Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 4 December 2016

'The slippery slope gets deadlier by the day'

Rural resettlement pioneer Jim Connolly fears that large swathes of the countryside will become little more than 'green deserts'

Published 17/02/2016 | 02:30

Jim Connolly pictured in Kilbaha, Co Clare.
Jim Connolly pictured in Kilbaha, Co Clare.
Jim Connolly with his grandchildren Brian, Hannah and Orla.
Julie Moloney (right) with members of the Kerry Dark Sky Group. Photo: Don McMonagle.

Ireland's dwindling rural population is leaving farming families isolated and unless drastic action is taken now, rural life as we know it will cease to exist, a leading community activist has claimed.

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Jim Connolly set up Rural Resettlement Ireland over 26 years ago, a charity that assists families from over-populated areas in Dublin resettle all over the west of Ireland.

Census figures reveal that most parts of the west are now down to less than 10 people per square kilometre, compared to less than 25 people per square kilometre in other rural areas.

Only 120,000 of the 1.5 million rural dwellers are farmers but each is dependent on each other for sustainable communities with proper services.

Mr Connolly says that rural Ireland has been failed by successive governments and action is needed now to address this crisis and prevent large swathes of the country from becoming 'green deserts'.

He says only radical action now will save Ireland.

Jim traces his interest in tackling rural decline to the 1970s, when he was living in Glenties in Co Donegal and teaching in the local comprehensive school.

It was around this time he attended a public meeting where the conclusions of a three-year study on southwest Donegal that had been carried out by An Foras Forbartha was being discussed.

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Well-known rural rights campaigner Fr James McDyer of Glencolmcille was also in attendance.

The study concluded that unless something was done, in 40 years there would be no one at all living there.

"To cut a long story short, I got involved with him and a committee was set up to try and do something about it," Jim recalls.

A few years later, he and his wife and family relocated to west Clare to Kilbaha on Loop Head, where they have been for over 40 years.

"I found the exact problem there as there had been in southwest Donegal and the issue of falling populations was very strong.

"Old people had paths worn to the graveyard and there were empty houses everywhere, no one following on and populations falling down.

"I thought at that time that if people from over populated areas in Dublin could be attracted down - but the perceived wisdom was that if there wasn't jobs, what was the point," he says.

The lack of jobs held him back for over 20 years until he changed his mindset. He thought if people were living on social welfare in Dublin, why couldn't they enjoy a better quality of life in the west.

This was 1990 and Ireland had over 300,000 unemployed with the greater proportion of these in the Dublin area.

Jim puts his thoughts to paper and sent it to a few people and it was picked up by The Gay Byrne Show on Radio One.

That week, Jim received 100 letters of inquiry. Rural Resettlement Ireland was set up and since then it has helped over 800 families from Dublin settle all over the west of Ireland.

Opposition

"The key to its success was that it was never its intention to set up a ghetto anywhere," Jim says.

"The available houses came in on an ad hoc basis and over time these were upgraded - so when families moved in there might not be another Dublin family within 30 miles and that's why it worked.

"There was opposition from some people who said, 'why are you bringing down unemployed people from Dublin who are going to take the few jobs we have?

"But depopulation creates unemployment. You're going to lose schools and lose services and where you have no people you have no potential whatsoever of development."

The majority of the families that did relocate have stayed in the areas and Jim says the original settlers are now grandparents whose grandchildren are helping to keep the local schools open.

"Some of them will go abroad like all our children but enough of them will stay and integrate into the local community and life goes on," he adds.

Jim's own family are an example of this. He and his wife Kathleen first moved to the area with two small children and then had a third. Now it's a joy to them that their three children, their spouses and nine grandchildren are all living around them in west Clare.

"My own family is proof of the net result of new families coming in to an area," he says.

Another family that moved to Kilbaha from Dublin with the help of Rural Resettlement Ireland stopped the local school from becoming a one-teacher school, ultimately saving the school.

"What happens is it gives the community a break. When the farmer's son settles down, there's a school there to send his children to and those families become totally integrated in the area and that's been happening all over Ireland," Jim says.

Now aged 78, Jim Connolly continues to do what he's been doing for the past 26 years on a voluntary basis with no funding from government.

Like any charity, it relies on fundraising but he says they do the best they can to assist families make that move.

He still gets letters from school principals desperately in need of new families to save their schools.

He believes in the wider picture of how communities thrive and this is dependent on them having a sustainable population that makes services possible.

"There will always be farmers but they can't live in isolation and as time goes on there are fewer small farmers but more big farmers making lots of money but with no community to live in so where are all the services going to be for these farmers' children?

"This is a crisis and one that we can see the end result of all over Europe and they call them 'green deserts'. And it breaks my heart to see rural Ireland and its culture going.

"Successive governments have failed us utterly over the years in this respect and the slippery slope gets deadlier by the day. It's up to ourselves like never before to take action now," he says.

'The new family saved our school'

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Jim Connolly with his grandchildren Brian, Hannah and Orla.

Liam Woulfe, principal of Labasheeda National School in Co Clare, contacted Rural Resettlement Ireland for help when his two-teacher school was faced with losing a teacher.

"Our numbers went down just as Ruairí Quinn's new pupil/teacher ratio came in and the numbers needed for a two-teacher school went up to 20.

"We have numbers to come in the future but if we had gone down to a one-teacher school at that stage, we'd never have brought it back up again," he said.

"We were in dire straits until Jim [Connolly] got involved and he got us a family and we managed to make the numbers on appeal to the Department of Education in May 2014.

The school now has 27 pupils enrolled and the future is looking brighter. If the school had gone down to only one teacher it would have been extremely difficult for us to survive.

"Rural Resettlement hasn't just benefited us, it's also a huge benefit to the families who come as well.

"The school numbers are smaller but you're able to dedicate time to get to know the families that come in and a small school is also a very stable environment for children to learn," he added.

From urban stress to new horizons in Kerry

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Julie Moloney (right) with members  of the Kerry Dark Sky Group. Photo: Don McMonagle.

Mother-of-four Julie Ormonde was faced with a dilemma over 20 years ago bringing up her children on her own in Dublin.

Always a lover of peace and solitude, Julie took the plunge, uprooted her children aged 11, 9, 6 and 3, and moved to rural Co Kerry with the help of Rural Resettlement Ireland.

She says her only thing she knew about rural Ireland was from Glenroe. Twenty years on and she has no regrets. Now living in Waterville, she has also made an invaluable contribution to her local community.

Julie, a keen astronomer, secured an international designation for south Kerry as Ireland's first and the northern hemisphere's only Gold Star International Dark-Sky Reserve.

She says: "The area I was living in Dublin had a lot of social problems and I reckoned that if I stayed there I'd lose at least two of my children to either drugs or crime, no matter how good a parent I thought I was."

Julie heard Rural Resettlement Ireland founder Jim Connolly being interviewed on The Gay Byrne Show and it planted a seed in her head.

Eventually, she says, they settled in but she learned that for this to happen she had to make the effort to get to know people.

"I have no regrets at all," she says.

"All my children got a very good education and went on to third-level.

"Living down here, they went to school with the doctor's children, the farmer's children and the shopkeeper's children. There was no segregation."

Now a grandmother, two of her children have since moved to the city but she has no desire to ever move back to Dublin.

However, she advises anyone thinking of moving to make sure they like peace and quiet and won't miss the hustle and bustle of city life too much.

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