Saturday 1 October 2016

Lifelines... tackling rural isolation

A Limerick farmer and a west Clare-based Garda are taking practical action to tackle the issues around rural isolation

Published 14/06/2016 | 02:30

Garda Edel Burke chatting to Gregory Fitzgerald, young Kathleen and Isobel Curtin and Pat Curtin and at Curtin's farm, KIlmihil, Co Clare this week. Photo: Eamon Ward
Garda Edel Burke chatting to Gregory Fitzgerald, young Kathleen and Isobel Curtin and Pat Curtin and at Curtin's farm, KIlmihil, Co Clare this week. Photo: Eamon Ward
Seamus Sherlock, founder of the Life After Debt support group. Photo: Liam Burke.

The caller at the other end of the phone was in a highly distressed state.

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The bank was foreclosing on his loans and his tractor was going to be repossessed.

The advice he got was, "Let them take it. You'll get another one down the line".

A few days later the young man ended his life.

The tractor is still in his farmyard, untouched.

He was one of the people Seamus Sherlock couldn't help, out of the countless who contact him each week, having reached rock bottom, looking for help or advice.

The Life After Debt campaigner and ICSA rural affairs chairman has been there himself.

In August 2012 he barricaded himself and his five children into his home at Appletown farm in Feohanagh, Co Limerick after he was threatened with eviction from his bank due to outstanding mortgage repayments.

But he came out the other side and following negotiations with the bank, remains on his property.

He says financial pressures are one of the main factors in the growing suicide epidemic in rural Ireland and when you're the one under those pressures it's a lonely place to be.

Seamus puts his salvation down to community and the countless people who travelled from all over the country to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in his time of need.

"I said to myself, 'if these people are willing to do this for me, I must be worth something'," he told the Farming Independent.

His story inspired fellow Tipperary native, Gda Edel Burke, to contact him when she set about trying to combat the sense of isolation she felt people were experiencing in west Clare where she's stationed in Kildysart.

She says she needed to do something about the growing sense of isolation and the breakdown in community, not helped by the closure of rural garda stations.

In the six months leading up to May, she organised five public meetings in Co Clare to address the issue.

Seamus Sherlock was the guest speaker at all of these forums and she also receives support from her garda colleagues, Teagasc and the farming organisations.

She is planning more this autumn and already has been liaising with colleagues in Donegal who are keen to copy the idea. "Seamus's message is one of hope and he was the first person I approached," she said.

Fear

"He had hit rock bottom and come out of it and I thought this might inspire other people who are feeling isolated," she said.

Gda Burke says money has been the big issue in the last few years, along with loneliness, fear and the isolation that comes from a lack of connectivity.

"They are not even getting out to the pub to meet people and no one really visits houses anymore.

"During the boom years we lost the run of ourselves but I think maybe we're getting that sense of community back now, slowly."

Another key component of the Clare meetings has been Sgt Joe Downing, the Crime Prevention Officer for the district.

"Not knowing who their local garda is has had a huge impact on people and makes them more likely not to report a crime. And if we don't know a crime has been committed how can we do anything about it?

"It's a pity so many rural garda stations were closed, especially when there hasn't even been any money saved by doing this."

Encouraging people to attend has not been as difficult as she thought, given how private country people can be.

There's always a cup of tea afterwards and this is when people can really open up.

Usually, the person they seek out is Seamus Sherlock.

"I have been approached by so many people who say, 'You were speaking about me there', because they recognise the situation," Seamus added.

"All people want is to hear someone talk who might understand what they're going through."

However, he firmly believes loneliness is not just experienced by the bachelor farmer living alone in a cottage at the side of the mountain.

"With a lot of the people who contact me their marriages have broken down and because they don't have the financial means, they're still living under the one roof with their spouse and a word hasn't passed between them in years and these are the people telling me they're desperately lonely," he says.

He firmly believes many farm accidents and fatalities are linked to people who are under stress and overtired because they're not sleeping or eating properly.

Regardless of the cause of the stress, the common thread is shame and a feeling of worthlessness.

Now that a new Minister for Rural Affairs has been appointed, Seamus says the first words he'd say to her is to switch the lights back on in rural Ireland.

"I'm going to be meeting Minister Heather Humphreys very soon as part of a delegation and I'll be telling her I don't believe rural Ireland is dead at all.

"It's only smoldering and what it needs is a spark. Broadband is a huge issue and we can't wait another five years for it," he says.

He'd also like to see a reversal of the decision to close rural garda stations to renew a sense of security.

These are also the issues that keep on coming up at the meetings.

For Gda Edel Burke the purpose of holding these meetings is simple.

"It's only to try to reach out to people and let them know you're there for them.

"There are plenty of men and women too out there who are equally isolated and these meetings are all about getting people talking," she says.

Indo Farming

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