Northern exposure: How Donegal is leading the fightback for rural Ireland
Once an economic blackspot with shockingly high unemployment rates, Donegal is now leading the fightback for rural Ireland.
It has been under our noses all along and we didn’t even know it.
When I tell a local in Brennan’s bar in Bundoran that I’ve come to Donegal because it has been named ‘the coolest place on the planet’, he smiles and keeps his eyes on his pint. “I think that was a misprint, they meant ‘coldest’,” he says.
A few others nestled into this charming old bar burst into laughter. Self praise is no praise up here.
I find many locals who are a little uneasy with the accolade. “If we’re cool, then I suppose it’s because we don’t try to be cool,” is a common reaction.
In National Geographic magazine’s ‘Cool List’ which identifies ‘culture capitals, hipster hotspots and wild escapes’, Donegal finished ahead of Santiago in Chile in second and Helsinki in third.
A glowing article told of the county’s “weather-nibbled coast” and described it as “a land that feels undiscovered”.
And in many ways it is on the money.
Last weekend, Irish Independent readers continued the trend, voting Donegal Ireland’s Number One ‘hidden gem’.
The north-west corner has certainly enjoyed (or endured, depending on your perspective) isolation for centuries, adrift from the rest of Ireland.
Within an hour, I’ve lost count of the number of ruins I’ve passed on the roadside as I weave my way from Donegal Town to Ardara and on to Falcarragh. Homes where life once flourished are now dilapidated. The last census listed 23,899 vacant dwellings in the county — almost one in three of all houses.
On Monday, the Government is to announce a programme of renovation grants to restore properties in small towns and villages across rural Ireland in a bid to lure people back to counties such as Donegal. But many here feel that door is well and truly closed.
People say that to halt rural decline would take a much more dynamic approach, and fear this scheme will have little impact in bringing people home.
The action plan was developed by Rural Affairs Minister Heather Humphreys and Regional Economic Development Minister Michael Ring.
Minister Humphreys’ proposal commits to creating 135,000 jobs in rural Ireland within the next three years and increasing foreign direct investment in those areas by 40pc in the same period. There is also a commitment to increase the number of tourists visiting rural parts by 12pc. More than €50m will be invested in sports, recreation and cultural facilities, according to the action plan.
Speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties last July, Minister Humphreys said:
“I do not believe it is feasible to simply promote the development of cities and large urban areas, while rural areas are left to decline. What would the people of north-west Donegal think if the policymakers of the day told them they weren’t going to be provided with public services, that transport links would cease, that the airport would close and the school buses would stop running, because there isn’t a sufficient ‘population cluster’ to justify such supports?”
Some see the action plan as merely a political ploy by Fine Gael to win back rural votes at the next general election rather than the solution to the multi-generational woes of rural Ireland.
Donegal waits patiently but has learned not to get too excited by false dawns.
Emigration and unemployment have left visible scars on this stunning county. In 2011, the unemployment rate in Donegal was a shocking 26.2pc. Thousands left in search of work, bringing the current rate to just above 14pc — almost twice the national average.
The 2016 Census showed the county’s population reduced by 1.5pc compared to 2011. In five years, Donegal lost 2,382 of its people. The figure for outward migration in the county during this period was 6,731.
It was one of just three counties which recorded an average decline in its population with the other two, Mayo and Sligo, seeing the number of inhabitants declining by just 0.1pc and 0.2pc respectively. Donegal’s rural decline came with a capital ‘R’.
For all that though, Donegal is leading the fightback in rural Ireland. The accolades are not arriving by accident. This county, ignored for so long, is not relying on others to lead it through the smog of economic stagnation.
The colourful cafés, developing ecosystem of new enterprises and outdoor and adventure-based activity offerings are turning heads and there’s no doubt but that the establishment of the Wild Atlantic Way is having a hugely beneficial impact on the county. Where one goes, others follow and it’s clear that an organic network of start-ups is developing throughout the county.
Dr Ciaran Richardson is one of those who is counting his blessings.
The Gweedore man, now the research and development manager at Randox Teoranta, a medical-diagnostics firm, found his way back to Donegal after moving to Galway and Cardiff to study, and on to Dundee in Scotland where he worked in academia.
