Is this the true face of rural Ireland?


Just what is the rural Ireland that some fear is endangered? Why does the debate so often centre on bachelor farmers driving to the pub, while ignoring widows, single parents and disabled people – and the disintegration of local businesses and communities?

THE IMAGE OF rural Ireland took another hammering this week as a ruckus of backbenchers, spearheaded by Mattie McGrath for Tipperary South and Jackie Healy-Rae for Kerry South, rushed to defend the right of mountainy men to drink a pint or two before driving home. Urban folk rolled their eyes as they sped back from the long weekend playing Marie Antoinette-style shepherds and milkmaids in their rural holiday homes, or hopped on a handy Luas for a look at the marathon. Not our problem, sweetie, switch on Lyric. . .

Meanwhile, in rural Ireland, the quiet majority squirmed. Had their proud, rooted lives, values and aspirations been reduced to this? “When [the] Minister [for Transport, Noel] Dempsey, put forward his proposals [for a reduction in the alcohol limit], I laid a bet that the only people RTÉ would talk to would be Jackie Healy Rae and Mattie McGrath,” says Seamus Boland, chief executive of Irish Rural Link. “I was nearly right. What we got on Prime Timewas Michael Healy Rae, shouting down a woman from Inishowen . . . It’s as if, for them, there is just one genetically-fashioned people: white, Catholic and male. Other voices are there of course, but the media love a row. I enjoy it myself. The problem is that it makes us all sound like a shower of ignoramuses.”

“They are the remnants of clientilist Ireland and tend to sound sadder and sadder,” says Ethel Crowley, academic and author of the study, Land Matters: Power Struggles in Rural Ireland. “Where is the politician who is speaking out for rural Ireland in a progressive way?”

Boland agrees. “Where is our forum? How do you deal with Michael and Jackie Healy Rae landing up and talking for rural Ireland, talking about bachelors coming down from the mountains, but never mentioning the widows living alone, or the one-parent families, or the people with disabilities who don’t want to drink but can’t drive?”

But the temptation to take the “low road”, as Boland calls it, is like catnip. “You’ll always have at least two sides at meetings. The same ones who want to allow a drink to the poor aul fellas who want to drive home will also be on about one-off housing and farm benefits. They see themselves as the oppressed, the victims of an attack on rural culture by the D4s – ‘You’re all agin us’. When you’re really pissed [off], the really low blow – and the most effective one – is to do what [the Minister for Gaeltacht, Community and Rural Affairs] Eamon Ó Cuiv did when he talked about the An Bord Snip report as coming from ‘an economist from Dublin 4’. That’s a really low blow – but if you’re a politician, that’s a rich vein to tap into . . . The problem is that in the end it gets you nowhere.”

“Even now, you can’t have a rational discussion on issues such as one-off housing; it’s like dogs barking on either side of the stream,” says Ciaran Lynch, director of rural development at the Tipperary Institute and a former planner. The same dogs were barking even at the civilised Ceiliuradh 09 this week, a rural planning conference hosted by the Tipperary Institute in Thurles, featuring speakers including social philosopher Gillies McBain, and Chris Pienaar of the New Economics Foundation as well as MEPs Marian Harkin and Seán Kelly.

“Cromwell is back,” moaned one oppressed participant in the clamour. “With justification,” retorts Billy Clancy, farmer and Independent member of North Tipperary County Council. “I’d be thinking – that’s the field I picked spuds in when I was five years old; that’s the field where I pulled a calf when I was 11. And maybe my grandfather slaved for years to buy out the rent . . . Anyway, a large percentage of holiday homes are built by Dublin people. Rural dwellers are not the cause. And it gets fudged; a guy from the city marries a girl from the country. It’s not just a rural issue.”

IN THE END, everyone agrees it is a “balancing act”. But how to achieve that balance is the problem. Just like the blood alcohol limit for drivers.

Ethel Crowley admits to being “totally torn. I’d be pretty strict about drink-driving but I can really see their point. We can walk the mile and a half to the pub but what about the poor aul fellas with the broken hips? There is a problem but it has now become political.”

Five years ago, members of the local musical society always stayed on for a drink after rehearsals, says Edwina Newport, a shopkeeper from Fethard, Co Tipperary. “But it doesn’t happen anymore. People just say it’s not worth it, so they get in their cars and go. There is no means of interacting with one another anymore.”

“It isn’t about the love of beer. It’s the importance of the pub as a community centre for generations,” says Clancy. There is a difference, he insists, between a quiet rural road and the motorway; different speed, lights, volume of traffic. “So why not a different alcohol level?”

“The science and the figures are clear on alcohol-related accidents,” interjects Boland firmly. “Anyway, rural isolation isn’t a recent thing. It was there in the 1970s – read the academics, or The Great Hungerby Patrick Kavanagh, or John B Keane – and that was a time when everyone could go out and get pie-eyed. The idea that social isolation was caused by Dempsey – I wish it were true, but it’s not. It’s been around a lot longer than the drink-driving laws.”

