Farm Ireland

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Muintir's actions speak louder than any words

James O'Neill, Muintir na Tíre's regional development officer for the south-east pictured at the launch of Community Text Alert for Dranagan, Co Tipperary, last March. Muintir na Tíre has organised over 600 Community Text Alert areas since the scheme was launched in May 2013. Photo: Joe Kenny
James O'Neill, Muintir na Tíre's regional development officer for the south-east pictured at the launch of Community Text Alert for Dranagan, Co Tipperary, last March. Muintir na Tíre has organised over 600 Community Text Alert areas since the scheme was launched in May 2013. Photo: Joe Kenny
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I recently received a message to ring a man called Paddy Byrne, president of Muintir na Tíre. I recognised the name of the organisation but knew no more about it. My return call took me on a fascinating visit to a voluntary body that has been the backbone of rural community development for two generations.

Muintir na Tíre literally means "people of the land" and I vaguely thought it was some sort of social thing for middle-aged farmers past their Macra days - a sort of ICA for men.

I was wrong in pretty much all of this. Firstly, it is about groups of people rather than individuals. It is comprised of men and women, many of whom have no connection to the land except that they live in rural areas.

At its heart is the promotion of community spirit and its core principles are neighbourliness, self-help and self-reliance.

When I got through to Paddy, he was out on a tractor, on the side of a mountain, in his native Askamore, Co Wexford. When I ask whether this is for leisure or necessity, he laughs.

I am not the first to assume that he is on 'big money' but he, like all Muintir board members, is entirely voluntary; they only get their out-of-pocket expenses. Perhaps it's a case of those with a weak community spirit being suspicious of those with a strong one.

For the record Paddy is a drystock farmer, mostly sheep, with some forestry. He also contract rears heifers for a dairy farmer.

He has been involved in Askamore community all his life and became president of Muintir na Tíre last autumn.

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Muintir was established by 1937 by Father John Hayes, a visionary priest who was born in a Land League hut in east Limerick in 1887; his funeral in Bansha, Co Tipperary 70 years later was a national occasion attended by leaders of church and state.

One of his famous quotes was: "You can pray over the kettle for as long as you like but, unless you plug it in, it will never boil." It's likely this was said in the context of rural electrification - one of the many and varied initiatives spearheaded by John Hayes.

On February 7, 1953, the Evening Herald carried a story from Monaghan that would be considered hilarious today.

The item concerned an old man paying his customary weekly visit to his sister who had just been connected up.

"He watched with fascination as she operated the new electric iron and boiled water in the new electric kettle, but stubbornly refused to drink the tea made from the latter, as he believed that the water was electrified. Willy, nilly she had to make fresh tea from water boiled in a traditional kettle on the turf fire."

Muintir had come into being shortly before 'The "Emergency' (World War 2) hit Ireland and it made a mammoth effort to allay theeconomic hardship of the time. Among its initiatives was an Angora rabbit scheme, which provided fur for the jacket linings of plane crews, and a potato allotment scheme.

There were many successes and some failures with endeavours that gave people a sense of confidence and pride in themselves and their communities.

While some commentators have doubted whether Muintir has had an appreciable long-term impact on rural emigration and unemployment, its role in community development and addressing social isolation is unquestionable.

Most people will be familiar with two of its initiatives, Tidy Towns and Community Alert. The reality is that many people don't realise that Muintir is behind them and Paddy Byrne admits this is something of a problem for them, that they have somehow become separated from their own initiatives.


The work of Muintir ranges from the provision of an operational framework for community groups, right through to drawing down financial support for individuals including, for example, through Community Alert, personal alarms.

Muintir actually represents over 1,200 community groups. Over half of these have taken up its Community Text Alert scheme that was launched just 18 months ago.

In the Tipperary Garda Division, which has no less than 34 text alert schemes, the number of rural burglaries has fallen by 20pc and drug detections increased by 14pc.

Niall Garvey, chief executive of Muintir, says Divisional Superintendent Catherine Keogh has openly stated that the single biggest factor in the improved crime figures is the community text alert system.

Looking to the future, Paddy is worried about the endless erosion of support for rural communities and considers it incomprehensible that there is still no national policy for rural Ireland.

For example, while plenty new houses have been built in recent years, the countryside has become even less vibrant, as many people travel long distances to work every day.

He is also concerned about the impact of deregulation in the dairy sector. From a societal point of view, 10 farmers milking 50 cows is far more vibrant than one milking 500.

Money is part of the issue - in common with so many other organisations, their funding has been slashed over the past five years - but Paddy also points out that there are things which can be done with very little investment. A case in point is litter.

If everybody with a social conscience picked up one piece of litter a day, he believes the issue could literally be solved overnight. "Think of what that would do for tourism," he says.

In March, Muintir na Tíre teamed up with a number of national bodies in a drive to improve living standards in rural Ireland. The initiative is being co-ordinated by the Save Rural Ireland alliance.

Rather than trying to fight the battle on every front, they are focussing on five key issues: rural broadband, post office viability, insurance in flood areas, GP cover and control of scrap metal. The alliance is urging people to make rural support a general election issue.

Part of the challenge is to get media coverage. "If you are jumping up and down on the streets of Dublin, you will get plenty of attention," says Paddy, "but it's far harder if you are trying to create positivity."

Paddy believes they also need to continue to cultivate community spirit. As another well-known rural development advocate Fr Harry Bohan has said: "Community is the foundation of human society. Isolated, we curl up and die."


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