Development and tradition

Notes from the Western Periphery

MURRISK MEMORIES Sarah Bradley (John Bradley's grandmother) in the family cottage, Murrisk.

John Bradley

When I tried to come up with a good title for this fortnightly column, my thoughts went back to the mid-1990s.
I had been asked by the IDA to address a group of about 20 Chinese regional government officials who were visiting Ireland to learn about the so-called Celtic Tiger phenomenon. This was the first time that such a group had come from China to Ireland.
In my talk I gave them the full impressive story: lots about foreign direct investment, high technology enterprises, dramatic growth in GDP, European development aid through Structural Funds, catch-up with the more-advanced European states. The whole Celtic Tiger enchilada.
Unlike with audiences from the West, my talk was greeted with utter passivity. The translator took my remarks, translated them into Chinese, and nothing came back.
Then, to my horror, I was asked to take the group to lunch.
As we sat around the large table, I faced the prospect of an hour of sitting in silence, looking at each other. Desperation breeds inspiration. The mounting Celtic Tiger hubris had begun to bother me, so I started talking about the Ireland of an earlier era.

Transformational challenges
Through the translator I told the Chinese visitors that I was born just after WWII at a time when Ireland was a poor rural economy with a weak urban structure. My father had grown up in Murrisk, on the western seaboard of our island, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. As a young child visiting my grandparents in the early 1950s, the village was so remote that when a car drove through at night, there would be a fireside conversation as to where they were going and why they were going there!
Water was drawn from a well or from rain run-off. Lighting was by oil lamps. Cooking was done over the open turf fire. The radio was battery powered, charged at a local wind generator. Only my patriarchal grandfather had authority to turn it on: at six o’clock for the farm reports and late at night to listen to ‘Irish Requests’ on Radio Luxembourg.
Electricity did not come to Murrisk until 1954, and the interiors of the cottages, which had previously been whitewashed to reflect flickering light from the dim oil lamps, were now covered with patterned brown wall paper, to welcome the modern age.
The impact on the Chinese was transformative. They came alive; their faces lit up; they asked questions; they started, haltingly, to share their own experiences.
Like Ireland of the 1950s, China was then still a largely rural society facing the challenge of transforming into a largely urban one. The old society that we had left behind was the one that fascinated them.

Pace matters
Ireland’s development was of the gradual kind. As children of the modern era, we tended to despise our rural, Gaelic heritage, drawn by the bright lights of city life. But I fondly recall my grandmother, Sarah, waking me one night and leading me, sleepy-eyed, into the pitch darkness outside the cottage to look up at a spectacular comet, amid the splendours of the Milky Way that are dimmed to children today by the loom of artificial lighting. My first sights of Sputnik were at my grandmother’s side as it passed over the evening skies of Mayo.
Our good fortune in Ireland was that we were given a few decades to experience modernity at a time when we did not have the resources to cause irreparable damage to our natural environment.
The psychological turning point to the village of Murrisk came in the mid-1980s when gold was discovered on Croagh Patrick. If it had happened two decades earlier, the mountain would have been sacrificed and the gold mined. Thankfully, the tradeoffs were now understood better, and the transitory benefits of gold were rejected in favour of the enduring protection of the environment.
A relatively poor country is at its most vulnerable when it opens to the forces of globalisation. If that process is gradual, then its institutions have the chance to evolve to cope with the challenges and the crucial trade-offs that are involved. Ireland was lucky that it opened its economy in the early 1960s, a time when the forces of globalisation were weaker than they are today.

Community influence
The Irish experience shows the importance of building institutional strengths at all levels of society. The early EU Structural Fund programmes in Ireland included special schemes designed to assist rural groups to organise and take a role in influencing their own communities.
Previous failures in these areas had often made local initiatives ineffective and left the region vulnerable to outside forces. Today, Murrisk (population 300) has its own Development Association, and has successfully implemented a series of five-year development plans.
So, my title – Notes from the Western Periphery – is partly serious (rural societies have much to teach the world about sustainable, community-based living) and partly ironic (these societies, to their huge detriment, tend to be dismissed as backward and regressive by urban metropolitan elites). I hope to explore these themes in future columns.

Dr John Bradley was a Research Professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling. He has acted as a consultant to the European Commission, the European Parliament, the OECD, the World Bank and many EU member state governments, and has carried out research and training projects in the EU, Western Balkans and Africa.