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Keep them lit

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

I recently caught a bit of The Tonight Show on Virgin Media. Now, why anyone would choose to spend their spare time watching Ivan Yates pontificating at them is beyond me, but we all behave irrationally now and again.  
The discussion, which included architect Hugh Wallace, was about balanced rural development, and the gist of the conversation was that in Ireland, there should be a development master plan, aligned with cities. We should apparently all be living in urban centres, with functioning public transport systems. The logic being that a concentration of population and jobs in cities means it will spill out to rural areas. Which is great – if you live near a city.
Ivan:  “So what’s your message to north Mayo? Turn out the lights?”
Hugh: “Oh, well, I have to tell you, the reality is, it IS a bit of ‘turn the lights off’. That IS the reality.”
Ivan: “So suck it up, it’s over?”
Hugh: “Well, it comes back to a balance…. We have to understand that going forward … in terms of sustainability, populations will have to operate in towns where they can walk, where they can use public transport, where they have facilities…. In time, living in Mayo will be a luxury.”
The fury I felt that night has simmered for the last fortnight.
These privileged middle-aged urban dwellers can talk about economic efficiencies and clusters all they like, but they are missing one fundamental point. While some common sense around spatial planning must prevail, smug urbanites cannot simply dismiss large areas of rural Ireland, because to do so ignores something fundamental in our DNA – our inherent sense of place.
And this sense of place and the connection to the land that has sustained us for centuries cannot simply be written off from positions of white-collar privilege. People like these do not, and should not speak on our behalf, nor dictate how or where we should live.
This segment really struck a nerve, and it’s a theme I return to time after time in this column, probably because it occupies so much of my working life. The frustration felt by rural communities is countered only by their own fighting spirit, as they work hard to make their towns and villages better – and more sustainable – places to live.
This fighting spirit was recently embodied for me at the launch of ‘Swinford 250’, a year-long celebration of the east-Mayo market town that can trace its history back over two-and-a-half centuries. When you scrape beneath the surface in Swinford, a richness of culture and heritage emerges that would be the envy of many.
The people of Swinford are now cleverly delivering an integrated programme of cultural and heritage events that will simultaneously record that heritage and bring it to life through storytelling, music and song, while reaching out and rebuilding connections with the Swinford diaspora – hundreds of whom who are planning trips back this year.
It annoys me when I hear flippant comments about towns like Swinford from those who might only be passing through. Hit hard by the crash, they are fighting to rebuild and erase visible signs of decay and depopulation. Swinford 250 is a fantastic initiative that will deliver an economic return, but as is usual, is reliant on volunteerism. Financial support is lacking. But the enthusiasm and pride evident at the launch was a tonic, and if it could be bottled, would be worth gold.
Investing in capacity-building in rural areas, will – in spite of what Mr Wallace thinks – build a sustainable future. And why won’t the Government get out of our road with the useless National Broadband Plan and empower communities to deliver their own internet solutions?  
Already, organisations like Grow Remote and 2 to 3 Days are offering alternatives to traditional roles with flexible hours and remote working, matching the skills of people based in rural areas to the needs of large companies and giving people the option to base themselves outside of cities. Broadband will only accelerate that progress.
Long may the spirit of Swinford live on.  And that of the many other towns like it, keeping the lights on all around Ireland.