Monday 12 November 2007

Has Rural Ireland a Future?

On a recent visit to a rural area in East County Galway I had a conversation with a local about how things were going in their part of the world. Not too bad, was the initial response, quickly qualified by the remark that "we didn't see much of the tiger down here". Can this be true?

Below is the text of a short piece I wrote about a year ago, in which I claim there are certain black spots in rural Ireland which have some of the characteristics of deprived city areas.

It is difficult to believe, but a particular kind of poverty flourishes in pockets of rural Ireland. It's the kind of poverty that cannot be detected by purely material indicators such as disposable income, access to housing, or the availability of food. Communities which suffer from it are identified by unusually high levels of the social problems that are common in the deprived areas of our cities : teenage pregnancy, poor educational achievement, functional illiteracy, alcoholism, marital breakdown.

These are communities where, through lack of education, many people find it difficult to fill out a census or a tax form; they are not good at finding out about and applying for their entitlements such as college grants or tax rebates; they find it hard to communicate their problems to councillors or TDs. People in these areas are frustrated that they are disconnected from the rest of Irish society. And a worrying contempt for authorities and institutions has taken root: the guards, the tax man, and the government are not merely criticised but despised.

One handicap that affects people in this unhappy state is the inability to recognise the root cause of the problem: lack of education. Often, they fail to encourage their own children to stay in education as long as they can. I know several parents who actually persuaded their kids to leave school early! The result of such blindness is more early drop-outs and another dysfunctional generation. It's a kind of "capability trap": people don't have the capability to identify a way out, and their children will inherit the same problem.

I know for sure that the problem I describe afflicts parts of the Border and West region (I hate the term BMW for poorest region in the country). And I know that nothing is being done about it. In cities, where deprivation is more concentrated and more extreme, government projects have to some extent started to make an impact. But the deprivation in rural areas lies below the radar and is not detected, let alone tackled. Local government is mainly concerned with the big towns - where single projects can make an impact at the polling booth. The parish and the small village are forgotten.

This matters because these communities are paralysed and dependent. They cannot muster the ability to act together, to agitate for a better school, to organise events for the children, to tidy the village, or to light it for Christmas. Instead they curse the authorities and ask why the magic "they" cannot do something about x or y. A culture of reliance has taken hold in these communities. In a connected world they feel cut off; in an era of mass communication, they are voiceless.

All this is troubling because it happens at a time when rural Ireland needs innovation, energy, and solidarity to fight for its very survival. In many parts this is happening, but certain black-spots have fallen into what are akin to rural slums. And it is sad too that so many people are not enjoying a much fuller life in one of the richest countries in the world.

I stand by my remarks but please note that I emphasised "black-spots" and "certain areas". Like the city, development in the country is very uneven and the ability of a particular community to latch on to the coat tails of the tiger depends on many things from local employment prospects (which vary greatly between say South Donegal and the outskirts of Galway) to community leadership.

I am convinced, however, that for the most part residents of rural Ireland have enjoyed the fruits of the celtic tiger just as plentifully as their city cousins. Remarkably the comment from the Galway resident flies in the face of the visible transformation in the community where she resides. Perhaps it's an Irish trait to play down one's fortunes. Or perhaps there is a sense of collective amnesia about the state of rural Ireland 15 or 20 years ago. Either way, apart from the blackspots I mention, rural Ireland has changed utterly since the beginning of the boom.

The most solid evidence is jutting out of the landscape itself - a proliferation of new houses. Regardless of your view on one-off housing, the fact is that until the recent decline in output, about 17,000 of them were being built per year. In rural areas and on the outskirts of villages every second or third house you see is not just new but huge as well. Typically there are five or six en suite bedrooms, numerous living rooms, and the de-rigeur conservatory. Stone finishing on the front has also become fashionable.

These new homes are a sign that prosperity has made it to the greener parts. They are a sign too that people are placing faith in their rural origins. The dramatic difference in price between city and country means that these magnificent homes often cost less than a basic terraced dwelling in Dublin. Yet the people I know who built new homes in a rural area near where they grew up were not merely trading proximity to urban life for square metres. They were moving home because they genuinely want to live there. Rural life remains attractive to many for the slower pace, the sense of belonging, the space, the family ties, and the strong sense of community.

