Ploughing championships’ popularity belies rural decline

Population fall and a lack of services are taking a huge toll on rural communities

When former EU agriculture and rural development commissioner Dr Franz Fischler told an EU conference in Cork that rural areas of the EU were set to suffer major population decline over the next 20 years, he was simply echoing what many have been saying about rural Ireland for years.

While the estimated 300,000 attending the ploughing championships in Co Offaly over the next three days may suggest all is well, many rural communities seem to be caught in a perpetual downward spiral of declining population and loss of services.

However, there is nothing new in that, as the late John Healy, formerly of The Irish Times, highlighted in his 1968 book, The Death of an Irish Town, about his home place of Charlestown in Co Mayo. He chronicled a story of official indifference, forced emigration and closed businesses.

More recently, Fischler predicted that the population of rural areas of the EU will halve over the next 20 years from about 200 million to 100 million. This will have a major impact on rural communities that will depend more and more on subsidised state services.


While Irish census figures for the last 20 years may not depict a decline as dramatic as that, the trend is inexorably downwards, with more and more people forsaking rural Ireland to live in cities either elsewhere in the State or abroad.

According to the Central Statistics Office, the most recent available census returns for 2011 showed some 38 per cent of the population were living in rural areas compared with 62 per cent living in urban areas. Leitrim is the most rural county with more than 90 per cent living in rural areas.

Urban society

No county showed an increase in rural population since the previous census in 2006 and, scrolling back over various censuses of the last 20 years, confirms the trend: Ireland is inching its way towards becoming an overwhelmingly urban society after the rural/urban balance shifted in the 1960s.

That shift continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and, by 1991, the number living in rural Ireland dropped to 43 per cent. By 1996, the balance had moved to 42:58. In 2002, it was 40:60 and, in 2006, 39:61.

The 2011 census came in the middle of the economic crash and while there have been tales of job creation over the last two years, Fine Gael paid the price for its "Let's keep the recovery going" slogan when it became apparent that the recovery was confined to the larger cities and towns.

The challenges for rural communities suffering population decline are multiple. Muintir na Tíre outlines several in its Save Rural Ireland campaign, including GP cover, post office viability, rural broadband and insurance in flood areas.

Staffing crisis

According to the IMO, governments since 2009 have used the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Fempi) mechanism to cut funding in general practice by about 38 per cent, with the most damaging effects being in rural practices whose patient profile tends to be older and which often operate in older premises.

There is a staffing crisis in general practice with rural practices being among the hardest hit and with the unsustainable rotas to provide out-of-hours cover making it difficult to attract people into the profession – and into practices in remote rural areas with little supports.

“As the population of GPs continue to age and vacancies continue to be unfulfilled, the position of remaining GPs will continue to worsen and make the posts less attractive. The vicious circle needs to be stopped,” said the IMO in a 2015 report.

The closure of small post offices in rural areas was also identified by Muintir na Tíre and, according to Ned O'Hara of the Irish Postmasters Union, the number of post offices in the country has almost halved over the last 30 years, from 2,067 in 1984 to 1,083 last year.

While the rate of closure has slowed recently – and some were clearly economically unviable – many in rural Ireland view the loss of the local post office as the death knell for small rural communities with shops and pubs set to follow suit.

However, Anna McHugh of An Post said the post office network, dating in some cases back to the 1800s, was never viable and many had to be run in conjunction with other businesses.

“Very often, after the closures of the creamery and, perhaps, a bank, the post office is the last man standing in a community,” said McHugh, who estimated that up to 90 per cent of post office closures – often on retirement of the postmaster or mistress – are in remote rural areas.

One area which has experienced continued population decline is the Iveragh Peninsula in south Kerry. The principal of Coláiste na Sceilge in Cahersiveen, John O’Connor, gave an insight into the gradual nature of the decline by reference to the school population.

He estimated that the secondary school population of the area – from Kells on the north through Cahersiveen, Waterville and Derrynane to Castlecove on the south – has dropped by about 30 per cent over the last 25 years, down from more than 700 in 1999 to 480 now.

The decline can not be entirely blamed on people abandoning the countryside, with couples opting for smaller families also being a factor.

The impact is evident in that most traditional of Kerry pursuits: Gaelic games.

John O'Sullivan, chairman of Valentia Young Islanders, illustrates the challenges facing GAA clubs in south Kerry as population numbers drop, saying that at least 15 of the panel of 30 or so players who helped the club win the South Kerry senior championship in 2005 have since left the area.

"They've either gone to Dublin or Cork or abroad – we have lads who have gone to England, the States and Australia. We have the bare bones of a team at the moment – we nearly folded four years ago, but we rallied to keep the show on the road – but our backs are against the wall again now," O'Sullivan said.

The situation is tellingly evident at underage where Valentia has had to merge with Portmagee, Derrynane and Sneem – some 30km away – to field a team, as former rivals such as St Mary's merged with Reenard, Waterville with Dromid, and Foilmore with Ballinskelligs, to field teams at minor level.

According to O’Sullivan, the situation is manageable when young players are away at university or college and return to play at weekends, but once they finish in third-level education and move on to get jobs, they are lost to their clubs as they move to the cities or abroad.

“The problem is there are no jobs here – farming and fishing are only doing alright and tourism is good for maybe four months of the year, but most of them are moving away to get employment and the result is we no longer have a B team and we are asking lads hitting 40 to still turn out for us.”

According to Kells community activist Eamon Langford, part of the problem was the decision of current EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan when minister for agriculture to transfer control of EU Leader funding (an EU initiative to support rural development projects) from local Leader groups to local authorities.

“That was a retrograde step,” says Langford. “Up until then, local communities had funding to develop their own projects which were creating sustainable small enterprises, but now it’s all under State control via the local authorities and it was a mistake.”

Sustainable way

The local Leader group on the Iveragh Peninsula is the South

Kerry Development Partnership

and last year it published research it commissioned by Dr Brendan O’Keeffe of the department of geography at

Mary Immaculate College

at the

University of Limerick

which made several recommendations.

O’Keeffe said that despite the 2002 National Spatial Strategy, there had been a failure – due to the lack of accompanying governance reforms and devolution – to arrest the trend towards the agglomeration of the Greater Dublin Area.

And while Dublin and Ireland’s second-tier cities must be enabled to continue to contribute to national and regional prosperity, this must be done in a more enlightened and sustainable way so that all regions benefited from public and private sector investment.

O'Keeffe also called for a lessening of the bureaucratic burden and more community-led development which has proven to be more successful in Wales and other Anglo-Saxon countries than where development is led by local authorities

“The message from this report is clear: now that the economy is beginning to show signs of recovery at national level, service provision must be restored to pre-recession levels and investment needs to be accelerated so that all communities in south Kerry attain the service provision targets specified for them in the National Spatial Strategy,” he said.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times