donegal town, people are defensive about the topic of emigration, almost uniformly unwilling to go on the record, and much more outspoken about "Non-nationals taking jobs, and their children being supported by the State, when our own have to emigrate."

A shop assistant who does not want to give her name says that her niece and the niece's partner are in Kuwait. "Everyone has someone gone, and everyone knows someone who is gone," as she puts it.

At Killybegs, where the fishing industry used to support the population of many people within a 60-mile radius of the town, a drop in quotas has reduced the former season by several months. The town's large harbour-front Bay View Hotel closed two years ago, with a loss of many jobs.

"Most people now get two, or at most, three months work out of the fish factories and it used to be eight months," says Laura O'Hara. As it happens, O'Hara is on her first day of work as a receptionist at the Killybegs Niall Mor Community and Enterprise Centre, after being unemployed for three years. Her brother, who finishes college this summer, is preparing to go to Canada to look for work. "He's been there already."

Nick North is the co-ordinator of the South West Donegal Men's Sheds Projects, which were established last year in Killybegs and Ardara. A third shed, at Meenaneary, started up last month: the sheds are for men 18-up, who may or may not be unemployed, as a meeting place to work on projects such as boat-building, wood-turning and weaving.

"I've noticed that in the Killybegs shed, almost everyone who attends is of retirement age," North observes. "We're starting to wonder if that is because younger people wouldn't see the sheds as something that might lead to employment - or if it's because there aren't that many young men left here in Killybegs. It's a puzzle."