Rural Ireland is in deep trouble. To say that is not to announce anything new because the way of life in rural Ireland has been under severe pressure now for several decades.
But the threat to the rural society that is central to the Irish character and to the image we have of ourselves and the image people around the world have of us has increased dramatically over the last decade. And that has been particularly evident during the economic collapse we have just been through.
The threat is not just to the family farms that have been the defining characteristic of rural Ireland for so long. In fact, farming has been doing relatively well in the past couple of years, although the consolidation and decline in farm numbers has continued.
Also under severe pressure are the villages and towns across rural Ireland which have been caught in a downward spiral of closing businesses and lost services. The cumulative effect of all this is the ending of a way of life that has defined us as a nation.
Despite the importance of the issue, it is not one that gets much attention. The decline of rural Ireland does not make the news that often, except when some new announcement makes people stop for a moment and think.
That happened again two weeks ago when our national bus service announced that it intends to drop around 100 services around the country or reduce them substantially. The company says it is going to pull completely out of Route 7, which runs from Dublin to Cork via Kilkenny and Clonmel, and Route 5 between Dublin and Waterford, via Wicklow and Wexford. Many other routes will see services drastically reduced and around one to five rural communities will be left with no direct service at all.
The bus company blames low passenger numbers and says it is a use it or lose it situation. Farming and rural support groups have reacted strongly, local politicians have made sympathetic statements and a reassessment of the proposals is now underway. But the government is unlikely to increase the already high subsidies for bus services, and the changes seem inevitable.
What this will mean is that poorer people in these areas who cannot afford to run a car will be cut off. Many of these people are older and already coping with increased isolation as little crossroad shops and rural pubs close up and businesses migrate to big provincial towns.
Even though around 40 percent of the population still lives in rural Ireland, there has been a dramatic reduction in retail outlets and services in rural areas in recent years. This has included the loss of many public services such as local hospitals, Garda (police) stations, post offices, libraries and small junior schools in rural areas, villages and even in small towns. Commercial services like local bank branches, savings and loans offices and credit unions have also steadily vanished. This reduction in local services has been relentless and is still on-going.
For example, 95 Garda stations have closed over the past two years. Over the past 16 years, 162 district court buildings have been closed. Over 200 post offices have been closed since 2006. More than 130 bank branches have been shut since 2008. Almost all of these closures have been in rural villages and towns.
The post office closures have been particularly damaging, since they are where many people pick up their welfare or pension payments and then do their shopping in the local shop. In isolated rural areas a visit to the post office, which is often also a small store, would have been the social highlight of the day for many older folk.
This withdrawal and concentration of shops and services initially led to the development of large shopping centers in or near large provincial towns, further sucking the commercial life from local towns and villages. But during the economic collapse of the past decade the trend has moved even further, with these provincial centers losing out heavily to the nearest cities, facilitated by our new national motorway network.
An example of this can be seen in Tullamore, home of boom-time Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen and once one of the most vibrant big commercial towns in the country. It is one of the three big towns in the midlands, the other two being Mullingar and Athlone. All three have shopping centers and malls and state service offices.
Now they all have empty units, business is slow and Tullamore in particular is very depressed. Getting to the much bigger shopping centers in Dublin or Galway is now takes less than a couple of hours by motorway from the midlands, and that is what a lot of people are now doing.
There are other problems as well which are affecting life in many rural areas across Ireland, one of the main ones being the absence of high speed broadband. This makes it even more difficult for rural areas to compete for jobs with the cities, even though these days we are supposed to be able to use the internet to work anywhere.
The problem of isolation and loneliness is also significant in many rural areas, as is the question of security. This is especially true for older folk who live alone in remote rural areas and are easy targets for feral gangs of thugs from the cities who use the motorways to roam the country looking for victims.
This situation has led to frequent vicious assaults which have horrified the country. Yet the closure of local garda stations has continued.
The decline in the rural population increases the isolation of these older people who may have little social interaction for days on end. The removal of local services like health centers or hospitals to far away towns makes it even harder for them to access these services, even when there is a bus service.
The general stagnation in rural areas has been made far worse by the economic collapse, and any recovery in these areas and towns is likely to be slow, despite Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny’s mantra about Ireland being the best little country in the world in which to do business.
The collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy (particularly jobs in construction) led to waves of emigration of young Irish people, a disproportionate number from rural areas here. This has led to all those heartbreaking stories about the local GAA clubs who can no longer field a team, except when the emigrants are back on holiday.
As we said above, agriculture has been doing relatively well here over the past few years, but that does not automatically translate into more people working on the land. In fact the trend is in the other direction, as more amalgamation takes place and farms get bigger and more efficient.
We lost the majority of very small family farms back in the 1950s and ‘60s. But even since we joined the European Union in the early ‘70s, the number of family farms in Ireland has been halved.
Putting all of this together, it is clear that a fundamental shift is taking place in the structure of rural Ireland and Irish society in general. This shift has been going on for some time but reached a critical stage in the past eight years or so as the downturn hit.
More and more people are now moving from rural areas in the west and the midlands to the east coast. One forecast predicts that by 2030 about 60 percent of the Irish population will live within 25 miles of the east coast. Already, nearly half of the population in rural areas commutes to jobs in our large towns and cities.
What all this means is that the character of life in rural Ireland has changed forever. In the old days each local area was a world in itself, with the local village or town providing all the needs, services and security of the local people. There was a sense of sustainability and self-sufficiency long before these concepts became a part of the green movement and alternative economics.
That world -- the 1920s world of The Quiet Man or the 1950s world of the John Hinde postcard images of thatched cottages and red-haired, freckle-faced kids loading donkeys with turf -- is of a rural Ireland that is long gone. There was a degree of stage management involved in creating those images that the tourists to Ireland still love.
But there was a reality also behind them, of a slower, quieter and more pleasant way of life. Even more recently, in the past few decades, much of that survived and the quality of life in rural Ireland was essentially unchanged and intact.
What has happened over the past decade is that we are finally seeing the end of all that, the end of a way of life that made Ireland and the Irish what they are.
It may be inevitable -- the same kind of thing is happening in many other countries -- but it seems a particular loss in Ireland. Whether we will be the better for the change is extremely doubtful.