On Monday evening I settled down to watch Nationwide on RTÉ. It’s always good viewing and brings a glimpse of different parts of Ireland into one’s living room each week.
What got me excited was a particular story concerning two young professionals who had moved from Dublin to Ennistymon in Co Clare.
The couple were the embodiment of the positives that Covid is reaping on Ireland. That might sound like a strange statement but in moving out of Dublin to a small rural town they were the confirmation that perhaps under Covid, or rather from it, rural Ireland can finally get the break it needs.
Kymann and Áine are both digital creatives working in the fields of production and social media and decided to take a lease on a country bar and use it as an operations base.
Moving to the west coast and rural life has had its ups and downs. For them access to broadband has been an issue and at times they have had to work from the local digital hub in the town (I’ll come back to the broadband in a moment).
However, the benefits of rural living for them at least seem to outweigh the drawbacks, whether it was sea swimming or enjoying village life and getting to know the locals.
The story of these adventurous pair gladdened my heart because it points to a growing trend in the move away from urban living and placing quality of life over other things.
But Kymann and Áine are not alone – the great exodus out of the cities has already begun.
Many friends in London have retreated from that great metropolis to be closer to family and friends in the English countryside. Speaking to a dear friend this week she articulated to me why she had moved out of the trendy suburb of Islington.
She wanted a break from the intensity of urban life and for her son to be able to grow up with his cousins and have a more comfortable upbringing. Village life meant her son could see his extended family and have a big garden to play in and all the fresh air he wanted.
Time and again I have heard stories of people making the move out of our own capital to return to, in many cases, the western seaboard.
The west has it all in terms of scenic beauty, food and adventure but for such a long time now rural Ireland has been in decline. The most recent figures available have indicated a decline in the rural population wherein more and more people moved to urban centres.
The move was a two-fold measure. The jobs were by and large in the urban centres as were the services; secondly, as the English writer and farmer James Rebanks once remarked, young people are trained in schools to leave the land and rural communities.
In short, school was a preparation for the urban life.
I too was part of that preparation, school and later university prepared one for a life in an urban centre in my case Sydney and Toronto wherein I used the skills I had learned to make my way in a city.
At that time during that decade, returning to a rural community was just not something I could comprehend. Where would my work come from? How would I carry out my business? And what sort of social life would I have?
Covid, however, has put all this on its head. A little more than a year ago we all took part in a global group experiment to see if we could work from home and use modern technology such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams to carry out our work.
It was a gamble and many businesses could not fathom their employees working independently by themselves.
A year on and the experiment is still ongoing, we have learned it is possible to do one’s job remotely and that for many white-collar workers, all they really needed was a decent broadband connection.
Broadband, however, is still a major issue. It’s not available everywhere and there are connection black spots.
Without decent broadband we are preventing workers from moving to rural communities as they simply can’t work.
Indeed, a recent article from the Irish Independent indicated that Government figures suggest there are at least 400,000 rural homes that currently cannot receive even minimal high-speed broadband.
Speaking to a real estate agent friend in recent weeks, he commented to me that the first question asked by all new buyers – and many were moving out of Dublin to be back in their home communities – was about broadband. If there was no broadband the house was quickly dismissed.
With broadband working in an area, the positives are endless for both the new family and the local community. These returned people bring with them new ideas, new tastes and new innovations.
Perhaps Covid can bring the so-called Ireland we dreamed of, to quote Dev’s much-maligned speech. The fields and villages could be joyous with the sounds of industry as opposed to a place where people just transited through.
The industry now could be a new cafe, a trendy restaurant, an outdoor adventure company, a tech solutions business.
In order for this nation to truly prosper we need these inward migrants to come and take up the diggings of life outside the urban centres. They will bring new ideas and new ways of living. It will be a victory for us all.
For my wife and I, we have come from years of urban living to rural life. We are, I hope, part of the wave that will help revitalise the world we have come to love deeply.
I’m waiting for the day that I can get a skinny flat white in the local village cafe. And, you know what, it won’t be as far away as you might think.