Cabinet’s visit to Sligo only showed the foreign world they live in
Struggle to field GAA teams west of the Shannon an example of slow death of ‘rural Ireland’
Loyalty to place: among of the few things that do bring at least some young people back home are sport and team. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Oh, they have the spirit of Shackleton burning within, our political leaders, risking life and limb to venture through the bitterest days of February for a special and symbolic Cabinet meeting in that troublesome otherworld they like to call “rural Ireland”. By which they mean every place that isn’t Dublin.
Sligo town was the destination for yesterday’s gathering, in which the future of Ireland – your future, your kids’ and their future kids’ futures – was mapped out. It was a glimpse into Ireland as imagined and plotted out by our visionaries.
Chief among the innovations was the news that Dublin’s Metro North will probably also reach the southside, too, and probably long before 2040. You can imagine the cheer that erupted in the bars of Elphin at that one. You can only guess at the buzz it generated in downtown Dunmore.
Whenever the sad and never-ending story of the slow death of “rural Ireland” is aired by the national broadcaster, the ongoing struggle to field GAA teams in the steadfast towns and villages west of the Shannon is often held up as an example of the challenges facing that area. On one level, that some full back with hands like meat cleavers has decided to go push a mouse in Silicon Valley, or that the star free taker has joined the rest of his friends building roofs in Sydney, is not particularly important. It’s only sport – and, to borrow a phrase, on a macro level nobody really cares if Tulsk Lord Edwards get knocked out in the first round of the Roscommon championship for 10 years running.
What matters, though, is that Gaelic games are the most popular sports pastimes in the country. And if there aren’t even enough players to get a team out for a Sunday afternoon then you have to wonder where that town is going. The strange thing is that when people all over Ireland hear Government Ministers or economists or Miriam on Prime Time talking about “rural Ireland” they always assume that the conversation is about somewhere else. See, you can live in Roscrea or Strokestown or Granard and feel as if it’s the centre of the world. Because if you do live there that’s where all your creative and industrious energies are concentrated.
It was all very well for the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to get the gang to pitch tent in Sligo, a big county town that has done a brilliant job of reimagining itself as an attractive riverside destination over the past decade. Sligo has its economic struggles, but it is definitely going to be there in 20 years. If the Cabinet really wanted to make a symbolic trip into the heartland, however, it should have taken a detour to visit a town like Dowra. Take in lunch and gather for a photo opportunity at the Shannon Pot, little more than a bubbling brook but nonetheless the source of the dark mutinous herself.
An hour in Dowra would have given the Cabinet a better feel for what Ireland smells and feels like on a weekday afternoon than €1 million worth of advisory reports. It’s Dowra and hundreds of towns like it that the strategists and the politicians are talking about, even if they don’t know it, when they are talking about rural Ireland.
On Prime Time on Thursday night, David McCullagh, whose scepticism about every line a politician utters is worth the licence fee alone, stood on the banks of the Shannon in Athlone for an outside broadcast on the national planning strategy. The debate was pretty simple: local voices say small towns are dying; statistical data illustrates that “rural Ireland” is, in fact, growing.
Both arguments are provable: there is no doubt that all the towns and villages around cities like Limerick and Galway and Cork, and even college towns like Athlone, are experiencing regeneration just by proximity. But that doesn’t lessen the truth about the string of towns in every county that are not in the thought process, let alone the conversation, when the best and brightest trot out their favourite daft phrase: connectivity.
You don’t need a degree in civic planning to understand how these towns developed through the 1900s. You simply have to drive through and see the ghostly vestiges of the self-sustaining entities – the local grocer’s and draper’s and hardware stores and public houses and perhaps a restaurant and a petrol station on the edge of town. Over the past 30 years that model of commerce has become redundant, with chain supermarkets sucking up grocery expenditure, with lack of transport and the change in drinking habits slowly but surely wiping out country pubs, and retail parks and online shopping killing independent outlets, with classrooms of Leaving Certificate students vacating their town – the place that raised them for 17 years – year after year. And not coming back, whether they want to or not.
This is at the heart of the matter. On Prime Time, Seamus Duke of the Roscommon Herald, and a habitue of Hyde Park in winter and in summer, spoke forcefully about what is missing in rural Ireland.
“We cannot abandon people. What we are missing in towns like Roscommon and Strokestown are young people, people from the age of 18 to 40. Those are the people who are not there during the week. They are there at Christmas and Easter, because they have got to go to Dublin, to Galway, to London and everywhere else. Everybody deserves the same chance. We pay the same taxes as the people in Dublin and Athlone and Cork and everywhere else, and we deserve to be treated the same way.”
You can bet that Duke’s words made sense to viewers in the homes of small towns and villages right across Ireland, those towns just off the motorway that the politicians don’t even have to see any more, let alone think about, when they head west in the summer exodus for the seafood restaurants and golf and walks along the Wild Atlantic Way and a pint of the black stuff until the skies darken, warning them to race back to the capital before everything turns wintry and grim.
Go off grid on a cross-country drive to a brilliant, thriving tourist town like Westport and you will see dozens of towns that are to all intents lost.
Where are the plans for these towns? Don’t they matter? What’s the point in trying something new – an artisan bakery or a clothes store – if the potential customers, the young people from the area, aren’t there any more? Among the few things that do bring at least some young people back home are sport and team: the instinctive loyalty to place, the desire and perhaps obligation to turn out for the club that taught them the game, at weekends.
The returnees help to keep the club going during the week, and when the team does win the odd game, or get to a final now and again, it can give a jolt of energy through the town that the State apparatus never provides. There is no reason that pride in place couldn’t translate into other walks of life if there were even the faintest sense of State interest or investment in what happens to these towns.
It’s a really profound thing to feel the silence and stillness setting like concrete upon the many small Irish towns that are doing their level best to keep the flag flying. And the shocking thing is not that Leo and the gang don’t care. It’s that they don’t even seem to know.