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THROWING RURAL DE-POPULATION INTO REVERSE

In 1845, just before the Great Famine, 13,000 people lived on Loop Head, a bleak finger of rock and acid soil sticking out in to the Atlantic in County Clare in Ireland. Today, it has only 1,300 inhabitants and for twenty years after he set up his studio and foundry there in the early 1970s, Jim Connolly, a sculptor, watched the depopulation process continue, with house after house being boarded up and abandoned as the elderly occupants died or families moved away.

As the parish's population fell, the quality of life available to the remaining inhabitants deteriorated. Shops and pubs closed and schools were amalgamated or lost teachers. Signs of dereliction were everywhere. Like many places in rural Ireland, Loop Head seemed to be caught in a vicious circle in which, because some families left, others had to leave too. According to an estimate prepared for the West of Ireland as a whole by Dr. Tom Boylan of University College, Galway, whenever four families leave an area, another family nearby loses its income and might have to move away too because of the reduced amount of local spending going on.

What could be done to stop West Clare's decay? There were no jobs in the area to attract incomers so Connolly's first thought was that craftworkers like himself might be a solution as they brought their work with them and were practical, resourceful and resilient people. But then he realised that the unemployed were another group which could draw their income anywhere and that even if they stayed on the dole, fifty resettled families would pump at least 500,000 into the local economy and gain personally as well, not least by bringing their children into a clean, safe, crime-free environment where they would be in much smaller classes in school.

Excited by this idea, early in 1990 Connolly went on to the Gay Byrne Show, Ireland's most popular daily radio chat show, to talk about it. "I'd no notion of setting up an organisation myself" he says. "I just wanted somebody to take up the idea. My attitude was 'let this cup pass from me...'" But when over a hundred letters from families wanting to move out to the country from city housing estates arrived at his home after the broadcast, he felt that he could not just ignore them and a few weeks later he began meeting families off the Dublin bus in Kilrush on Friday evenings, taking them to a bed-and-breakfast for the night and then driving them around the district the next day so they could get an idea of what it was like and what sort of rented houses were available.

A lot of the expenses he paid himself. "I hadn't realised how close people living on the dole are to the financial edge. They just don't have the money for anything extra. One woman sold her washing machine to be able to buy the bus tickets for the journey down."

At the end of the year, six families with twenty-one children between them had moved west out of Dublin and, by early 1995, 161 other families had been resettled too, predominantly in Clare but with at least one family going to rural areas in a total of sixteen other counties. Thirty-five families moved in both 1993 and 1994, a small fraction of the number of applications received. "We've 3,000 people on the waiting list and whenever we get any publicity, dozens more letters flood in" says Paul Murphy, who administers Rural Resettlement Ireland, the organisation Connolly's one-man effort became, from a Portakabin a short distance down the road from Connolly's house.

"Many, many more people could have moved if we had been able to find suitable houses" says Murphy, a former Dublin bus driver who moved out of Dublin with his family under RRI's auspices himself. Connolly agrees, and complains about the number of houses being bought up in coastal areas by wealthy people wanting holiday homes. "Some of those houses would otherwise have been rented to us" he says. To get around this problem, RRI has started a campaign to get every rural parish with a declining population to find a house for a resettled family each year for the next five years and over thirty parishes have already joined up. It is also building five houses in partnership with a voluntary housing organisation and purchasing another five houses with 90% grants from the Irish government.

But finding enough decent, dry houses which are available to rent on a long-term basis at a figure which families on social welfare can afford will always be a problem and one of Connolly's ambitions is to establish a 1m. revolving fund to buy up properties in need of repair, renovate them, and sell them on to migrants using shared ownership mortgages. These involve the householder paying a rent for half the house and a mortgage for the other half. Already, about thirty of the incomers are buying their houses with share mortgages from Clare and other county councils and RRI has been trying to persuade Dublin Corporation to give similar assistance to any of its tenants who surrender a council house and move to a rural area. It argues that for every family which leaves the city, the Corporation gains by not having to build a new property for someone on its housing list.

RRI is also trying to involve the commercial banks and the government in providing shared mortgages for low income families who move to rural areas and seems to be having some success. "Although almost all resettled families are unemployed" Paul Murphy says, "the Bank of Ireland has agreed to make mortgages available to them at 6% interest to cover a third of the price of a property if another third can be covered by a government grant and the balance by RRI's revolving fund. We plan to use money we've been promised from the United States through the Ireland Fund. The problem at the moment is that some officials in the Department of the Environment [which looks after local government matters in Ireland] seem to be dragging their feet."

Given the huge imbalance between the number of city people who apply to move and the supply of houses that can be found for them, how does RRI select the families it will assist to re-locate? "We don't. It's a self-selection process" Murphy says. "The ones that write two or three letters and generally keep in touch are asked to get references for us from their children's school and their local authority. When we get those, they go on to our active list and we visit them to make sure that they have a positive attitude and are not just wanting to move out of desperation. We also ask them to take a course which takes two evenings a week for six weeks and covers such things as coping with change and cultivating a garden." Indeed, the prospect of getting a house with a patch of land on which they can grow things and perhaps a shed where they can do some carpentry or take up a craft are two key reasons why many families want to move to the country.

So far, only twenty families who moved out of the city with the help of RRI have decided that they had made a mistake and moved elsewhere. "The main reason they left was that they were not well enough acquainted with the area before they came and consequently did not really know what they were letting themselves in for" Murphy says. One couple, Antony and Noeleen Boland, decided to return to Dublin after one of their six children, Rebecca, choked on a piece of meat and, unable to breath, turned grey. Without a telephone and with their nearest neighbours living over a mile away, there was no-one to whom they could turn for help. Noeleen eventually managed to clear the child's windpipe with her fingers but the close shave convinced her that she should not risk her children's lives by living in such a remote place any longer.

