IF the heart of the nation lies in rural Ireland, then the country is still on life support. I was reminded of this during a visit to Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, at the weekend – a town I lived in 10 years ago.
I was shocked by the scale of the town's decline. Boarded-up buildings and the closed-down shopping centre brought it home to me that much of rural Ireland is hanging on for dear life. In Ballyshannon, as is the case in towns all over Ireland, the young have fled, and people live in hope that a change in fortune is just around the corner. But if things don't change soon, this day may never come and we'll all be poorer because of it.
Walking through the historic streets of what is said to be Ireland's oldest town, my mind drifted back to a vision I once held for Ballyshannon and towns like it – a vision I still hold on to. It's a vision of vibrant small towns, where young and old support each other, where locally owned businesses sell local produce while still embracing the modern world of globalisation, technology, tourism and trade.
This vision is in contrast to the current model of development that is overly focused on foreign investment, urbanisation, and a soul-less vision for housing, transport and economics that has trapped so many of us in pressure-cooker lifestyles of commuting, negative equity, unaffordable childcare and precarious employment.
It is creating fragmented, car-dependent communities and is leading to the closure of small businesses, garda stations, hospitals and post offices. It is a narrow vision that is creating a centralised two-tier republic, a divide of rich versus poor, urban versus rural, in a land where many neighbours no longer know each other and old people live in fear.
I know from growing up in Co Cavan that small towns present their own challenges. But regardless of the downsides, rural Ireland still offers the prospect of a slower and more simple way of living in a world that can be too focused on speed, consumption and superficial success.
I experienced both sides of this when setting up the Community Creations organisation in Ballyshannon back in 2004. I was joined by kindred spirits, and we received generous support from local allies in the youth, health and education sectors.
Cheap rent meant we could afford a three-storey town-centre building, and an absence of urban distractions meant we had space to think and to get on with the work. This led to the creation of SpunOut.ie and to us eventually hiring staff, winning national and international awards, and reaching hundreds of thousands of young people.
Parallel to this were the challenges of being away from a main city. Internet speeds were slower, there were no nearby motorway or train lines, and to some people you might as well have been operating from Iceland. Even though it was the height of the economic boom, Ballyshannon, perhaps in part because it's a Border town, was missing a generation. So much of the town's life-force, the 18- to 40-year-olds were, like now, missing in action, gone to the bright lights of Dublin and beyond in search of opportunities.
Local development agencies were supportive in some ways but there was a sense that they were holding out for the multinationals. Young upstarts like us weren't seen as serious players when it came to the world of job creation and innovation. In the end, for a multitude of reasons, we said goodbye to friends and family, and headed to the more vibrant pastures of Galway and Dublin.
Returning to Ballyshannon on Saturday afternoon, I sensed an eerie quiet, a depression of sorts. A shopkeeper told me it was becoming a ghost town. That might be the case but to me Ballyshannon is still a town sitting on a goldmine of potential. It is surrounded by beaches and mountains, and has a strong community spirit and a thriving arts, cultural and drama scene. It has fertile land, friendly people and no shortage of local experience and expertise.
As the Government prepares to roll out its new jobs strategy, it needs to prioritise rural Ireland and local communities. It must move away from the kind of thinking that exports profits, squeezes farmers, and kills small towns and independent traders. Likewise, it is up to communities, as the Glencolumcille co-op movement did in the '50s, to take a DIY approach and get organised, get vocal and get active.
If the Government isn't going to act, then it's up to us to take matters into our own hands. We need to become more self-reliant and to re-imagine our communities in a way that balances the global with the local and restores hope to all parts of our beautiful island.