Rural Ireland: The village that refused to die
Its population is rising, its buildings are full. How did Kildorrery, Co Cork, pull itself out of decline?
The main street of Kildorrery, Co Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Rural Ireland is an expression that nowadays is frequently prefaced with “dying”. The fact is 42 per cent of our population reside in rural Ireland, and many of them would take exception to the notion they are living in moribund communities. Rural Ireland is as nuanced and complex to define as urban Ireland because each are shaped to a large extent by the people who live there.
Take the village of Kildorrery in north Co Cork, population 744, up 18 per cent from 632 since the last census. It’s located in the middle of a triangle roughly equidistant to Mallow, Mitchelstown and Fermoy.
To look at it’s wholly typical of so many similar-sized villages in Ireland. There’s one main street, bisected by a crossroads. There’s a church, three pubs, and a GAA pitch. But it is what you can’t see when you drive through Kildorrery that makes this village an exceptional example of how a community in rural Ireland can not only survive but thrive.
The office is still there, but the whole building has been thoughtfully restored, extended and developed to provide a meeting place to have coffee or lunch
“Community spirit,” says David Myers, a lifetime resident, who is a founder member and current chair of the community development organisation, which was established in 1993.
“Doing things for ourselves instead of sitting back and waiting for it to happen,” says Catherine O’Flynn, the organisation’s director.
We’re sitting talking in the Thatch and Thyme; a lovely café with a garden, which regularly operates as a fully-prebooked restaurant on set weekends.
The then run-down heritage building was bought years ago as a location for the community office. The office is still there, but the whole building has been thoughtfully restored, extended and developed to provide a meeting place to have coffee or lunch. It would be an asset to any large town, let alone a village with less than 750 inhabitants.
“We borrowed £23,000 from the bank to buy it, and it’s all paid off now,” Myers says. They lease the café space to a local business person, and the money goes back into the organisation.
They also borrowed £19,000 to buy four acres on the Fermoy Road adjacent to the village. Half that land now has nine units of social housing for senior citizens, and a tenth unit that serves as a small community centre. As they were able to contribute the land, Kildorrery then received a 90 per cent State grant to build the housing development.
The rest of the four acres includes a community allotment garden and a field that has been developed as a well-kept public amenity, with a walking track round the perimeter, and a playground currently under construction at its centre.
Kildorrery has 36 clubs and groups; so many that a talking point during my visit was whether a new Scouts group could be accommodated in the community centre as there were potential scheduling clashes with the zumba and pilates groups.
Earlier this year it was chosen by the Grow It Yourself organisation to be the fourth of what will eventually be 20 villages nationwide to host a fortnightly cottage market. Kildorrery’s cottage market has 16 stalls at present, selling organic vegetables, baked goods, crafts, cheese, jams and cordials.
The houses on the village’s main street are all occupied. There is a chemist, a post office, a primary school, a hair salon, and not only a Centra supermarket, but one that has just received planning permission for a large extension.
There are plans to develop the former creamery into a large hub for community events: the former creamery yard has already been developed into a local car park. They hold a festival every summer. Their population is increasing.
How did Kildorrery achieve all this?
“Once the creamery closed for good in the late 1980s, the village started to deteriorate,” says Myers. “The farmers stopped coming to the village. One shop after the next closed. We had had seven shops and 13 pubs. The young people were leaving.”
As he tells it, a group of determined forward-thinking local people got together in 1993 to see how they could collectively pool their resources, experience, and ideas. At that time there was Leader funding available, and with it they carried out a survey which showed Kildorrery had 32 businesses within a five-mile radius of the town.
It’s only very recently we got rid of the fax machine
“There were builders, dressmakers, a guy making honey, B and Bs, a piggery, and people working from their homes that we hadn’t realised were there,” says Myers.
To provide a central communication hub and centre in those pre-Internet days the organisation offered use of a fax machine, photocopier, a letter-writing service, and general support for business. People connected. “It’s only very recently we got rid of the fax machine,” O’Flynn says.
They kept going. They fundraised via local Lotto and bingo, they applied for grants, and they realised that one of their greatest assets was their community of retired people, returning to live in the village with time to spare and all kinds of skills to contribute.
They hustled constantly for volunteers, got involved in the Tidy Towns, and continued to build on what they had already achieved. They bought land for the community’s use. With every piece of work they did, the village steadily became a more alluring place to live in, remain in, and return to.
I believe strongly that there is absolutely no commitment at either political or administrative level to balanced regional development, nor is there any worthwhile plan to address rural decline
This April the chair of the Western Development Commission (WDC), Paddy McGuinness, who had held the post for four years, announced publicly that he would not be seeking reappointment. He had been appointed by former taoiseach Enda Kenny. The WDC was established in 1997 to promote economic development in counties Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Clare, and has its base in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon. McGuinness circulated a letter to every Oireachtas member outlining the reasons for his decision.
“I believe strongly that there is absolutely no commitment at either political or administrative level to balanced regional development, nor is there any worthwhile plan to address rural decline,” he said. “My experience over the past four years has convinced me that the WDC’s potential to initiate and deliver progress within its region is neither understood nor supported.”
Last month, I met McGuinness in the café of a garden centre in Turlough, Co Mayo. We were there to discuss his reasons for making such a public statement about his perceived failure of the Government in supporting rural Ireland.
There is total inertia. There is too much concern with bureaucracy and red tape
“Rural Ireland needs a new TK Whitaker,” McGuinness said. “There is a lot of talk about rural and regional development, and I genuinely and sincerely don’t believe there is the political will to do anything about it; to move the issue up the agenda. I feel that there is no commitment or appetite at senior civil service levels to tackling rural decline.
