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Jim O'Brien: The revival of the 'cottage industry' ethos has the potential to transform rural communities


Vision: Eamon de Valera in 1947, four years after his famous speech that envisioned an Ireland whose prosperity was driven by an industrious and youthful rural population. Getty Images

Vision: Eamon de Valera in 1947, four years after his famous speech that envisioned an Ireland whose prosperity was driven by an industrious and youthful rural population. Getty Images

Vision: Eamon de Valera in 1947, four years after his famous speech that envisioned an Ireland whose prosperity was driven by an industrious and youthful rural population. Getty Images

Cottage industry is making a dramatic comeback. Eclipsed in the 18th century by the arrival of steam power and consigned to history by the ensuing industrial revolution, it has enjoyed a remarkable resuscitation thanks to the revolution in information technology and the Covid-19 pandemic. Its revival could presage an equally dramatic regeneration of rural communities.

In agrarian societies the family was at the core of business, with the challenges and burdens of the enterprise shared by the household and everyone playing a part. Family labour and total family engagement in enterprise was a feature of societies since the dawn of civilisation. Just prior to the industrial revolution cottage industries mushroomed where families produced goods that were sold on to merchants.

This was not as idyllic as it sounds. Indeed, those of us who worked on family farms in the twilight of Ireland's agrarian days will attest to both the joys and the drudgery of the experience.

When the first steam-powered textile mills emerged in the 18th century, families migrated from the countryside to work as family units in these factories. This practice continued until child labour was outlawed and systematic education was introduced. In Britain a series of Factory Acts, Mine Acts and Education Acts between 1819 and 1891 saw the employment of children under 10 years of age banned and compulsory education introduced.

In family businesses like shops and farms a form of child labour continued and continues to this day, albeit in a much more benign environment.

Over the years for most families, working life and domestic life developed as two completely different realities. In fact, in modern times the children of parents who work outside the home often have no idea what kind of work their parents do.

The pandemic, almost overnight, has re-established the cottage industry as a key element in the social and economic reality of people's lives. Homes have become hives of industry as rooms, chairs, tables, corners and sheds are commandeered to accommodate the new reality.

Children are often drafted in to help with photocopying, printing, filling envelopes or cycling to the post office. I'm sure many are longing for the days when they were blissfully ignorant about what Mammy or Daddy did for a living.

The growth in home-working should have a profoundly positive impact on some of the burning issues that dominated debate and discourse during the last election, such as housing, transport and balanced regional development.

Some rural auctioneers I talk to are witnessing increased levels of enquiries from rural people living in the commuter belt and working in Dublin. Many of these have come to realise that they don't need to go to 'the office' except perhaps once a week or even less often.

They are thinking seriously about selling up in the Greater Dublin Area and moving 'back home' where there is a strong network of family and friends, cheaper childcare and less crowded schools. Meanwhile, thanks to the wonders of information technology they can maintain their jobs and career prospects.

In the last number of years towns and villages throughout the country have been funded by LEADER and other development agencies to convert community facilities into shared workspaces in an effort to entice people who could work remotely to relocate.

Many of these well-equipped hubs are under-utilised since remote working was often a hard sell among employers and workers who remained unconvinced about its viability.

Disastrous rural broadband provision was also a major contributory factor in this reticence.

Housing stock The rebirth of home-working could prove to be a game-changer in terms of rural regeneration, while simultaneously freeing up much-needed housing stock in and around the capital.

It would certainly have a positive impact on transport costs across the board, leading to a national reduction in C02 emissions along with a reduction in commuting times and a distinct improvement in the quality of people's lives.

Things have been turned upside down since March when homeworking became a key strategy in 'flattening the curve' in the spread of Covid-19.

Home-working, along with the utilisation of locally managed workspaces and the provision of decent broadband, could bring about the flattening of that other curve, the curve of imbalanced development where everything, from emissions to rents and homelessness, continues to spike in Dublin.

In 1943 the then Taoiseach Eamon De Valera articulated a vision of Ireland that was essentially rural. Much parodied and decried over the years, perhaps its day has come, although it might not be quite as he had envisioned. Thanks to the miracle of technology, the emerging rural Ireland will be populated and industrious, but it will also be a more diverse place where the youths are free to be comely and the maidens proud to be athletic.

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