Rural problems are a great deal more profound than the right to drink and drive. “When did we have a raucous backbench meeting on the proposed closure of rural schools, Garda stations or day-care centres?” asks Boland. “Was there a single point made by any of those people about the doubling of the [annual] school bus fare for children when it suddenly went from €160 to €300?”

“A huge problem is the disintegration of commercial life in small settlements,” says Newport. “All the talk now is about the price of tea bags and the difference between Dunnes or Lidl. Yet the small local shop is so significant. If the shop closes down, the post office often goes with it.”

But where is the focus of policy and funding? Boland points to the Rural Development Fund. “That’s worth about €7 billion over six years. But just half a billion of that goes to rural development. The rest goes on farm supports . . . We would argue strongly that proper rural development funding would actually assist local rural businesses, even the local pub. What’s wrong with that? The pub can be a focal point. We want to see the local pub preserved but we will need the support of policy-makers and small businesses and look at innovative ways of doing that. It’s not about more money.”

“What would help,” says Lynch, “is if the Government said: ‘we know there is a problem and we will work towards solving that problem.’ But Dublin 4 absolutely dismisses the issue. Yes, there is demand deficiency [too few customers for services]. But are some of these actually social services or commercial activity? How about the fact that the Dart loses money? That Dublin Bus loses money? Daycare centres lose money. Not one museum in the country doesn’t lose money. There is a very, very strong centralising agenda. Almost by stealth, people are being funnelled into the cities . . . It goes back to the question of having a vision. Yes, of course, one-off housing causes problems in rural areas. Maybe it’s a good thing to restructure society. But how do you deal with the consequences?”

BUT WHAT IS this rural Ireland? Who lives in it? “There is no one rural Ireland,” says Lynch. “Take a settlement on the fringes of Dublin and one in west Galway: they will be entirely different.”

“Rural Ireland is a state of mind,” says Clancy. “I don’t think someone who lives 20 miles from Dublin is rural. But if you believe your roots and your interests and hobbies and relatives are rural Ireland, then you are.” The example he gives of those “interests or hobbies” is the GAA. But St Vincent’s GAA club which scooped the All-Ireland Senior Club football championship last year is in Dublin 3, a half-hour walk from the city centre.

By Boland’s definition, you are rural “if you have an appreciation of living in a countryside area or village and you depend on the rural hinterland for a living. It’s someone whose immediate thought when they get up in the morning is towards the west or the green fields. That could just as easily be a local merchant who might not have an inch of land.”

According to the OECD, you can call yourself rural if you live in an electoral division with a population density of less than 150 people per square kilometre. By this measure, 42 per cent of the population is rural, says David Meredith of Teagasc, the farm advisory body. Yet only 5 per cent of rural men under 24 are employed in agriculture. In fact, rural Ireland produces only 28 per cent of all jobs nationally, says Meredith, which means a significant proportion of rural dwellers commute to urban areas every day. Crowley, who has a house in the west Cork Gaeltacht, says “there is actually a rush hour in our village, which starts at 6.30am, for people driving the 40 miles into Cork”.

Are they rural? There are few sharp definitions anymore. What kind of rural Ireland do we want or need, asks Lynch. Where are the visionaries? He and Boland are calling for a major forum to agree a vision – and urgently.

Farmers’ morale is dying, says Crowley. Meredith paints a bleak picture, not of immediate mass exodus but of looming rural poverty. The rural population grew by nearly 9 per cent over 15 years. What is to become of them, now in their late 20s and early 30s? Meredith predicts there will be no mass rural migration, as in the 1980s, simply because many people are trapped in unsaleable homes. “Agricultural employment has fallen off a cliff in the past year. Jobs in commerce for women are under pressure. That leaves health, education and social welfare, which are huge employers for rural women – but how will they be affected by the cuts when they come?” A strategy is needed, he says. “The focus has shifted to the national economy . . . but if we neglect the rural economy, they will go down and down. They are older, less likely to have IT skills. These are the people who will join the dole queue and never get off it.”

At the Tipperary Institute, minds are being applied. The optimistic view is that rural Ireland will come full circle, simply because of national need. In the rush to specialise, farmers have lost the key skills of the kitchen garden, the means of producing food. “The old models have let us down. The institutions have let us down,” says Catherine Corcoran of the Tipperary Institute. “What happens in the future when oil runs out? Even David McWilliams and Eddie Hobbs have come round to the extreme gravity of climate change and peak oil. Who then is going to produce the food? Who is going to produce the energy?”

Who indeed.

When can we expect to hear a ruckus of backbenchers kicking up about that?

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