“There is total inertia. There is too much concern with bureaucracy and red tape. There is almost an industry created now around ‘strategic planning’ for jobs in community development: creating jobs to create rural jobs. It would be far better to let the communities work on their own, and reward them where those community-driven developments seem to be working.”
Why did he choose to make a public statement about his decision not to stand for the position of chair of the WDC again?
“Because I am hoping that it will cause politicians to ask questions about the sincerity of their commitment to tackling rural decline.”
I feel that there isn’t really genuine interest at State level for the support of services within rural communities
Both Myers and O’Flynn are aware of the public statement McGuinness made in April.
“I can understand why he did what he did,” Myers says. “I feel that there isn’t really genuine interest at State level for the support of services within rural communities. It’s the likes of the Paddys of this world, shouting out, that will make our jobs easier. He is 100 per cent right, because if nothing is being done at State level it has a negative rippling effect across the whole country.”
“Paddy isn’t wrong in what he said,” O’Flynn says. “But if we had sat here waiting for things to happen for us at a government level nothing would have been done. In the city people expect all the service to to be laid on for them. In the country if you want anything you have to fight for it. You have lobby, fight, and keep at it. To survive in rural Ireland you have to be constantly proactive. All the time.”
They acknowledge that one of the reasons for the success of their village is that a new generation of people are coming into it: there are two small new housing estates.
“That makes it easier for us to fight for our services, but there are a lot of communities in rural Ireland that don’t have a younger generation, and it’s harder for them,” Myers says.
Two years ago the community development organisation put together a plan, the Kildorrery 2020 Vision. “Over the years we were doing a lot of piecemeal work, which was good, but we needed to make a plan,” O’Flynn says. “Now we have a five-year community plan; 2015-2020. If it’s not in the plan we don’t look for the money.”
“We feel it’s better to be looking for the money for what we need, rather than following grants for the sake of it,” Myers says. “Our five-year plan brought the needs of the overall community together. We had one public meeting, and two other meetings, and then broke down into nine working groups for each of the nine categories in the plan.”
Those categories are: services for young people; safety; Tidy Towns; leisure; employment and training; provision of community services; communications; tourism; and infrastructure.
The community is updated regularly on how the plan is progressing (there had been an information meeting only the night before my visit). All the working groups offer their time on a voluntary basis, and nobody is paid.
“You have to have good communication at all times with your community,” says Myers. “We have a community radio, and a monthly newsletter about what’s going on. It’s one sheet, and we email it to every club. It’s put in the post office and the shops. You have to get the people to come with you along the way, and keep them informed about what you’re doing.”
We have completely taken ownership of this community
“Every now and then we send out a group text,” O’Flynn says. “Something like, ‘We need two loads of topsoil, does anyone have it?’ And we have it like that.”
“We have completely taken ownership of this community,” Myers says.
Of the nine members of the community I meet in the little local centre the afternoon I was in Kildorrery, they have a collective tally of 327 years of residence in the village between them. They are a publican, the school principal, a builder, the owner of the supermarket, a GAA representative, a cottage market representative, a CE scheme administrator, an IFA representative, and a member of the Tidy Towns committee.
“I’m the blow-in. I’m only here 10 years,” jokes Rachel Kelly.
The issue of the rural pub comes up, and the question of how to address social isolation while obeying the drink driving laws. People have strong opinions on this subject.
“I’m a social animal and I’m very worried about the decline of the rural pub,” Eamonn McCarthy says.
Game of cards
“There is a great tradition in rural Ireland of having two or three drinks and a game of cards in the pub,” says Conor Maguire. “It is a meeting place. Nobody is going into a pub with the intention of falling out of it.”
“Rural isolation is a big problem,” says Kerene Gallagher.
I suggest that people could drive to the pub and have coffee, and still meet people and play cards. More than one person in the group laughs out loud.
A lot of new people have since come into the village, and breathed new life into it
“Isn’t it a good thing the cops are out on the roads at night?” says Eddie O’Connor. “You cannot justify drinking and driving.”
But not everyone agrees. “We’re talking about someone going to the pub and sauntering home at 30 miles an hour,” says Liam Young. “The drink driving laws are closing down rural Ireland. I personally think they are too severe.”
The publican in the group, Liam O’Sullivan, says there is no easy answer. He often will drop someone home, but acknowledges that this ad-hoc arrangement is not the solution either.
The group talk about the community development organisation, and offer some reasons as to why they think their village is presenting a counter-narrative to the generalised perception that rural Ireland is uniformly “in decline”.
“There were some great people who started the whole initiative back in 1993; some very forward-thinking people who had ideas and searched out grants, and kickstarted a revival of the place,” says Pat Mullins.
“A lot of new people have since come into the village, and breathed new life into it. It’s the new people who are going to keep reinvigorating Kildorrery,” says O’Connor. “The challenge for rural Ireland is keeping young people in the community. If a community doesn’t have young people in it there is nothing for the future.”
“People in rural Ireland have to do things for themselves,” says McCarthy. “You can’t wait for handouts. We’re very good at begging, and if anything is available, we’ve gone looking for it. Who will maintain rural Ireland if we don’t have people in rural Ireland? I think politicians pay lip service to rural Ireland, but have no interest in maintaining it.”
“It’s not that politicians don’t care about rural Ireland, it’s that their focus is on the population centres,” says Ger O’Sullivan.
“Part of the reason we are successful as a community is that people volunteer to do things, because they can see the value of it,” says Maguire.
“We can see that our community funds are being used wisely and well. We have the park, for instance, which we all use, and the playground is being built now,” says Gallagher.
“We made our own luck,” says Ger O’Sullivan.
At one point in our conversation, the group talk about Kildorrery’s community spirit and try to define it. In the end, there is consensus for Conor Maguire’s one word definition.
“Pride,” he says simply.