The selective rising tide

Notes from the Western Periphery

‘PITIFUL CARGOES’ Charlestown Railway Station, pictured in 1975, the year it was closed by the State. The station was originally opened in 1895, as part of the route between Claremorris and Sligo – itself part of what has been recently termed The Western Rail Corridor. Pic: Creative Commons

Reflections on John Healy’s ‘Death of an Irish Town’

In searching for ways to reenergise the small towns of Mayo and the wider northern and western region, one is inexorably pulled back to John Healy’s seminal work, ‘Death of an Irish Town’, published more than half a century ago.
Healy painted such a dark picture of rural failure and collapse that it continues to haunt us and to perpetuate a kind of passive fatalism. It is as if the failures of the 1960s are a black hole from which our thinking cannot escape.
John Healy saw the process of decay of his birthplace, Charlestown, from the inside, and he understood the almost irreversible human and economic consequences. His accusatory anger was palpable as he raged that while Charlestown only saw its own trainloads of emigrants leaving the town, ‘the men of Church and State in Dublin […] saw a monstrous multiplication of those trainloads pulling in and vomiting their pitiful cargoes into the ships at Dun Laoghaire and the North Wall’.
Healy articulated a problem that still exists today, but is often denied or ignored:
“The two Irelands seem, in an age of greater communications, to be drifting further apart in ability to appreciate and communicate, each with the other. Official Establishment Dublin and unorganised rural Ireland, despite their Siamese dependence, one upon the other, talk two different languages, have different senses of values and priorities and apparently fail to recognise a mutual dependence if there is to be a future.”
But Healy was a realist and recognised that the problem was not entirely Dublin-based. His anger was also directed inwards at local failure to mobilise effectively, as well as outwards at central and local government inaction and indifference. Inter-party rivalry just got in the way of cooperative local action.

Then and now
Fifty-three years on, there has been a massive change in the national economy, but has there been any change in how we decide to deal with spreading national prosperity to our island’s peripheral regions?
In 1968, the national economy had barely started to recover from more than a century of post-Famine stagnation and decline. Jobs were scarce and job seekers in cities, towns and countryside had to emigrate. Today, jobs in Ireland are more plentiful, but they tend to cluster around a few large urban centres: Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford.
Back in the 1950s the falling tide had left all boats stranded. Today, the rising tide is selective about who it lifts and who it doesn’t.

Uncomfortable reading
The continued neglect of development strategy for the peripheral north-west region derives in large part from the views of economists about the drivers of modern growth. Such views are seldom explicitly expressed, and they make for uncomfortable reading in the west, with its low population and scattered small towns.
It is a fact that economic activity is almost never dispersed uniformly over space; rather it tends to concentrate in certain favoured large cities and their regional hinterlands. This uneven concentration has a number of explanations based on natural advantages (deep water ports, access to markets, etc) and the presence of what are called ‘agglomeration economies’.
The theory of agglomeration economies claims that firms and their labour forces tend to locate close to each other, thereby reducing transport and communication costs. Such clustering permits the sharing of local public goods (electricity, gas, water, broadband) and facilities that serve several individuals or firms (such as laboratories, universities, hospitals). Firms are better able to adjust to changes in demand if they have access to a large labour market that allows them flexibly to expand or contract their labour requirements.
The greater intensity of communication within urban centres is claimed to increase innovation and technological advances. Efficiencies resulting from specialisation allow a finer division of labour and stimulate the rise of new firms in the locality that both buy from and supply to each other.
Even emigration from rural to urban regions enhances productivity by enabling people with relevant skills to match with appropriate jobs, and encourages individuals to invest in their own human capital.
Metropolitan regions reap these agglomeration benefits and display higher levels of productivity, higher rates of employment and higher levels of GDP per capita than non-metropolitan regions.
There are downsides, of course, but these tend to be overlooked in the enthusiastic embrace of the magic of city-driven growth. The policy message is: grow the city regions and trickle-down will take care of the periphery.

Atlantic Economic Corridor
These days towns don’t ‘die’, but they can fade away if they are bypassed by or cannot avail of opportunities offered by the economic potential created by new technologies.
Today the State does not lack the resources to address development challenges in peripheral regions, as it did in the 1950s and 1960s. But the State seems to lack the will to do so, attracted by the lure of a divisive policy of urban agglomeration as the exclusive driver of national growth.
Coming up with a strategy to develop the Atlantic Economic Corridor that is compatible with current urban-centred policy is not impossible. John Healy articulated the problem. If only we could bring him back to articulate the solution.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.