His wife Bríd came from a family of nine in Gweedore — the pull to come home was always strong, but Ciaran says the job that would bring him back had to be suitably demanding. Incredibly, such a role emerged just outside the town of Dungloe.
“In 2010, I got a job as team leader at Randox’s facility in Antrim. We were delighted as it was nearer home. What happened next was amazing. Senior management asked if I’d be interested in relocating to Dungloe and heading up their R&D effort.
"I started here in June 2012. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We had two children at the time, and because Randox had a long-term vision for the facility, I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Randox employs 100 people here in Donegal with most of the staff coming from the county.
Through the company’s links with local projects, Ciaran is on the ‘Mary from Dungloe’ judging committee, and his wife and three children are loving life on home turf.
“The children have their grandparents, aunties and uncles around, and the freedom we enjoyed as children to play in the rolling fields and sandy beaches.”
And Ciaran’s girls go to the same Gaelscoil which his wife attended. Indeed, all those I spoke to during my time in the county, especially in rural areas, spoke in glowing terms of the local education services and of the benefits of smaller class sizes.
While acknowledging that once second level ends, their sons and daughters are likely to have to leave the north-west to continue their education, there’s an acceptance that this is the case.
As in other rural counties with sparse populations, there’s a continuous fear that the local GP practice will close. Pensioner Annie Gallagher told me in a café in Letterkenny: “I live well outside the town and if my GP wasn’t there, they may as well put me in a box now. I’d be lost without him.”
She uses a local taxi to get in and out for messages. Indeed, private bus and transport operators in Donegal link rural areas with towns. Many choose to use them ahead of the public bus system.
And while Letterkenny General Hospital recently hit the headlines for having the second-highest trolley crisis in the country, those I spoke to had confidence in the medical facility. But there’s real concern with the length of time it takes for those in rural parts of the county to get ambulances. In 2015, Letterkenny hospital spent €1.17m on private ambulance cover.
Highland Radio fills the silence as I travel on, until Mount Errigal comes into view. I pass the sign for Donegal Airport — voted one of world’s top 10 scenic landings in 2016 by global aviation group Private Fly, before arriving at an Údarás na Gaeltachta Enterprise Centre in Gweedore.
From the window of his office, Joe Coyle points in the direction of his home: “My commute takes seven minutes, always seven minutes,” says Joe, a journalist who left his position in Dublin to set up his own company in his native county last year.
For four years Joe, a Glaswegian by birth, was commuting from Donegal to Dublin.
“I’d be up on Monday morning at 4am, I’d get the bus around 4.30am, be on O’Connell Street by half nine and into the office by 10, arriving as grumpy as can be.”
For the first year, the father-of-three stayed in a house he and his wife Maria, a primary school teacher, owned in Swords, and then lived in guesthouses around Dublin for the following three.
“I was missing the children, they were missing me, I was a weekend dad. Ella, our eldest, used to ask ‘Why do you have to go to Dublin?’, then when our second girl, Molly, started to ask questions, I knew it was time to take the leap,” says Joe.
And he’s delighted he did. Designing newspapers, magazines and publications for the corporate sector, Joe now enjoys the best of both worlds but acknowledges he wouldn’t have been able to move home had it not been for the rollout of broadband.
“Even five years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible. I probably wouldn’t have found a job had I not created one at home. My hope is that I can help the community to create more jobs and opportunities so that when the time comes, my children might have the option to work at home rather than leave.”
And that’s the big problem in Donegal. For those who remain in the county, at least three quarters of the people who were in their secondary school year have left.
At a local level, efforts to reverse the tide continue. Udarás client companies have launched a recruitment drive, advertising 100 ‘cool jobs’ in the ‘coolest place on the planet.’
In Carrigart, Declan McConnellogue, originally from Derry, and Sue Cruse, who worked in TV production in Britain, cherish the way of life afforded to them in Donegal.
They returned from London in the autumn of 2011 and set up The Haven Smoke House where they turf smoke organic salmon.
“We love it here. The pace of life, the openness, the unspoilt natural environment, everything,” says Sue as their four-year-old daughter Lara plays with her doll’s house.
“People thought we were mad to return when we did,” says Declan. “I worked hanging wallpaper in London, and while everyone was leaving Donegal, we were heading in the opposite direction. But we’re so happy we made the move.”
So taken were Sue’s parents by the place that they, too have moved to the county.
