“Nothing has been done and there has been a wholesale flight from the land and from the countryside… As far as I can see, Government ministers resident in Dublin consider Dublin as Ireland. They forget that we exist and that there are such places as Kerry”. Although the above remark was made by Kerry TD John Flynn in the Dáil in 1948, it could just as easily have been made in any parliamentary debate on rural Ireland in the last 70 years. What has become a defining feature of Irish political life today is the tendency of some to view Ireland as confined to the capital, a view that is reflected in the policies and beliefs of successive administrations.
In recent times, Dublin-centric governments have implemented a string of policies that disproportionately hit rural Ireland. The 2014 abolition of the town councils meant depriving rural areas of an essential voice and while town councils were swiftly eliminated, legislators felt that the city councils deserved to remain. Anybody living in a rural area will know the unmitigated disaster that has been the national broadband plan. Delays, postponements and a general lack of information on the extension of fibre broadband to rural areas has left a large part of the country’s population with poor connections.
By the end of 2019, 30% of premises in Kerry were still in areas that service providers had decided not to supply-high speed broadband to, with those living in the neglected areas instead having to wait for state intervention. For comparison, 98% of premises in Dublin have access to high-speed broadband. Any student living in rural Ireland trying to complete college exams online with parents also working from home and other siblings finishing off online exams knows the limitations of the national broadband plan. At the heart of the issue of access to broadband is a question of fairness. Is it fair that a student in Dublin can easily access their course material online, while students in rural Kerry struggle to do the same? Why should employees working from home in Leinster have better working conditions than their counterparts in Munster? The honest answer is it is not right or fair, but of course, because it’s not a problem in Dublin, it’s not a problem.
The carbon tax that was brought in and championed by many Dublin TDs was, in reality, a policy that hits rural Ireland the hardest. Maybe they’re unaware of the fact that there aren’t any Luas lines in Kerry or that Dublin Bus doesn’t operate down here, but given the virtually non-existent public transport outside of cities, any increase in a carbon tax has to be accepted by rural Ireland. Not every family can afford a new hybrid overnight just because of a tax increase, meaning the carbon tax hits the poorest hardest.
These policies have effects and the continuous neglect of rural Ireland bears fruit. Of all the towns in Ireland with more than 10,000 people, Killarney in Kerry now has the oldest average age in the country. In the 2016 census, Donegal, Sligo and Mayo all saw a decline in their populations, with many other rural counties facing only marginal growth.
The reality is young people are leaving rural Ireland and not returning. While the Government is happy to construct new Luas lines, finance a metro and build the world’s most expensive hospital in Dublin, outside of the capital there has been a serious lack of meaningful investment. The future does not look too promising either. Our next government may very well feature the Green Party amongst its ranks. Eamon Ryan, leader of the Greens, previously voiced his belief that a village of 300 in rural Ireland would only need 30 cars. Such a condescending and arrogant view of rural Ireland can only come from a Dublin TD in one of Ireland’s wealthiest constituencies.
Back in 2019, Eamon Ryan suggested the national broadband plan unfairly benefited rural Ireland, asserting, “we’re giving a better deal to rural Ireland than to my constituents”. As someone living in rural Ireland and studying in Dublin, I can confirm this is not at all true. The idea that rural Ireland has fared better than Dublin when it comes to broadband is as ridiculous a suggestion as reintroducing wolves into rural Ireland. Unfortunately, Mr Ryan seems more concerned with reintroducing a predator that has not been in our country for 250 years than actually attending to the problems facing rural Ireland. Personally, I’d much prefer to get functioning broadband before they give us wolves.
With increasing concern over the impact of climate change, there appears to be a growing appetite for the reduction of Ireland’s emissions. Although these reductions could be made in many ways, Dublin TDs appear obsessed with focusing them on agriculture, an industry that rural Ireland depends on. People-Before-Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett has called for the national herd to be cut by 50%. How easy it is for a politician like him to make such an outrageous demand, knowing that any effects of the policy won’t harm his constituents in Dun Laoghaire, another affluent Dublin constituency. In case you’re wondering, there are not many dairy or beef farmers in South Dublin.
The decline of rural Ireland was not inevitable. It didn’t have to be this way, but for generations, rural Ireland has been cast aside and neglected. With this ongoing crisis, there is an opportunity for the government to emerge with a substantive plan to reduce regional inequality, to invest in rural Ireland and to turn around the decline.
The Blasket Islands off the West Coast of Kerry saw their population falling for decades. A lack of infrastructure and services ultimately left living on the islands increasingly difficult and the dwindling number of residents meant that the last islanders had to be evacuated to the mainland in 1953. Speaking of the people of the Blasket Islands, one of the islanders, Tomás Ó Criomhthain once said: “Ní bheidh ár leithéidí ann arís” – our likes will never be there again. If something is not done to reverse the situation, the future of rural Ireland lies with the Blasket Islands. The decline of rural Ireland would mean the death of a way of life that has defined Ireland for centuries – of rural parishes, family farms, of communities up and down this country brought together by a way of life that politicians in Dublin will never understand. One thing is for certain, if the fortunes of rural Ireland do not change course, then one day we too will be able to repeat the sorrowful phrase “ní bheidh ár leithéidí ann arís”.