Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Walsh still leading the fight for Duhallow men and maids

Leader: Maura Walsh has been a stalwart on the rural development scene for 20 years. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Leader: Maura Walsh has been a stalwart on the rural development scene for 20 years. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Maura Walsh

Ken Whelan

I am chatting to Maura Walsh, the chief executive of the Duhallow IRD of 20 years standing. She is after yet another marathon meeting of company's board.

The meeting was called to discuss the company's strategy for the upcoming EU-funded rural development round and, of course, Environment Minister Phil Hogan's proposals on the matter.

She exclaims wearily: "God, North Korea has nothing on this."

"Maura," I interject, "we're here to talk about the past, present and future of rural development and not Fat Boy Whatshisname from the Far East and his role in modern-day dictatorship. So how did you start in this rural development business, Maura?"

"Well 23 years ago, I was working with the ESB in Tralee and doing an economics degree at the London School of Economics," – at which point I interject to say that Bertie Ahern got some parchment from there and this is immediately batted away with the wry sentence, "so did an awful lot of very colourful people''.

"Sorry Maura, just something that sprang to my mind," I sheepishly reply.

"So, at this time my boss in ESB sent me out to the Duhallow Rural Development Company as part of my studies to have a look at rural development there and write a paper,'' she continues.

Duhallow IRD is the rural development company which covers the Slieve Luchra area of east Kerry and north-west Cork – sparsely populated in general, but containing good-sized towns like Kanturk, Millstreet, Newmarket, Rathmore and some 32 villages.

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It had a lot of enterprise and social inclusion work to be done when Maura arrived to do her economic thesis and despite some conspicuous progress over the years since then, challenges still remain.

"I was married to Mark, who runs a farm machinery business in Castleisland and had a two-year-old child, so I took a year's leave of absence from the ESB to consider my future.

"The job in Duhallow IRD came up, I applied, got the position and have been there ever since.''

She has spent 20 years trying to revive the rural and cultural fabric of the villages and towns and the open countryside in Cork and Kerry; and 20 years lobbying various Irish governments and Brussels for funding under the LEADER scheme, which was originally created to protect rural Europe.

Sounds like a life sentence, so I ask her what it was like to deal with our political elite over all those years?

"Well it was Ray MacSharry who introduced the rural funding scheme when he was EU commissioner.

"The policy was a way of saving rural areas from 'out' emigration and as we were a voluntary organisation with a business ethos doing the same in Duhallow, we quickly engaged with the Commission.

"I have to say there was no cloak and dagger stuff back then and there were civil servants – now retired mostly – who took ownership of the scheme," she recalls.

"We were in new territory at the time, but the politicians and civil servants back then got what it was all about – development from the bottom up and not from the top down," Maura says.

"Remember we were in the late '80s and early '90s and 'out' emigration was affecting every rural community, so something had to be done and everyone knew it

"Then we had Liam Hyland – a complete gentleman – who put some order on the LEADER programme and gave local communities the chance and the funding to develop their local communities.

"He was followed by Jimmy Denihan, who headed up LEADER 2 and he added in the Exchequer funding, which saw the development companies grow from 23 to the current 36 groups.

"Noel Davern followed him and he introduced the White Paper on the issue, which in turn introduced the idea of 'rural proofing', which meant the programme was not negatively affected by policies devised in Dublin.


"Then Éamon Ó Cuiv arrived and separated the programme from the Department of Agriculture when he became minister for rural development. It was sensible enough.

"He tried to integrate all the State funding and services used in rural Ireland and was very wise when it came to funding distribution."

Ó Cuiv's modus operandi was to get the funding out quickly to the LEADER companies, so that they could get things going on the ground, but to keep enough of the tranche of EU and Exchequer funding in reserve to ensure everything promised was actually delivered, Maura explains.

This whole evolution of the rural development programme created the blueprint which has been so successful over the years.

She emphasises the role played by engaged civil servants in this evolution.

Ms Walsh also maintains that the Irish county managers and the Department of the Environment were always trying to muscle in and take control of the rural development funds.

"But they were always resisted by the engaged civil servants, both in Dublin and Brussels, who stuck with the knitting and insisted that the template for the rural development remained, as originally decided, was to be from the bottom up and not in the opposite direction,'' she points out.

"What people forget about the LEADER companies and other rural development initiatives is that they are owned by the people in the local areas and are supported by local communities and will not be given up by local communities,'' she maintains.

This is a clear reference to the recent spate of public meetings, which were called to oppose proposed plans by Minister Hogan to give local authorities and county managers oversight in the distribution of up to €350m which has been ear-marked for rural development in the six-year CAP programme to 2020.

"He doesn't get it," Ms Walsh says of Minister Hogan. "He thinks giving local authorities more influence in the distribution of rural development funding is the way forward.

"He is missing the whole point of rural funding. It's funding from the bottom up and not the top down. His plan will go pear shaped,'' she predicts.

Twenty years on, but there is still plenty of spark in Maura Walsh.

Maura reveals her favourites


"God, the sad life of people who work in rural development lead. Let me think ... Yes, it's 'Being There' with Peter Sellers. He plays a fella who is knocked down in an accident and when he comes to, all he can do is speak in gardening terms and quickly everyone thinks he's The Oracle."


"Let's see – cover to cover – 'Wolf Hall' by Hilary Mantel. And I like the Sister Fidelma series of books by Peter Tremayne, about life in Ireland in the seventh Century."

Irish Holiday

"I was born near Banna Strand so the sea is always somewhere I still love to go to. South Kerry is a place I love but also places like Kilgarvan and Gougane Barra."

Foreign Holiday

"I had a great holiday with my husband Mark in Cascais outside Lisbon recently.

It was paid for by the two kids. It was all sea and wind and there's a great bar there owned by the O'Loones – a family from Co Louth. When the kids were young we used to go to Brittany of course."


"I am a sucker for charities. I'm just after walking for 'Dogs for the Blind'. Self Help is a charity I got to know in my Macra days, Gorta and Trocaire on the foreign side.

"Any of the cancer charities here. They do such good work, and Pieta House, of course."

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