Gradually, the business has grown and the couple now cater for hotels, restaurants and cafés in Donegal, as well as for local individuals and online customers.
I later call in to the Kinnegar microbrewery on the banks of Lough Swilly in Rathmullan where Libby Carton, who runs the business with her American husband Rick LeVert, explains how it took some time to crack Donegal but now their support base in the county is loyal to the core. “Making your own beer really is hard work. The most over-romanticised area of activity in modern day but of course we’re enjoying it,” she says.
As the day closes, I point the car in the direction of Downings, a Gaeltacht village unlike any other. It is at the tip of the Rosguill Peninsula, reaching out at full stretch to touch the top of the world. From here the Northern Lights can often be seen.
I pass a GAA field where one sideline nearly touches the Atlantic. On pitches such as this, youngsters try to emulate the scoring feats of Michael Murphy and relive that dream day in 2012 when Jim McGuinness led the men in green and gold to All-Ireland glory over Mayo.
On the village pier, I find a world of colour — purple, cyan, lilac and every shade of red known to man. I’m in the production room of McNutt of Donegal, the family company which has been producing some of the world’s finest weaves for 60 years. William McNutt explains that the business has had to adapt quickly, and with Brexit looming, may have to do so again.
“In textiles, you have to keep re-inventing yourself. It’s like surfing, you catch the big wave, it’s great, but it only brings you so far, you have to find another wave again.”
Brexit looms large in the lexicon of Donegal. At the Inishowen Gateway hotel in Buncrana, sales and marketing manager Joleene McDermott explains the concerns amongst local businesses that potential visitors will be lost.
“Our fear is that there will be preconceived notions by people about changes to the border which may not be accurate.”
The hotel is only 40 minutes’ drive from Derry city centre.
The timing of Brexit has proved particularly unfortunate in Inishowen, where businesses have been working hard to attract tourists and investments from the North.
At the Lake of Shadows Hotel, resident chef Ronan Deery prepares succulent local beef on a bed of fresh vegetables and champ. If you were served this in a plush hotel in D4, you’d be ecstatic.
Further north at Malin Head, Bren Whelan, a mountaineering instructor and diver who runs Wild Atlantic Climbing, tells me how he looked after Luke Skywalker, aka Mark Hamill, during Star Wars filming last year, and believes that exposure will help bring more people to the area. “This place is spectacular. I’ve travelled the world and I don’t know of anywhere as magical as the Inishowen Peninsula. We have the space but not the human traffic. There are over 400 shipwrecks off our coast. It’s a unique and inspiring place.”
Eve Belle (18), the Gweedore-based singer-songwriter recently praised by Chris Martin’s Coldplay for her version of their song ‘Violet Hill’, says that Donegal is “raw, relatively untouched and beautiful”.
“That can be reflected in the people — because of where we are we’ve had to be creative in everything we do. When I’m away from that, I want to come home to write.”
The difficulties with access to the county has its pluses and minuses, and is a bugbear of Ian Harkin, MD of Arklu, which produces the hugely popular Lottie Doll.
“Our road access leaves so much to be desired. It’s a real shame, particularly from a business perspective, that this hasn’t been addressed because it really does have a negative impact on a county like ours.”
Claire, a former secondary school teacher, and Stephanie Kee of the Ahoy Café in Killybegs agree. They set up their business last May serving homemade delights such as crab burgers and blueberry muffins.
“Last summer, when the sun shone, we had a wonderful acoustic musician playing outside and then when the clouds gathered, people came in and sat around the fire. It was very ‘Donegal’.”
Back in the south of the county, I meet Killian O’Kelly who, along with his wife Mary, runs the dynamic TurfnSurf hostel and surf school in Bundoran. Five years ago, he came up with the idea of providing direct transport from Dublin city centre to the hostel — the ploy has worked.
“During the summer, we have a 53-seater coach leaving from the Grand Canal,” he explains. “People book online, the surfing and accommodation and the bus. Also we provide a barbecue, live music, a whole social scene.”
He believes the issue of access has to be addressed if Donegal is to live up to its potential.
“We’re never realistically going to compete with Dublin and other urban centres for traditional jobs but there’s no reason why we can’t become the nation’s playground. We just need to provide people with a quicker and better way of getting here,” he says. “Get the people here and they’ll soon see why it’s the coolest.”