Their return to the capital did not last very long, however, and they moved back to Clare after joyriders drove a Ford Fiesta into their garden. "I was watching my son out the window the next day talking to his pal" Antony Boland says. "The mate was saying to him, 'Did you see the Fiesta last night? Wasn't it great?' 'Yep' my son says, 'fab'.

Happy to have left the city: the Boland family. Anti-clockwise from left are Noeleen, Bernadette (10), Maria (8), Noeleen Jnr (6), Emma (5), Anthony, Rebecca (9), Anthony Jnr (11).
I was getting worried about him. Now he's out in the fields with me saying, 'Da, how long does it take to be a vet? He wants to be a vet or a farmer, not a thief."

Now, the main thing that Noeleen misses is the shops. The family has no car and groceries are delivered on the back of a tractor. Antony, who misses Chinese takeaways, is still unemployed but is on the board of management at the children's school.

"Almost all the families who come have experienced long-term unemployment and the difficulties that inevitably go with it. Problems such as a lack of confidence and marital, emotional and alcohol difficulties will not be cured by a move to the country" Jim Connolly says. "People are not immediately better off when they get here: they are pursuing a dream. However, by taking a brave step, you can boost your spirit and your sense of enterprise. Some are very bouyant, fabulous people." Families with children at junior school generally experience fewer problems with re-location than those with teenagers. "Younger children make new friends more easily. Teenagers are the problem because they miss the group with whom they have been going around" he says.

Certainly, giving up a warm, dry, relatively-spacious Corporation flat on a secure tenancy and saying goodbye to everyone they know imposes severe strains on those going through it. "Every family that moves experiences financial hardship too" Connolly says, explaining why he has been trying to persuade the Irish government to make grants of 1,000 available. "Furniture removal is not the only expense. Other immediate costs include bus fares from Dublin, fuel, the purchase of food, local travel, some decoration and so on. These have to be covered by social welfare payments and often these payments are delayed by the move so that families have to borrow from whatever source they can. The financial difficulties caused by the move have contributed to some families' decisions not to stay."

The local reaction to the incomers is generally favourable. "In a few cases, individual families have turned out to be troublesome tenants and have left unpaid bills but other families resettled in the same area do not seem to have suffered as a result. On the whole, families are judged on their merits and there are many examples of how schools, shops, sports clubs and so on have benefitted" Connolly says.

While it has not yet agreed to the 1,000 resettlement grant, the Irish Government's attitude to RRI has been positive and it currently pays roughly half the organisation's 80,000 annual running costs. These cover a staff of three in Clare - Paul Murphy, his secretary, Michelle Cahill, and Derrick McDonagh, the field officer, who visits community groups including those in parishes which have undertaken to house a family each year, investigates properties and helps families settle in. There is also an office in Dublin run by Catherine Stapleton. So far, individual benefactors have covered the shortfall. For example, President Mary Robinson passed on a 25,000 award she had been given after a visit in 1994 and the Portakabin was purchased with using funds sent by a woman in the United States.

Clare County Council has also been very supportive and both the assistant county manager and the county solicitor sit on the RRI board. "I've got a fantastic board of directors" Connolly says. "I needed people of experience and standing to give the organisation credibility and when I asked the county solicitor to join he said 'I don't need to think about it. It is a privilege.' The Bishop of Killala in Co. Mayo is also a member."

Nevertheless, Connolly is frustrated because, despite its support for RRI, he believes that the government response to rural depopulation has been entirely inadequate. Projections published in 1994 suggest that the population of the West of Ireland is likely to fall from 551,000 in 1991 to 441,000 by the year 2011 as a result of outward migration and the drop in the size of the average family. "The government has no policy towards the rural areas and without such a policy huge areas of our beautiful countryside will become wastelands without people" he says. Later, Paul Murphy mentions that a government report he has just received states that the vicious circle of decline is terminal in certain parts of the country and that their communities cannot be saved.

Connolly argues that both the depopulation of the countryside and the social disintegration in the cities - the crime, the unemployment, the drugs - are due to the economic system's failure to provide an adequate way of valuing resources and sharing them out. "Money is not an accurate measure of value" he says. "The real wealth of Ireland includes space, peace, access to culture, natural beauty and a million other things which have always been available to those with money but have not been included in the equation defined by the dominant economic order. I see this beautiful country around here and not a soul in it but we could share it, in a practical way, with not just hundreds but thousands and maybe tens of thousands of families to everyone's benefit.

"The philosophy whereby our country functions at the moment is 'I'm all right Jack'. This is deadly and inhumane. To my mind, sharing is the only philosophy that counts. My personal concern isn't for the grass, or the lonely roads, or even the lonely houses. It is for the people who might live here and the fact that they could have better lives". "

RRI's work demonstrates the willingness of thousands of families to leave the city permanently to live and work in the countryside and anyone who doubts that rural Ireland now offers a better life than its capital has only to visit a mainline station on a Friday evening to see the exodus of thousands of people, mostly students or singles in their twenties with jobs and flats in the city, on the extra trains 'home'. Dozens of long distance coaches carry many more. Everyone pours back into Dublin on Sunday night. "It wasn't like this in my day" a friend in his fifties remarks. "We couldn't wait to live in Dublin. It was where all the life was and all our friends. Going to see one's parents was a chore. Now, the life is in the country towns and the kids can't wait to get home."

Rural Resettlement Ireland Ltd., Kilbaha, Kilrush, Co. Clare. Tel. 065 58034, fax. 065 58242, e-mail rri@iol.ie

Paul Murphy's book,Do You Think You'll Like the Wind? (Collins: Cork, 1995) about his family's experiences moving from Dublin to Co. Clare is available from him at the address above for 9 postpaid.

Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

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