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Tuesday 11 December 2018

'The decline is frightening' - North Kerry businessman sends out stark warning about rural decline

North Kerry businessman Eamon McElligott sends out stark warnings about how rural decline is affecting his and many other communities around the country

Eamon McElligott: 'The place is being abandoned by the young'
Eamon McElligott: 'The place is being abandoned by the young'
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

Eamon McElligott is a young man in a hurry. At the tender age of 25 he runs the oil distribution business he inherited from his father, and has just taken over the running of a pub. However, while he is passionate about his homeplace, his business and his community, all around him he is faced with rural decline.

His first love in his native Ballylongford in North Kerry is the GAA. "It is the central block around which everything else is built, but the statistics are frightening," he says. "Twenty years ago Ballylongford was playing at the top level of senior football in Kerry; today we are playing at the lowest level and struggling to field a team. Every available young fella in the place is playing, not because he wants to but because he has to. Players are travelling miles at the weekends to be here for matches and training."

At underage level the once thriving Ballylongford club is joined with two other parishes to make up numbers and a fourth will have to be added next year. The numbers in primary school paint the picture even more graphically. "There are three schools in the parish," Eamon explains. "In 1998 there were 490 pupils in the three schools, in 2008 there were 174 and now, in 2018, there are 96 pupils on the roll books. This is an extraordinary depletion in numbers."

There were no junior infants enrolled in Ballylongford in 2017. "I am 25 years old and there is hardly anyone my age or ten years older left around here. They're in Australia, Canada, America, London, Holland and Dublin. The loss of this age group means there will be no young children and that is frightening in terms of the population," he said.

Eamon uses the word abandonment to describe what is happening. "There were 22 shops in this town at one time - it is now down to two. The Post Office closed in the last few months and that was a huge blow. The place is being abandoned by the young because when a place lets them down, they abandon it."

'There is no buzz here'

According to Eamon, once young people come to the conclusion that there is 'no point in hanging around here' it is hard to blame them for going. "They leave for the right reasons, they have to live their lives, there is no buzz here."

He points to centralisation as a key issue in rural decline, "The recovery is centralised, we see no signs of it in places like Ballylongford. I took three orders this morning for €100 worth of oil. The people who need that won't get much for it, but they need it and that's all the money they have."

He believes things could be very different. "We are on the Shannon Estuary, the second deepest estuary in the world - in the world - it is a rare and a wonderful thing, but it isn't being used at all. If this was any other country, this would be a city.

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"There is a land bank here by the estuary that for years has been earmarked for construction of a gas terminal. The most recent attempts to establish it have been stopped because of environmental concerns, but there is no urgency about progressing it, because it's not Dublin," he said.

Eamon points out that even the housing crisis is centralised, but he argues it could be addressed if people in power just looked around. "There are 20 unoccupied houses in Ballylongford. If we got 20 families or 100 people to move in here, it would transform the place. Just five miles away in Listowel there is a brand new housing estate of 12 houses lying idle.

The Shannon Estuary
The Shannon Estuary

'Services are still here'

"We need to incentivise people to move to rural areas while the services are still here. In our case, Listowel is closeby and it still has a lot going for it. There is a six-mile beach just down the road in Ballybunion, there are secondary schools in Tarbert and Listowel."

Sometimes, Eamon admits, he thinks the downward trend is irreversible. "I am worried that things might be gone too far. Something will have to be done soon. The decline is frightening, if it continues like this for the next 20 years places like Ballylongford will disappear," he said.

But the young Ballylongford man has hope that the decline can be stopped and reversed. He believes government policy in relation to addressing problems needs to be targeted.

"For instance, the VAT on the hospitality sector was imposed without thought for rural areas that have a small but important hospitality sector. Around here many summer jobs depend on the holiday season in Ballybunion, but the increased VAT rate will hurt. The hospitality sector in Dublin might be flying but why not grade the VAT rate according to area, like they do with commercial rates?" he asks.

Eamon believes rural areas have the resources and capacity to help themselves and help the country as a whole and his last word is an appeal to people like Leo Varadkar.

"Don't forget us, we can help with the housing crisis, we can give people a great quality of life, we have amazing natural resources on our doorstep, all we want is some support."

Tabú documentary examines how we are failing rural Ireland

Ballylongford and Kiltyclogher in Leitrim will feature in a special programme on rural decline to be aired on TG4 tomorrow night Wednesday, November 14, at 9.30pm.

Part of a series entitled Tabú, the hour-long programme will look at how the local communities in these villages at either end of the country respond to rural decline.

According to producer Medb Johnson of Midas Productions, both localities are intimately connected to the birth of the nation 100 years ago. Ballylongford is the birthplace of 'The O'Rahilly', killed during the 1916 Rising and Kiltyclogher is the birthplace of Sean MacDiarmada, one of the signatories of the Proclamation.

"It is interesting that 100 years after the struggle for independence, these two villages are struggling for survival," Medb said.

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