The Rural Divide

Pobal, ( an agency that acts as an intermediary for programmes funded by the Irish Government and the EU),  states that the proportion of people living below the poverty line in rural areas is 18.8%. The most recent survey available from the Survey on Income and Living conditions (SILC)  shows  a rising  level of poverty in rural areas between 2008 and 2014, and a continuing escalation of poor living conditions, and a lack of basic services, which adds to the exclusion of those who must live in what is called “rural”. Social Justice, Ireland,  states that the number of people living in risk of rural poverty is close to 350,000,  (SJI) while those living in consistent poverty stands at 194,000, a doubling of the numbers since 2008. (SILC).  Disposable income fell in rural Ireland by 3% between 2012 and 2013.  This means that approximately 350,000 people in rural Ireland are surviving on annual incomes of 10,453.00 euro.

It  goes  without saying that living in rural areas are far more expensive than living in urban areas. The cost of travel, no access to big discount stores, the cost of having a car and the associated cost of goods not being accessible or close-by, all add to extra expense.

Rural Ireland has been decimated over the last few decades with the closures of Garda Barracks, (140 Garda stations closed in 2012 and 2013, mostly in rural areas) Health Clinics, Post Offices, the scaling down of Public Transport  and now the recent exit of doctors from rural practices. If a person gets sick, the absence of a doctor, access to a clinic or hospital becomes a nightmare scenario, especially with the aging population and the poor health, both physical and mental, suffered by those who live in isolation.

I recently had an email from a friend who lives in what would  be classed a remote rural area. Sean told me that when he was a young lad in the 60’s there were 4 shops, two with draperies attached, a post office and 3 pubs  in the vibrant village near where  he lived. There was also a petrol station as part of one of the shops and  three blacksmiths working in the area. What is left now is one small shop, run by elderly people, and the two remaining pubs now only open after Mass on Saturday night and on Sunday mornings after Mass. The post office is long gone and people must now travel either 7 or 10  miles to the nearest village for shopping, pensions and any other requirements.  The school is also on a knife edge with dwindling numbers. There used to be a private bus service to the nearest town three days a week and a CIE bus to the city, but by the mid eighties they had ceased and no service replaced ever since. This isolated the elderly and those who were unable or had no car to drive. This was a huge blow to the residents and their families. It is a well recognised fact the importance of rural transport to keep communities alive and socially active.

Sean also said that because there is no sewage system in the village and because of the soil type, septic tanks do not work. This leaves the building of houses or other developments in the area at a standstill. There used also be two creameries nearby,  but with the arrival of big creameries, keeping the older ones open, with all the ridiculous regulations about hygiene etc. was not an option and they also closed. All these jobs and associated benefits were lost in the process. The average age now of this once thriving community is 72 years of age. This is typical of a rural village ravaged by years of neglect and indifference to the needs of people.

Most of the surrounding land is now under forestry and that has  put an end to farming and the part time job opportunities it offered.  The harvesting of the forest,  is now done by one man and a massive machine.  The saddest part of all is that at night there are no lights in windows across the  fields or on the hillsides. They were once a solace for the people who lived there and that there was  life nearby. The owners of these houses are  either dead or have emigrated and are left to decay. Sean also made the point that only for the parish priest, who got the school upgraded with computers and modern equipment, the primary school might have possibly been closed also. The Priest also put in place a meditation garden for people to gather in prayer and meditate whilst trying to keep what is left of his dwindling parishioners having some social contact.

I think this sums up perfectly the demise of rural Ireland.

It is unimaginable that rural life as we knew it, has been left to die. Families have seen their sons and daughters emigrate, and with no possibility of any employment in the area never returning.   The elderly left to survive in the most challenging of circumstances in their old age. For the old, the sick and the feeble, with no long-term care options, living out their lives in solitary and unsuitable homes is a tragedy. For those still mobile, the absence of local services has dealt a death blow to rural communities. Having to travel long distances to get necessities adds to the costs of everyday living, and the added worry of not being able to access medical care, medicines, groceries and normal everyday requirements adds to increased anxiety, worry and exclusion.

For those seeking employment in rural areas, the loss of agricultural jobs and their subsidiaries and the recent loss of construction jobs,  have all contributed to the escalation of poverty and the emigration of the young in rural areas.  For those seeking further education, affordable childcare, social and affordable housing  or financial services, these are all non-existent and people  have to travel to gain access to these essential services.  Studies and available research is scarce when it comes to shedding light on the plight of the rural population and the effects on the economic and social crisis, that is now clearly evident.

Recent research looking at the lack of disposable income or the lack of accessible peer support networks, find that stress and isolation has a direct link to suicide, para-suicide (failed suicides) and self harm in rural communities. All these problems require specific targeted responses. Poverty and exclusion is associated with small farms, under employment and low educational attainment. As well, training, gender, age and lack of opportunities both financially and socially, all add to the deprivation  of people who reside in rural areas. Many of those living alone, down long lanes, isolated from their communities and society live lives of loneliness and social exclusion and suffer from diverse mental illnesses and depression.

In the recent past we see the utter devastation of family homes and farmland and the despair of people trying to overcome floods and damage to fodder and livestock in parts of rural Ireland. There are volumes written since the first Drainage Act of 1842, followed by the Acts of 1867, 1925, 1945 and 1995. In every one of these Acts flooding was a major concern. If even some of the recommendations made over all these years had been heeded the disastrous consequences for rural  families, infrastructure and the disruption of economic and social life, could have been averted or lessened. The prohibition of building on known flood plains,  the cleaning of river basins and river banks, the cleaning of vegetation and other growth  could have saved much hardship and stress for those affected. In 1995 the emphasis changed from the protection of agri- land to the protection of urban areas after the 1980 and early 1990’s floods, protecting those  that had suffered during those years. We now have a large number of people suffering stress, anxiety and other negative impacts on health and morale in the rural areas with nothing of note being implemented for the foreseeable future, leaving families demoralised and forgotten by successive government agencies.

It appears that government  and its agencies have left rural Ireland to die and have ignored  the future consequences for all those discommoded in that process. Rural Ireland suffers enough from constantly living on the fringes, devoid of all the services enjoyed by our urban counterparts,( who have access to services, and  the assistance of voluntary and statutory services), but are still asked  to contribute in the same way to taxation and the upkeep of all citizens, whilst suffering intolerable injustices and inequality. In the campaign for the election 2016, many candidates have put rural inclusion on their agenda, promising a return of the many services that has been whittled away over the past years of the economic downturn.

When and how can this demoralising  and the destruction of rural communities be brought to an end?  It cannot be achieved without the commitment and input of all those responsible for the running and maintenance of our country.  With all the data that is in the public domain about rural poverty, it behoves those in power to put an end to the death of our beautiful rural Ireland,  once and for all.    But,  seeing that there is no single definition of rural, it is assumed that predominantly agricultural areas with scarce population are classed as rural, and will be left to continue suffering at the hands of those who appear not to care nor have  the commitment or vision to aid rural citizens. The Government has reduced investment in community development programmes since 2008. This thinking will have to be reversed and every assistance given to alleviate the growing  exclusion  being experienced in rural Ireland in 2016.