Saturday 19 October 2019

Kathy Donaghy: 'With poor public transport and lower disposable incomes, it's not easy trying to be green in rural Ireland'

Journalist Kathy Donaghy with her 1971 VW Beetle. Photo by Lorcan Doherty
Journalist Kathy Donaghy with her 1971 VW Beetle. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy

The image of the rural-dweller cycling to the local farm shop to pick up a few in-season vegetables for the evening meal is something that exists only in advertisers' dreams.

The reality, where I live in Donegal, is driving to the supermarket to do the shop, driving to work - often miles away in a bigger town - and even driving to go for a walk on the local beach.

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Petrol price hikes announced in this week's Budget do feel punitive for those who are not within walking distance of a shop, and simply can't get out and about without a car sitting outside their front door.

Local papers in Donegal regularly carry stories about yet another local bus route under threat because it's not viable to run it anymore. The reality is, if you live anywhere off a main road, a local bus service isn't really going to serve you properly anyway.

READ MORE: The Big Read: 'You can't put cattle on the bus' - the post-budget carbon tax backlash in rural Ireland

Promises of a pot of money for rural transport will not go far enough. Without major investment in local routes and better links to big cities like Dublin, Galway and Sligo, the car will continue to be king in places like rural Donegal, where I live. People will just have to pay more for it.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe is promising a €9m investment in cycling and greenways. Cycling to work or run an errand is all but dead in rural Ireland. The main roads are just too busy. Cycling has become a lycra-clad pursuit, best done in larger groups for safety in numbers, or if you're going out on your own, by sticking to quieter back roads.

It's a catch-22 - more cars on the road means the roads are less safe, but what's the option if you need to be in work in Letterkenny by 9am and you live up a hill in a townland in Inishowen?

Heating oil price rises next May will also affect rural-dwellers more. Without access to gas and outlandishly prohibitive costs of retro-fitting homes to make them more energy efficient, this is another cost to be borne.

While the prices of houses and rents are cheaper in Co Donegal, disposable income per person in the county was 77pc of the national average, according to the CSO. The cost of retro-fitting is around €20,000 to €40,000 a home. While we all want to do our bit to save the planet, how can anyone budget for this?

But climate change is happening and it's real and those of us in rural Ireland have to play our part, too. We have to think about our increasing California-fication lifestyle - where we drive for miles to go for a coffee. While most pay for their bins and embrace recycling in all its forms, some think nothing of tipping their rubbish over the nearest ditch.

Fly-tipping in the country is not getting better and it's everybody's problem. People's desires for one-off housing - which has in some places become a kind of rural sprawl - has caused its own social, economic as well as environmental problems.

On the positive side, car-pooling or sharing lifts to get to work is something many people do every day. Local supermarkets have embraced the war on plastic and allow people to hand back their plastic at the tills and local farm shops and markets, where the carbon footprint of vegetables is lower, are part of local communities.

Rural communities have also embraced the green wave with many voluntary organisations like clean coasts groups doing their bit to remove plastics from beaches and keep the coastline pristine.

And with some of the most stunning mountain and coastal scenery on our doorsteps, we don't have to clock up air miles to take advantage of the majesty of the great outdoors or have the delight in finding yourself on a deserted beach stretching for miles.

While being greener is a work in progress for most of us, without a major review of rural transport and major investment in its provision, the reality is things are not really going to change much in places like Donegal.

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