Paul Hopkins: Rural Ireland in a ‘perfect storm’ of loss and isolation
There has been a startling decline in the number of rural pubs staying open since the Covid pandemic. An average of 114 pubs a year are closing across the country – but this rises to 152 a year since 2019. Rural communities are disproportionately impacted, new research has found. The Drinks Industry Group Ireland (DIGI) analysis, released last week, claims a 22.5 per cent decline in the number of pubs open in Ireland since 2005 – this represents the closure of 1,937 small and family-run Irish businesses.
There is the argument that the State is responsible for the erosion of local communities and community infrastructure. The rural post office, the bank, the corner shop, the fair and the livestock mart were once all part of the fabric of society, contributing socially, as well as commercially, to people coming together. Increasingly, now, rural people find themselves more and more isolated with their young, once more, joining the brain drain and taking flight to America and Australia or Dubai because Ireland, rural or not, no longer affords them a decent wage – cue, teachers and nurses – never mind a roof over their head. And in rural Ireland farming no longer seems sustainable.
Rural Irish towns have been decimated since the recession and many are dying, a rather dramatic statement not too long ago from the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) which found that a "perfect storm" has ripped the heart out of many rural towns and most are finding it impossible to recover. Among its stark findings, the report found that a lack of local leadership and the rising trend of out-of-town retail developments has helped catalyse the huge decline in rural towns since the financial crash.
The majority of small Irish towns were ill-prepared for the recession, and without high-speed broadband they were hamstrung in how they could recover, according to the report by the SCSI.
It's fair to say that people who live in rural towns have been trying to highlight this for decades. The decline of rural Ireland hasn't happened suddenly and it dates back to long before the recession. Many of the towns cited in the report never really felt the benefit of the Celtic Tiger and were in the economic doldrums years before the financial crash.
On a recent visit for a wedding in beautiful Enniscrone in Co Sligo, the motorway ends at Mullingar and I found myself on the old and challenging N4 road. I passed through many, once familiar towns en route. Many seemed empty and people-less, shop fronts boarded up, pubs closed, the local bank, baker and candle-stick maker long closed up shop. A sad sight. In my youth travelling weekends away with the lads, camping and otherwise, such towns I recall as thriving and inviting.
In its report the SCSI identifies many problems facing small towns. These include excessive rates; high insurance costs; uneven population growth; high unemployment; poor broadband; online competition and that lack of local leadership.
With a General Election in the next year or so we'll likely be hearing a lot about what the parties have done or will do for rural Ireland. Most of such are mere empty platitudes.
However, Covid-19 has played its hand in the matter. Perhaps ironically. Many argue how urban and rural life will be changed forever post-pandemic, with some predicting people will have a strong preference to live in more isolated areas, and that remote working may be the remedy for regional towns. Such an upturn is an opportunity for our policymakers to try to revive regional towns and villages.
Since as far back as 1986, eural areas, particularly remote and peripheral areas in the midlands and the west, have been experiencing consistent population loss. Urban areas, too, have experienced population loss, demonstrating it is not just a rural issue. That said, there are also many rural areas, especially surrounding the cities – the commuter belt – which are gaining population. However, houses may be more affordable in rural Ireland, but it costs you more to get to work.
Is there the political will to reverse population decline by encouraging people to move to these 'rural' locations and is there the will, also, to sustain or improve the quality of life of the people already living in such towns?
There are policies currently in place, such as Project Ireland 2040 and Our Rural Future that seek to achieve both of these outcomes.
It's an unfolding story ...the outcome of which is anybody's guess, given the new 'brain drain'.