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Con Houlihan: Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. . .

The world is all change. Perhaps the greatest change in this country is that rural Ireland is dying.

There was a time when rural communities had a great bond to which there were hardly any urban counterparts. There was an old saying in Irish about people living in one anothers' shadow. It was also said that you can live without friends but you can't live without neighbours. That aspect of rural Ireland is almost no more. Ironically there are more neighbourhoods in the cities now than in the country.

Several factors led to the change in rural Ireland: the most obvious is the proliferation of the car. It has made people fairly independent. And of course, people aren't as poor now as they were 30 or 40 years ago. They depend less on their neighbours. In my youth it was common for people to come in borrowing "a grain of tea" or "a sup of milk" or "a handful of sugar". These requests usually came from women who shopped only on a Friday when they got their Old Age Pension. It was all taken for granted. Indeed our own family were very good at borrowing too.

Decline

There is another reason for the decline of rural Ireland: people rarely work together in groups now. The saving of the hay could be a great occasion for group effort. This was called the meitheal.

There was an occasion when I was coming by train from Dublin to Kerry -- I saw 13 people, men and women, making wynds of hay in a meadow in Tipperary. A few of them were children, but nevertheless, it was a great sight which we will never see again. Silage has replaced hay-making in general. And the baler takes care of whatever hay is saved. Drawing in the hay used to be a big day. That is no more.

The hum of the thrashing machine is no longer part of autumn. The combine harvester takes care of most of the corn now. Drawing home the turf was another occasion for the meitheal but few people cut turf now.

All these changes cause people to have fewer bonds with one another. It used to be said long ago that you might not know your next-door neighbour in the city. The same is becoming true of rural Ireland. You see the change most clearly in funerals in the country and in the small towns: they used to be social occasions -- that isn't true anymore. Funerals in the country are almost as small as funerals in the city.

In the recent crisis caused by the snow the truth is that there were several people in rural Ireland who were isolated for many days. This didn't happen to the same extent in the cities because Saint Vincent de Paul and other societies have a register of vulnerable people.

This is not so in the country because for so long the old people and other vulnerable people depended on their neighbours. During the crisis I was without water for six days -- my neighbours in Portobello were brilliant.

In this country we have the Army and the Civil Defence and the Local Defence Force but these three bodies were not seen in unified effort in the recent crisis. Of course, they all did their best but their efforts were scattered. There was no central command. There was only so much they could do without leadership.

I will now tell you a story to illustrate the difference between the Ireland of my young manhood and the Ireland of today. I remember clearly an evening long ago when I was just going out the door of our house wearing a new suit.

A neighbour who lived a few hundred yards up the road from us came running with her hair flying around her and anguish in her face.

She shouted: "There is a cow in the drain in the field behind the crabtrees."

And she turned and ran up the road at a speed which Sonia O'Sullivan could hardly match. Mary Anne Walsh was her name -- a very hardy woman who was racing to alert her brother Denis and our neighbour Jack Egan who were bringing sand up from the river to refresh our local well.

Distress

Off came my coat. There was no time for taking off anything else and I got a spade. There were two ditches to cross and in doing so I probably broke the record for the 150 yards steeplechase, if such a race ever existed.

When I got to the cow, she was in terrible distress: she had fallen into the drain in such a way that she was wedged between the bank and the ditch and to make things worse she was facing the flow of the water and her body was blocking it. I jumped in and caught her by the horns and held her head up high.

I was wondering how long could I last when Denis and Jack arrived. There was no time lost because the water was getting alarmingly high. Jack dug away enough to allow the cow to stand up. My two friends took her by the horns.

I held her by the heels and we lifted her onto dry land. She shook herself and we gently brought her back to the yard where we gave her a big rub down with fistfuls of straw. Mary Anne gave her a bucket of warm yellow meal and bran. And the cow began to look her old self, or if you like, her young self.

The three men adjourned to the fire with whiskey and stout. We were happy. The last time we were together we mourned a death in the family. Now we were celebrating a life.

Fogra: Congratulations go to my young neighbour Gerry Mangan from Knocknagoshel, who brought home three winners at the Christmas Point-to-Point in Kanturk


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