A changing landscape
MORE than any other country in Europe, there is an intrinsic link
between Ireland and rural dwelling. The association is a deep-rooted
one with a rich historical context, but increasingly in the last decade
that association has been coming under attack and numerous challenges
have had to be faced by the rural dweller in the current climate of
prosperity and modernisation.
Those challenges though are very different to the ones which the rural dweller faced back in the early nineties when the country was in the depths of economic despair.
“The whole economic set-up was hugely different at the time in 1991. Interests rates were 17 and 18 percent, there were people flocking to the airports, it was unbelievably different really,” states Gerry O’Neill, (pictured) Chief Executive of the South West Mayo Development Company.
The company is a voluntary board of people who are active in the continuing development of south and west Mayo and Gerry, a native and resident of Balla, has been involved with the company from the very outset. As he has described, back in 1991 there were huge problems to be faced in developing rural Ireland. Most people took the easy option and fled the nest.
“The company was originally set up as a rural development group to run the European LEADER pilot programme. The main instigators were people from the likes of the Westport Chamber of Commerce, the Castlebar Development Association and also community organisations in place like Ballinrobe, Ballintubber and Balla,” states Gerry at the company office in Balla, a smaller branch than the main offices of the Carey Walsh Building in Newport.
“There was £2 million available at the time for the roll-out of the project over four years and I started working as a project development officer in June 1992 and dealt with private enterprise, community and tourism projects.”
Gerry admits that the work conducted by the company really suited him as he had come from an agricultural background and was brought up in a rural setting. He attended school in Balla and then in Ballinafad Agricultural College before going on to teach there and in Balla Secondary School for a short time. But he jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the South West Mayo Development Company in 1992.
“At the time, it was an exciting development and the chance to be involved in developing community projects and communities in general appealed greatly to me. A lot of enterprises that got off the ground with the help of LEADER I funding are still in business in the county; it was a successful initiative and the investment was an obvious catalyst for an equivalent of private and community sector investment.”
The success of the LEADER I project led to the roll-out of LEADER II in the late nineties and this funding led to a larger focus on the development of community facilities and services.
“The difference with LEADER II was that it was more community-focused in comparison to LEADER I, which was more private enterprise. There would be a lot of rural tourism initiatives such as B&Bs and self catering.
“LEADER II came on stream in 1996 and ran until around 2000 and we had the added challenge of dealing with a bigger area which encompassed the Claremorris and Ballyhaunis areas. We had around £2.3 million and we found the pick-up for the scheme was even better, partly because we as an organisation were more professional, more recognised.”
In the late nineties, the South West Mayo Development Company also became responsible for the delivery of the Local Development Social Inclusion Programme, which came on stream around the time the Celtic Tiger really started to stretch his legs.
“The new-found economic prosperity meant that there were new challenges to be faced for the company and the provision of community facilities in towns that were expanding and growing at a rate of knots became the real challenge.
”If you take a town like Balla here, the first housing estates on the outskirts of the town were starting to be built around that time but no one could have predicted its unabated continuation. It has been the same in towns and villages right across the county and we have had to adjust and try to meet the requirements of these burgeoning communities.”
In 2000, Gerry admits there was a bit of a ‘hiatus’ in the company after the completion of LEADER II but Leader Plus was being developed at European level and it was a natural progression to apply for this programme.
“That came on stream in 2001 and it was at this time that I moved from project co-ordinator to Chief Executive. All this time we had Local Development Social Inclusion Programme running and programmes like the Rural Transport Programme have grown out of this. The LEADER programme was how the company started at the beginning but all these other programmes have come on stream and we have endeavoured to make sure they all are maximised.”
At the moment, the most significant programme in terms of uptake is the Rural Social Scheme which was announced in the summer of 2004. This is available to farmers who are on low incomes and are employed to do community work for 19-and-a-half hours a week.
“We were delighted to be chosen to facilitate this scheme as only eight companies were chosen nationwide for its roll-out. That was a real vote of confidence in our ability to deliver on such a scheme and it has proved to be a huge success. This programme is the busiest we currently have, with nine schemes right across our area of operation. There are a total of 171 participants, which is the biggest uptake anywhere in the country.
“The amount of work being done by those people in those communities is huge, doing work of all descriptions in a community context - taking care of community centres, community enhancement work, looking after the elderly, sports coaching, social services.”
The huge development that has taken in place in the towns and villages across Mayo has meant that fabric of rural life is now hugely different - even from the time when the company started back in 1991.
“We do have to be realistic about change. There is no point in harping back to the era of the donkey and cart when we talk about rural Ireland. That looks alright on postcards but what we need to do is insure all of the rural communities and the rural parishes in our area continue to be a viable place to live in.
“The maintenance of population is of the utmost importance and also there needs to be enough economic activity in those areas to ensure that most services are available close by.
There is a grading in rural areas like our own where you have the bigger towns like Westport, Castlebar, Claremorris and Ballinrobe and then you have the smaller settlements like Newport, Louisburgh, Balla, Ballindine and Shrule. Then we have the smaller rural villages and all these different areas need to be sustained in their own way; there is an expected level of service in each of these areas and that needs to be maintained and developed.”
Gerry admits there is a delicate balance between maintaining the rural fabric of the county while still providing the services and facilities which a family living in modern Mayo demands.
“It is a complex system and the reality is at some point we are going to come to a limit with regard to the amount of houses that are going to be built in rural areas of the county. We are not going to be in a position where we can build houses wherever we choose. At the moment 70% of Mayo’s population live in what we term ‘rural areas’, that is in settlements of 1,500 people or less.
“But the reality is a lot of these people are not living a rural lifestyle. They are living an urban lifestyle and have no real association with the countryside. However, farming is still what shapes the rural landscape and that has to be sustained as well. It’s a delicate balance.”
The continuing evolution of rural Ireland means there is still an obvious role for companies like the South West Mayo Development Company and Gerry is confident the role will continue to be relevant.
“We are now close to the end of the current round of funding but we feel we are very well placed to continue in our current guise for many more years to come. There is a new European Rural and Agricultural Development Fund (EARDF) which is due to run until 2013 and part of this fund embodies the LEADER approach, which makes provision for local groups been the deliverer of these types of projects and supports. We are naturally very happy about this and we feel this is a recognition of the work we have done and are capable of doing well into the future.”