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Sunday 21 April 2019

The land of the silent Yes...Is the urban-rural divide is overplayed?


Stitch in time: Sixth-generation tailor Robin Johnson voted Yes in the recent referendum and bristles at the idea that places like Tullow aren't as liberal as the more urban parts of Carlow. 'We can go on the internet too,' he says.
Photo: Frank McGrath
Stitch in time: Sixth-generation tailor Robin Johnson voted Yes in the recent referendum and bristles at the idea that places like Tullow aren't as liberal as the more urban parts of Carlow. 'We can go on the internet too,' he says. Photo: Frank McGrath
Tom Byrne's car bears a sticker of Padre Pio
John Meagher

John Meagher

It may be just a short drive from Carlow town, but the village of Tinryland feels as though it is from another world.

High hedgerows line the narrow road into this tiny place and everything centres on St Joseph's Church and its graveyard which affords pleasant views of the rolling countryside of Carlow and Kilkenny. Curiously, for a rural Irish village, there's never been a pub here and Deane's, the shop that served the community since 1946, closed three years ago.

Tinryland may not be known outside Carlow, and even then residents of the country's third least populated county might be hard placed to say where it is exactly, but it was once the largest parish in the diocese and it has the distinction of being the first village in Ireland to be 'turned on' during the rural electrification scheme in the early decades of the Irish Free State.

Last weekend, the people of Tinryland went to the local national school to vote on the abortion referendum - and they, like the rest of the county, returned a strong, defiant 'Yes'. Almost 64pc of the electorate in the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency voted in favour of repeal - a figure that comes close to echoing that of the country as a whole.

Tom Byrne's car bears a sticker of Padre Pio
Tom Byrne's car bears a sticker of Padre Pio

But in some of the subsequent media reports, a curious detail about the Tinryland vote emerged. Three miraculous medals were found in one of the ballot boxes - it was like a throwback to another time, the 1983 referendum where two-thirds of the country voted to insert the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution.

An elderly man stops to chat to Review in the grounds of St Joseph's Church. He says he has a good idea who placed the religious medals into the box with their voting slip. "I voted No," he says, "but it looks like I'm in the minority. The country has changed so much it's hard to believe it's the same place that I grew up in." He pauses for a moment. "But it's a much better country now."

A thirtysomething mother out for an afternoon walk in the strong Wednesday sun also does not wish to give her name. She voted Yes. "I'm not surprised that Yes won," she says. "There were an awful lot of silent yeses out there. I think the result would have been very different 15 or 20 years ago but Ireland is a very different place now - whether you're in Dublin or a rural part of the country like this."

Gap between urban and rural

The gap between urban and rural isn't nearly as pronounced as it once was, she says, and suggests that sometimes it's only those who live in cities that think that way.

It is a sentiment shared by one of the community's best known residents, Jim Deane. He is a Sinn Féin councillor and the Mayor of Carlow. He lives in a house close to the church where his father had established the village shop. During the Celtic Tiger years, he built a bigger premises across the road - but that's shuttered now. A new service station on the nearby M9 proved impossible to compete with.

"I don't believe in this idea of a Middle Ireland any more," he says. "There isn't that big a disconnect between somewhere like this and Dublin as you might think. For a start, a lot of the people who live here now commute to Dublin every day. The country feels a lot more connected and outside of rush hour you can be on the motorway and up to Citywest [on the outskirts of Dublin] in an hour.

"Years ago you'd have some rural people who would only go to Dublin on December 8. Some of them wouldn't even go to Carlow [town] from one end of the year to the next. But it's very different now. Everybody drives, the road network is unrecognisable, everyone's online."

Deane, who voted Yes though he didn't campaign for a Yes, believes the decisive result of the referendum speaks of a more liberal, tolerant and conscientious country. "And that's right across the board - whether you're in Dublin 4 or here. Okay, Donegal voted differently, but you didn't have that sort of divide that we had with the divorce referendum." That year, in 1995, the country was starkly divided between Dublin and urban constitutes in places like Cork and Louth and the rest. More than 54pc of the constituents of Carlow-Kilkenny rejected divorce that year.

Read more: All changed, changed utterly... Welcome to liberal Ireland

"A lot of it is to do with growing up and spreading our wings," Deane believes. He suggests that notions about 'blow-ins' rarely applies in rural Ireland any more and rather than local people being annoyed by new blood arriving, they see a lifeline for their communities.

"The GAA is huge here," he says. "We had five players on the Carlow team [that beat Kildare in a shock result in the Leinster Senior Football Championship last weekend]. People feel a real connection to it, no matter where they're originally from. It's great for the children."

