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Far away fields are greener



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Far away fields are greener

With emigration and rural depopulation increasing by the week, Edwin McGreal examined the issues through the prism of three Mayo GAA clubs to see the impact the departures of Mayo’s brightest and best is having on the ground

Flow abroad of Achill’s young people continues
Few places in Mayo have had emigration as such a regular bedfellow for generations as the people of Achill. In times of recessions, Achill people have hit for the UK, Europe and the US in search of work. In times of plenty, Achill folk have found work more easily in Ireland, but rarely enough on the island itself.
“It’s an unfortunate truth that while Achill has very educated young people, it is highly unlikely that these young people will have the opportunity to settle in Achill,” Achill-based Cllr Micheál McNamara told The Mayo News. “It is a rural-based community with very little employment. The national average of people over 65 is about 11 per cent. In Achill it is 29 per cent. There’s an elderly population here but not a lot of wage earners.”
And evidence of the falling numbers of young people in the parish of Achill - consisting of the island and parts of the Currane peninsula - is readily understood when you examine the primary school-going population. Retired principal of Bullsmouth NS Pat Conway did a survey in 1993 of the then ten national schools in the parish and his research revealed that in 1983 there was a total of 730 children in the national schools on the island.
Fast forward to the present day and the nine schools on the island still open contain a total of just 277 children - almost a third less than the 1983 figure. It is doubtful if those figures would be so low if enough of the children of 1983 were able to remain in the area.
Achill has had many different types of emigration. There were those who, generations ago, left for the USA and England, many never to return. Hundreds left for farms in Scotland for seasonal work half a century or so ago but, with their families remaining, those men held firm roots in Achill and many of them still reside there today.
And, as Cllr Micheál McNamara explains, there were those who left in the 70s and 80s but many found their way back home.
“In those times many people from Achill would have went to London and Manchester with a view to returning home with a young family and building in Achill. Many of them got work on power stations in Munster and that gave them the opportunity to come home and live in digs during the week and return home to Achill at the weekends and gradually moved home full-time,” he said.
However, fast forward to the 90s and early part of the 2000s and the trend changed with people able to get work in Ireland.
“A lot of Achill people have settled in Westport, Castlebar, Ballina, Claremorris and Galway and because they can commute down to Achill at the weekends to see their elderly parents or their brothers and sisters and because it is easier for them to settle in places like that as opposed to England, it is unlikely that person will be drawn to come back home to Achill for good,” he said.
“Essentially the employment opportunities are not there for Achill people to come home. I always try and put it on the Mayo County Council agenda - the issue of job creation and enterprise. We do need an injection of jobs to give people hope. I would hope that something would be possible in Mayo with a Taoiseach from the county with regard to increased employment,” he said.
Cllr McNamara is hopeful that job opportunities may present themselves locally with the completion of the Corrib gas project and with various renewable energy projects.
The local GAA club, of which Micheál McNamara is Chairman, is, like most areas, an ideal lens to look through to analyse the issue of rural depopulation and emigration. Three years ago the club could field two teams at adult level. In their Intermediate championship first round clash against Kiltane in Bangor Erris last month, Achill had a total of 18 players togged.
“A lot of the players from those two teams are not around, most have emigrated. We found no difficulty three years ago fielding two teams but times have changed and people, literally, move on. Ultimately it comes down to a lack of employment opportunities but that is affecting everywhere,” he said.
Paul McNamara is the current manager of the Achill Intermediate team and he flew three players home for their game with Kiltane. Donal Gallagher came from Sweden and Ronan Gallagher and Denis McNamara came from England. Had they not, Achill would only have had sixteen players.
During the times of plenty, Achill didn’t have a majority of their players living in the parish - the Celtic Tiger’s presence was scarcely felt on the island - but, crucially, their players were able to work in Ireland and the pull that brings three of them home from overseas now was easier to harness.
“It [three players flying home] is a great commitment for the lads to give. We would be in serious bother without it, because the biggest problem for us is not the recession in the west of Ireland; it’s that it’s country-wide. We would always have had a car or two coming out of Dublin, with civil servants and a few guys up the buildings, but we now have only one guy that’s actually working in Dublin … Now we’re depending on guys flying home, but that’s the scenario,” Paul McNamara told The Mayo News.
For training on a Friday night in Polranny Achill players come from Monaghan, Sligo, Limerick, Galway, Dublin and elsewhere. Only five or six players are based in the parish.
Work opportunities in Achill, as Micheál McNamara mentioned, are scarce. Tourism, retail, healthcare, fishery, farming and public servants account for the vast majority of the workforce in the parish and many of those are either seasonal, volatile, or both.
“Almost 100 per cent of school leavers in Achill go onto third level and most of them go onto professional qualifications in multi-nationals and various corporations and so on, work that isn’t in Achill.
“A lot of the GAA lads who are leaving are qualified in construction related work - engineers, quantity surveyors, planners and trades like electricians, plumbers, roofers etc. So many of them have been forced to emigrate,” he said.
It’s the latest cycle of young people to leave Achill. Only time will tell how permanent this current group of emigrants’ departure is.