Dig deeper and more evidence emerges. Some rural bars have succumbed to the tougher driving rules and changing drinking habits, but many are resilient and are being sustained by car sharing, local minibuses, and the growth in the surrounding population. A generation ago, these bars would have been empty apart from over Christmas, when emigrants returned from London or the States. Now they are vibrant on a Saturday night in November.

GAA clubs are thriving. New facilities abound in parishes across the country. Churches have been refurbished. Villages are competing in tidy towns competition or 'pride of place' initiatives. Rural schools shrank in the 80s, then consolidated, merged, and stabilised. Many are now growing. For contrary to a popular perception, the population of Rural Ireland is growing not shrinking.

Like many industrialising countries, in Ireland the percentage of rural dwellers declined rapidly, but it seems to have stopped at about 40%. There was little change in that percentage between the census of 2002 and that of 2006. Since overall the population grew substantially, this means that the rural numbers grew as well. (we currently have almost 1.7m rural dwellers)

Despite the concerns about the sustainability in terms of energy, transport, and other services, the single dwellings continued to dot the landscape in large numbers. It's a reality we are going to have to live with.

The big question is employment. Many rural areas have been sustained by small farms, which are still in decline and are likely to disappear in greater numbers when the current round of Eu subsidies is renegotiated in 2013. Another high employer is construction and its derivatives - from builders to decorators, from ironworks to stonemasons. This too is on the cusp of a downturn. Furthermore, as manufacturing declines, work in the mid sized towns may be harder to find, particularly for those who are not well qualified.

Already many in rural areas are commuting long distances - up to an hour behind the wheel on the way to work in a city or town. Even middles size towns now have significant rush hour traffic.

Rural areas need to do more to diversify their income base. Tourism, heritage, and high end food production are among the alternatives now being explored, but these remain underdeveloped in many areas. One example is South West Donegal. Recently big employers such as multinational Hospira or the famous clothing company, Magee, have shut down or offshored most of their operations. In a region blessed with a stunning landscape and coastline, the tourism industry remains curiously understated. Services there are pitiful. Public transport is skeletal and broadband is available only in patches. So much more could be done.

All things taken into account, I think rural Ireland is thriving and crucially a new generation believes it has a future. They now need to persuade our city-centric government to give them the tools to build that future.


Tomaltach said...

I notice that the vinters are complaining in today's IT that hundreds of rural pubs have closed. They are asking the goverment to subsidize transport to pubs.

First - that we subsidize transport to pubs in rural areas is mad. But that's just rant from the vintners. In most rural areas there is virtually no public transport of any kind. As a consequence there are traffic and parking problems in small towns. Would it not be better to start by providing transport to get people to work as opposed to the pub?

Second - Is this evidence that rural Ireland is dying? No. Rural Ireland was way over pubbed. I know small villages with < 100 residents where there were 6 or 7 pubs! In the last 100 years the rural population declined rapidly (though now stabalised as I say above) so it's normal that there'd be a huge decline in pub numbers. Yet those pubs which have survived are being patronised by bright young faces - unthinkable a generation ago.

Vince said...

As usual, you are correct on all but the shading.
Rural Ireland, or rural pretty much anywhere in the first world is a lovely place to exist. If one holds assets. This is a situation which has held for the longest time and is in Ireland one of the measures for life, in the thirties FF made sure that as far as they could via the land commission, that many of their people were aided in this.
While, these past years, the number of times I have heard the statement of how bad things were in the eighties, without any qualification or quantification. Or in recent months the times that the cost of schooling has been mentioned. What bloody costs, the only costs I can think are those devoted to keeping little Seanie or Deirdres' snout wrapped 'round the taps at the SU bars. There is a real need to be really thick to have costs connected with education in the way that these people refer. Sending the little ones to boarding school or to one of the Jesuit Uni's is a choice and a choice which is tax deductible. Rural Ireland is fine thank you ever so much, for the most part. But God help you if you are in the shade in any way. This was also the situation in the eighties.