A 15-minute eastward drive through Carlow's lush agricultural land takes the visitor to Tullow. It's a town of about 4,000 people and its main artery is choked with traffic, especially at the point where the bridge spans the River Slaney.

For many outside the county, Tullow is probably best known as the hometown of Irish rugby international Sean O'Brien - 'The Tullow Tank' - and the oval ball game has long been a big deal here. It used to be the epicentre of the country's sugar beet industry - but that's long gone.

Many people are happy to speak on-record to Review and the vast majority voted Yes. One of them, Eimer Foley, was heavily involved in campaigning for a Yes vote in Tullow, nearby Rathoe and her home town of Hacketstown. "I got a real sense that it was going to be a strong yes," she says. "I met people of all ages who said they were going to vote Yes and a lot of it was to do with the compassion they felt for women who've had to travel to England."

Urban commentators surprised by the resounding Yes in rural Ireland are out of touch, she believes. "The urban-rural thing is overplayed," she insists. "We've all grown up as a country. People can make up their own minds. You don't have the influence of the Catholic Church any more. That's long gone - no matter where you live in the country."

A sticker of Padre Pio

Further up town, on The Square, 70-year-old Tom Byrne is enjoying a cigarette in the hot weather. The windscreen of his Nissan Micra bears a sticker of Padre Pio and rosary beads are wrapped around his rear-view mirror. Anyone taking an educated guess might think he voted No. "I voted Yes," he says, proudly. "It was the right thing to do."

He says it is important that even his generation move with the times, but some things are sacrosanct. "I never, ever miss Mass," he says. "And that's the way it's been all my life."

Bernie Byrne - distantly related to Tom - voted No. But she accepts the decision and, in a strange way, considering her stance, she feels such a decisive vote says something positive about Carlow - and Ireland. "We're beginning to come alive as a nation," she says. "The Church used to hold so much sway… but those days are gone."

Gone too, she reckons, is that old-fashioned Irish notion of 'respectability'.

"You'd be judged before," she says. "There was this nosiness about you. I was a single mother and you'd feel it when you met people. Some would act differently around you. But nobody judges you now and if you're a single mother today, you don't have to put up with all that rubbish."

Her friend Rose Garry, also 60, voted Yes. "It wasn't a difficult decision," she says. "And you'd do it for your daughters or your friends' daughters. The idea of having to go to England because this country looks the other way… I hate that. But in some ways small town life stays the same - I still think you get judged more in somewhere this big than you would in Carlow [town]."

Further along the street stands Johnson's tailors. Robin Johnson is the sixth generation to carry on a family business that's been part of Tullow life since 1867. "They come from all over to get their suits made here," he says, and points to two identical suits he's working on at present. "That's for a couple that will be getting married soon."

The sight of the royal blue jackets and waistcoats offers a reminder of another referendum, from 2015, that introduced same-sex marriage to Ireland. "I think everything changed in 20-odd years," Johnson says. "And you've a new generation that won't put up with the bad old ways."

The tailor voted Yes. "It was a personal decision," he says. "It boils down to the safety of women. I have two daughters. They deserve a choice if something is wrong - it's not a family planning issue."

He bristles at the idea that places like Tullow aren't as liberal as the more urban part of the county. "We all get the same news feed. We can read the same articles. We can go on the internet too. We've young people and old people and we've all the same views.

"And maybe 30pc of Tullow today are Dublin people. And with property prices the way they are people have been moving all over the country, not just here - and that changes communities. But it's usually change for the good."

Idea of two irelands

Johnson believes the idea of two Irelands is redundant, particularly in somewhere like Carlow that's not that far removed from Dublin. "It's very accessible now and the sort of things you'd only get in Dublin can be had anywhere. I'm 44, and when I was younger the only place you could get a McDonald's was Dublin. Now, you can go five minutes up the road."

Back in Tinryland Jim Deane is contemplating about all that's changed. "One of the best things about Ireland today is that people don't get hung up on what other people think," he says. "And that's as true about rural Ireland as it is in the towns and cities."

The Middle Ireland of yesteryear was deeply concerned about what the neighbours thought. "You'd have people getting up out of bed early to be seen to have their fire lit and the smoke coming out the chimney," he says. "But it might have just been for appearances, and they might have gone straight back to bed after it.

"When the News of the World first came to this country, you'd have older customers for it, but they didn't want to be seen buying it so my father used to tell me to wrap it between the Irish Independent and Irish Press.

"Could you imagine that Ireland saying yes to abortion rights?"

VIDEO: Eighth Amendment Referendum - Discussion now turned to who will provide abortion services and when they will be available? 

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