Mayo’s oldest community’s struggle to stay alive
Though it is home to Mayo’s oldest known settlement at the Ceide Fields, nowadays the flow of people from Ballycastle is very firmly going in the other direction.
Martin Heffernan is the Chairman of the local GAA Club and, aged 40, remembers a time when he was in national school when there were 350 kids in the parish. Fast forward to 2002 and the opening of a new Ballycastle National School and the figures were falling rapidly. Ballycastle school had 200 while Belderrig, the other school in the parish, had in the region of 30 kids.
Now? Belderrig closed its doors four years ago and so the school-going population of the area is concentrated in Ballycastle. They have only 73 pupils. They had almost five times that amount thirty years ago.
“This year there will be four Junior infants, it used to be closer  to 24. No young families are settling down in the area. That’s the real story in Ballycastle - the depopulation of younger people,” he said. A look at the Ballycastle GAA Club helps to highlight the problems. Like many rural areas in Mayo, the GAA is an ideal prism to look through and examine the issue. In the last two years their brightest and best have departed our shores for the want of work.
One is in Australia, another in South America and Tom Gaughan is in South Korea where he’s Chairman of Seoul Gaels. Two guys are  in Dublin, unable to commit to the long journey west while six are in England. Among them are the four Forde brothers, all in London. There’s one more in their family, a brother in Transition Year.
“It’ll be another couple of years before he leaves for London,” says Martin Heffernan, seeing the black humour of it all.
“Basically as soon as they finish college, you might have them here for the summer but they’ll be gone then. Employment is the main reason. The last thing they would have wanted to do was leave. We spend a lot of time working with them and getting them ready as footballers but then they cannot wait in the country. I think they would prefer to be in Ireland if the opportunity was here for them.
“There’s some farming work going on but, essentially, there’s no work in Ballycastle. Those living in Ballycastle are working in Ballina or with Shell [in nearby Bellinaboy] or teaching. Four lads recently got work, three with Horizon in Westport and one with Elverys in Castlebar. That was such a big boost for us - if they didn’t get those jobs we don’t know where they’d be,” admitted Martin Heffernan.
At underage level Ballycastle took the decision four years ago to amalgamate with three other local clubs - Kilfian, Lacken and Killala, Martin Heffernan conceding ‘the numbers just weren’t there’. They are a proud club, home of the late, great Tom Langan, the full-forward on the GAA Team of the Century and Team of the Millennium, after whom their grounds are named. They’ve boxed above their weight at inter-county representational level with current Mayo U-21 and Junior star Micheál Forde their main man. He’s gone to the US for the summer.  
Like most club on the margins, Ballycastle are determined not to show the white feather.
“We’re not giving into this,” stressed Martin Heffernan. “We’ve big plans for development in the club with new facilities, building a gym etc. We’re hoping that we might incentivise people to come back or to bring new people to the club. We cannot let the community drift away. If we can keep the show on the road for the next couple of years we can see things improving. People in the area are really responding positively to the development plans,” said Mr Heffernan.
It appears that it will take that type of community solidarity to keep many rural areas alive.

Fighting the departing tide by Clew Bay
On Sunday, June 23 next a band of Kilmeena men will set off to cheer on one of their own in a Connacht Senior Football Championship semi-final.
It won’t be a Mayo jersey that Kilmeena native Danny Ryan will be wearing though. In something that is symbolic of the haemorrhaging of talent from the club, it is as a member of the London panel that Ryan will feature in the Connacht semi-final against Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon
Seven years ago Kilmeena were a coming team in Mayo GAA circles. They were many people’s contenders for the Intermediate championship and were flying high in Division 2 of the league. They wouldn’t succeed that year but with a crop of very talented, young footballers, it was seen as only a matter of time before they’d make the breakthrough at Intermediate level.
Fast forward to 2013 and Kilmeena have just lost their first Mayo Junior Championship game at home to Lahardane by 0-18 to 0-4. It is easy to see why they are struggling. Go through some of the players the club had big plans for in 2005 and very few of them are still around, even though most would be at their peak now. Where they are reads like a Lonely Planet book collection.
Brothers James and Vinny Ryan, Danny Duffy and Anthony Murray are in Australia; Johnny Madden is in Qatar; his brother Nigel is in Canada; Ciarán Sheridan is in Dubai, John Reilly, Danny Ryan and Keith McNamara are in England; Liam Sammon is in Scotland and Henry Kelly is in Jersey in the Channel Islands. Add to that six more players living on the east or south coasts of Ireland and Kilmeena are missing 18 quality players, ten of whom played with the county at one level or another.
While places like Achill and Ballycastle are on the periphery of the county, Kilmeena, although on the shores of Clew Bay, can’t be considered likewise. It’s five minutes from Westport and less than half an hour to Castlebar but work in the west of Ireland has proven to be virtually non-existent for their brightest and best. Teaching and construction industry based work accounts for the majority of their ex-pats.
“All the lads left because of work, simple as that. Last year we only had 14 players so I had to tog myself to make a team,” current Junior selector Joe Ryan told The Mayo News. “This year we’ve managed to get back a lot of lads in their mid 20s who had stopped playing . We’re down at the bottom now and it is going to take time but we’ll be back.”
They’re decimated but they’re still standing. Fighting the good fight.

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