Rural Ireland mustn't be left behind in race for urban excellence
Published 14/05/2016 | 02:30
'The Dingle area is fierce hot at the moment - and I'm not talking about the weather," said the man at the bar of the local Skellig Hotel. It was the end of a day which saw a long stream of early summer sunshine bathe the nearby mountains, as well as the ever-present Atlantic as it lapped the surrounding shoreline. The warmth of the evening lingered, providing that languid feel-good factor that can so intoxicate the Irish when they get an unexpected bout of good weather.
The man at the bar, who runs a local taxi firm, was luxuriating after a particularly good day for business. All the signs are that a bumper tourist year is on the cards. And so he mused that Dingle and its surrounds are especially 'hot' as of now, when it comes to luring even more visitors to embrace its charms.
A special road is already under construction in nearby Ceann Sibéal for the filming of the next 'Star Wars' movie. Those involved in tourism on the Dingle Peninsula, once described by National Geographic as "the most beautiful place on earth'', are determined to make the most of the latest arrival of Hollywood glamour.
But it's hard to know what the former secretary-general of the Department of Finance, John Moran, would make of all this - although it may be a reflection of rural Ireland at its money-making best. However, it is a part of the country over which he has placed major questions regarding long-term economic viability.
It has to be acknowledged that Moran did some sterling work in the department - if only for a two-year period - during the dark days when the national finances teetered towards disaster.
He has also shown himself to be an innovative and original thinker on a host of issues.
His latest suggestion, that city dwellers should essentially take precedence over those from more provincial locations, has challenged politicians of all parties and none. "Ireland must not prioritise the subsidisation of rural living patterns (especially one-off housing), if that comes at the cost of using the resources to develop at least one city reputed to be world class,'' he said.
He has also had a jibe at the new Government because it has not had a "measured debate'' about Ireland's real planning needs. "Instead, they want to talk about turf-cutting concessions, and how we subsidise the provision of the highest speed broadband to every house, however remotely dispersed across the country,'' he charged.
But perhaps his most contentious suggestion is that we should consider creating a "totally new city'' on a greenfield site, perhaps somewhere near Portlaoise or Athlone. This would be an antidote to the ever greater expansion of Dublin, where there is inevitable pressure on housing and related issues. But most importantly, the new conurbation would be a major pull for the growth of business and international investment.
He suggests that as an alternative to the new city proposal, Limerick, because of its location - rather than Cork - should be developed as Ireland's second major population centre. It would become a central hub, providing a range of services and jobs. These could be availed of not only by those living in the southern capital, but also residents of Galway, Waterford, Portlaoise, Ennis, Roscrea, Tralee and their respective hinterlands.
As far as Mr Moran is concerned, Ireland should face the inevitable. The move to big- city living is now an overwhelming trend throughout the developed world. Tokyo, for example, will have a population of 39 million by 2025. He suggests it's a question of economies of scale. All those major international urban conurbations will have a massive concentration of brainpower and resources, which will be of huge advantage in the battle to attract employment and finance. He fears Ireland will be left behind if we keep going as we are.
Mr Moran also refers to the 1960s Buchanan Report, which first called for the development of primary growth centres of population in Ireland at the expense of more remote areas.
It provoked scathing criticism at the time, most famously from the journalist and author, the late John Healy. He wrote an iconic book entitled 'Nobody Shouted Stop' which chronicled the effects emigration and depopulation already had on his native Charlestown, in Co Mayo.
The report was eventually quietly shelved.
But we should remember that Ireland is not the only country that indulges a kind of romantic linkage to a rural way of life which may be fast disappearing. In France, what became known as the Gaston Defferre Laws seemed like a bid to keep alive a lost world of the traditional Frenchman, complete with beret, rearing his family on the land and inevitably making his own cheese and wine. It may indeed make economic sense to embrace centralised Google-land, and all those attendant city-based jobs will be most welcome. But what will happen the man in the Skellig bar - and his ilk - in this brave new world? It will certainly be lonesome for those left behind.