Opinion: The next phase of rapid change is unfolding in our rural communities

Farmer Martin Ryan watches the peloton race by during Stage 2 of the Rás Tailteann from Athlone to Tipperary. Photo: Bryan Keane/INPHO
Farmer Martin Ryan watches the peloton race by during Stage 2 of the Rás Tailteann from Athlone to Tipperary. Photo: Bryan Keane/INPHO

jim o'brien

An old professor of mine would often contrast the Ireland of his youth with the Ireland of his students. "I was brought up at a time," he would say, "when the Pope's triple tiara, a Kerryman's football boot and the rosary beads were equal symbols of the Roman Catholic Church."

In reality, there wasn't much difference between his youth and ours, except for the triple tiara.

Those who don't remember the famous piece of pontifical headgear might like to know it was conical in shape with three bejewelled circles representing the 'triregnum' or the levels at which power was wielded by the pontiff - temporal, spiritual and ecclesiastical.

John Paul I decided to forego the tiara when he was elected Pope in 1978 and since then it has been consigned to the papal museum.

In today's Ireland the rosary beads look like they may be headed for the museum as the old rhythmic prayer becomes the preserve of funerals and pilgrimages.

Meanwhile, the Kerryman's football boot continues to be a potent symbol of another kingdom.

Much has changed since the days when the pope's tiara held sway; what we eat and drink, how we make our livings and how we spend our spare time are very different. Indeed, the very notion of spare time would amaze those who went before us.

Watching this year's Eurovision, the changed society we have become was beautifully illustrated when the performance of Ireland's entry included two male dancers enacting a story of romantic love between two young men.

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Of course, before we got to this point in our cultural evolution we had a singing turkey represent us at Eurovision, so maybe I shouldn't get too excited.

But there are some things that remain as touchstones.

I have lived in a number of rural communities and they are all pretty much carbon copies of one another. They are places where the school, the GAA, farming and the church are like anchored pulleys around which the belts of the community revolve.

The church is now the wobbliest and possibly the weakest of the lot, but it is still there.

While many people no longer religiously define themselves, we are all culturally shaped by the faith we were brought up in.

I am reminded of the writer Graham Greene who in his later years described himself as a 'cultural Catholic'.

There might be fewer and fewer attending church,, but every parish in Ireland is awash with cultural Christians, whatever their denomination.

The school will always be a focal point as long as there are children to be taught and lessons to be learned. However, the ethos and management of the schools are set for radical change in the coming decades as the church pulls back and management by the state and the community takes over.

While rural sports organisations took a hit during the recession, the return of economic stability sees them going from strength to strength.

Playing pitches, ball walls and community halls echo with the sound of under-age athletes being put through their paces by enthusiastic coaches and excited parents. Wherever children are involved there will be a crowd.

Farming as an anchor point in rural communities is bit like the church. It continues to be the major occupation outside the cities but, with fewer and fewer people full time on the land, farmers are decidedly in the minority compared to other occupations.

In last week's edition, Mike Brady suggested that changes being mooted in the new CAP could see farm payments confined to people whose 'principal business activity' is agricultural.

This weakening of the income generation potential of land could exacerbate a strong trend being identified by auctioneers where more and more farmland, particularly in the shape of smaller farms, is set to come on the market.

As succession becomes a real problem and pension provisions in many occupations are going from thin to anaemic, non-farming landowners are looking to cash in the family plot. Unless, of course, the place is substantial enough to generate a healthy leasing income.

One auctioneer told me that, this year in particular, the long lean winter and the slow improvement in the weather is causing many landowners, including farmers, to consider the future of their acreage.

The fodder shortage was nerve-wracking and, facing a silage season that is already late, many are having land valuations done as a first step towards exploring their options.

We could be in for a time of rapid change in the population and occupational structure of rural communities, a time when farmers could be fewer and farther between.

In this new dispensation neighbours mightn't quite understand what it means to be a farmer and new alliances will have to be forged to ensure farmers and the farming community don't become strangers in their own land.

Nature is change and change is natural, the evolutionary process continues.

We wont stop it; for the most part we cannot even manage it, but recognising and acknowledging the phenomenon is half the battle. Embracing it is the ultimate antidote to being overwhelmed.

To paraphrase my old professor, I was brought up at a time when a tractor, a hurley and a rosary beads were equal symbols of rural Ireland.

The hurley seems to be the only one now holding its own.

Indo Farming

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