Thursday 22 August 2019

Isolation lies at heart of call to action to bring people together in 'King' Henry's land

Canvass: FF candidate Deirdre Cullen with Brian Butler in Billy’s Tearooms in Ballyhale, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Damien Eagers
Canvass: FF candidate Deirdre Cullen with Brian Butler in Billy’s Tearooms in Ballyhale, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Damien Eagers
John Downing

John Downing

Rural isolation is high on the list of issues that prompted young teacher Deirdre Cullen to stand for election to her local council.

It seems an appropriate answer as we are standing outside Billy's Tearooms in the Kilkenny village of Ballyhale, famous nationwide as home to 'King' Henry Shefflin and his all-conquering Shamrocks hurling club.

On a fine May evening, it is hard to imagine such a beautiful and lush countryside having any problems.

But the threat of rural isolation - after the loss of five shops, three pubs and the post office - galvanised the entire parish to action with the opening of a co-operative tearoom and shop, run largely by 35 volunteers, which over the past 10 months has become a hub for all the community. The call to action came when just Andy's Bar right across the street remained open.

Deirdre Cullen arrives with her sister-in-law, Maureen, to meet two local teaching colleagues, Mark Aylward and Brian Butler, who have agreed to boost her canvass across the parish. Mark Aylward is a nephew of Fianna Fáil Kilkenny TD Bobby Aylward and no stranger to the canvass trail. Both colleagues also hurl with the Shamrocks, which is a great help.

They make a quick call to Billy's Tearooms where the shop and café team, including the redoubtable Noreen Murphy, offer a warm welcome and obligingly stand for photographs. Ms Cullen is from nearby Bennetsbridge, so there is plenty of local banter, mostly about hurling rivalries and what-might-have-beens in last year's county final between the two sides.

It is the candidate's first venture into local politics and she admits she has to overcome shyness about standing for photographs. But she also says she was "reared on politics and current affairs in a dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Fáil family".

Her work as a home-school liaison opened her eyes to the challenges and difficulties many families face.

The main aim of her job is to work with parents who are under pressure and try to minimise early school leaving and underachievement by vulnerable children. "Behind closed doors, it is amazing the problems many people face. Often, when you go looking for resources to help people, you can find the services are just not there," she says.

So, educational opportunity is also high on her list of priorities, as is keeping up pressure to improve a poor public transport service. This dovetails with strict drink-driving laws, which she supports, to make problems of rural loneliness more acute.

"I support the strict drink-drive laws, but people need alternative transport services and places to socialise nearer their homes," she argues.

Ms Cullen says she is acutely aware of the problems facing the farming community which are compounded by Brexit. These are virtually the same all across the huge electoral area she is contesting, from Graiguenamanagh on the Carlow border, through places like Bennetsbridge, and Cuffesgrange, all the way to Callan.

Lack of broadband is a big issue for rural Kilkenny and it must be rolled out soon, she argues. "But I think €3bn sounds abnormally high," she quickly adds getting back on message.

The candidate and her loyal band of supporters have canvassed everywhere they can and will continue right up to the end of polling day.

Irish Independent

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