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matters of the heart Why rural Ireland needs help and new NUIG 'Air Dome' Arena points the way

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Galway footballers and coaching staff stand for a moment's silence in memory of the late Ashling Murphy before their Connacht FBD League Final against Roscommon at NUI Galway Connacht Air Dome in Bekan, Mayo on Friday night. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Galway footballers and coaching staff stand for a moment's silence in memory of the late Ashling Murphy before their Connacht FBD League Final against Roscommon at NUI Galway Connacht Air Dome in Bekan, Mayo on Friday night. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Galway footballers and coaching staff stand for a moment's silence in memory of the late Ashling Murphy before their Connacht FBD League Final against Roscommon at NUI Galway Connacht Air Dome in Bekan, Mayo on Friday night. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Spoiler alert: Today I write about a topic close to my heart.

It’s not sexy. It won’t have the keyboard warriors going into overdrive or result in any hate mail.

Maybe you have guessed the topic already – yes, it’s rural Ireland.

Just think about this statistic: Almost 40 per cent of the population live in rural Ireland.

But its future never tops the political agenda.

Watching the recent FBD Connacht League games being beamed live from the new NUIG Air Dome in Bekan in County Mayo got me thinking about rural Ireland.

I’m blown away by this magnificent facility.

Think about it – the largest dome structure in the world is situated in the heart of rural County Mayo. Wow!

I couldn’t help but think of Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams film and the mantra of the lead character, corn farmer Ray Kinsella: ‘if you build it, they will come’

Credit to John Prenty (inset) and his colleagues on the Connacht Council who turned the dream into reality.

I noted that the biggest chunk of the funding (€2.1m) for the Air Dome came from the Rural Regeneration Fund for the Economic Development of rural areas.

This is an issue very close to my heart. I was once chairman of CEDRA (Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas).

We recommended the establishment of this fund.

Other CEDRA recommendations such as the setting up of computer hubs, town and village renewal schemes, and social farming, have come to fruition.

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Of course, this is all heartening news. But I still believe not enough is being done to drive the regeneration of rural Ireland.

In a perverse way, rural Ireland got a positive bounce out of the Covid-19 crisis.

Thousands of young people returned to their homes from the bigger cities during the first lockdown.

They discovered they didn’t necessarily have to live in Dublin in order to pursue their chosen careers.

Furthermore, they found the quality of life in rural Ireland was better.

The roads were quieter, their children had no problem finding a place in the local school and, best of all, they could actually afford to buy a house.

Unfortunately, not all parts of rural Ireland witnessed the return of young people during Covid-19.

Peripheral regions along the western seaboard, as well as counties in the midlands and Border areas, continue to struggle.

There has never been a better time to draw up a plan for the future of rural Ireland. We have to strike while the iron is hot.

As mentioned, some useful projects have been rolled out. But, essentially, there is still too much of a piecemeal approach to the issue.

There are too many government departments and agencies operating in a parallel universe.

There is not enough joined-up thinking and too much of the money being pumped into rural Ireland comes in the form of grants and welfare payments.

We are getting short-term sticking plaster solutions, which don’t last.

What is needed is a clear road map for the future of rural Ireland.

An excellent barometer of the health of an area in rural Ireland is to examine how its GAA clubs are faring.

Take my native South Kerry, for example.

The Tuosist GAA club, situated across Kenmare Bay from me, failed to field a team in most competitions last year.

Valentia Island, the home club of the great Mick O’Connell, pulled out of all county competitions.

Season

Templenoe – my home club – won the South Kerry minor championship last season.

But it was a 13-a-side competition due to a lack of players.

We had players from Tuosist, Sneem and Derrynane with us, as they didn’t have enough players to enter the competition on their own.

But South Kerry is not the only place in rural Ireland on life support.

The recent comments of Leitrim GAA secretary Declan Bohan in his annual report were sobering.

There are 23 GAA clubs in Leitrim.

Seventy per cent of the boys in the county are in the catchment area of just nine of these clubs.

And 20 per cent of the boys in Leitrim, attending primary schools in the county, are in the catchment area of ONE club.

Here’s another sobering statistic from Bohan’s report. Annually, there are approximately 225 baby boys born in Leitrim.

I bet there are more baby boys born in some of Dublin’s housing estates each year.

This is why we need a radical new plan to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth, resources, jobs and people in this country.

This plan would include a redefinition of where rural Ireland actually is.

CEDRA defined rural Ireland as everywhere outside the major cities of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Waterford. This is now out of date.

For instance, the bigger towns, as well as areas along the commuter belts, should no longer be classified as part of rural Ireland.

All the relevant metrics – such as the poverty index, employment figures and depopulation – need to be used.

And for any plan to work it needs to involve local GAA clubs because they know what the problems on the ground are.

During Aogán Ó Fearghail’s term as GAA president, I chaired a committee whose brief was to look at the feasibility of every GAA club creating ten jobs in its catchment area.

Sadly, the plan never saw the light of day – but it ought to be dusted down and discussed with the Government.

A new task force needs to be established to advise the Government on the future of rural Ireland.

But rather than fill it with the usual suspects, whose main priority is to protect their own particular patch, it should be populated by successful rural-based

entrepreneurs.

Rural Ireland is a very complex issue, because it touches on every government department bar Foreign Affairs.

So, the result is turf wars between departments, far too much bureaucracy and red tape, endless delays and not enough action.

Umbrella

We need an overall umbrella body like the IDA or BIM whose brief would be rural Ireland.

The housing crisis is a good example of how the lack of joined-up thinking prevents imaginative solutions being found. Has anybody in authority noticed what has happened in rural Ireland?

The majority of villages and towns have a surplus of either vacant or derelict buildings.

In bigger urban areas, the planning authorities have allowed massive shopping centres to be built on the outskirts of town.

That causes the so-called doughnut effect. There is nothing left in the centre.

Meanwhile, parts of rural Ireland are dying because nobody lives there anymore.

Here’s what has happened in the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry since the end of World War Two.

There was a 40 per cent drop in population between 1946 and 1971.

In 2006, 13 town lands were uninhabited. By 2011 this figure had rocketed to 63 uninhabited town lands.

There are an astonishing 1,808 vacant dwellings.

Incidentally, on the subject of planning, there ought to be absolutely no way that anybody who lives 200 miles away can successfully block the son or daughter of a farmer from building a house on their parent’s land by lodging a planning objection.

To sum up the approach to regeneration in rural Ireland, it is too scattergun.

We procrastinate and are too slow to act.

In the words of Dr Mike Ryan from the WHO ‘speed trumps perfection’.

He was talking about dealing with Covid-19.

Yet it is the perfect motto for rural Ireland as well.

The Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence is a beacon of hope which demonstrates what is possible in rural Ireland.

Yes, we can build something and, yes, they will come. Well done to all in the Connacht Council.

Now is the time for action. Carpe diem. Seize the day.

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