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A dying tradition

HEART OF THE MATTER
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GENERATIONS Annie Munnelly with her grandson Owen Doherty and Katherina Munnelly at Munnelly’s shop Geesala.

A dying tradition

Heart of the Matter
Anton McNulty


AS Christmas shopping begins in earnest this week, hordes of consumers will be flooding to Castlebar, Ballina and Galway to stock up for the festive season. The large supermarkets will battle it out for the biggest chunk of the market, with promises of price reductions and bargains to entice hungry consumers.
But it is not only at Christmas that the masses flock to the aisles. One only has to glance at the car parks of the multi-national and national supermarkets every weekend to see that shopping is now a year-round addiction.
While the supermarkets never seem to have a quiet moment, however, family-owned shops the length and breadth of Mayo are closing their doors because they are unable to compete with their giant retail cousins. Rural Mayo is particularly badly-hit and many predict that in ten years’ time there will be no shop left to serve the needs of small villages in the county.
One of the areas worst affected by the closure of family-run shops and pubs is Erris. The Cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council, Cllr Gerry Coyle has lived in one of its hamlets, Geesala, all his life and has witnessed at first hand what he calls the ‘savage neglect’ of rural Ireland. He told The Mayo News that nothing has been done to reverse the decline in population and the only people coming to live in the area now are returning immigrants.
This neglect, he claims, is having a severe knock-on effect on the small family-owned businesses in the area, many of which have had to close their doors in recent years. In the last ten years, petrol pumps, four shops and two pubs have closed in the Doohoma/Geesala area alone. As a result, some people are now faced with a 26km round trip to just to get a pint of milk.
Action must be taken before it is too late, in the estimation of the Cathaoirleach.
“I have gone around to a lot of local fairs and festivals this year and what I see is sponsorship provide by the local shop and pub. I have not seen an Aldi, a Lidl, a Tesco or Dunnes sponsoring one event. There is money going out of Erris, and not just Erris, other areas are suffering as well. Apart from fishing and farming, there is nothing to keep the people in Erris.
“When there were fewer cars there was petrol in Geesala and Doohoma, now a person out in Doohoma Head has to make a 24-mile round trip to Bangor Erris to get petrol for his lawnmower or a 30-mile trip to Belmullet. It is hard to blame people who are on a tight budget for going to the Aldis and Lidls for major shopping trips, but if the shops here close where are they going to get their milk? If the shop or the post office closes what happens then? The people out here will have to travel miles just to get a few groceries. I am afraid people will say ‘isn’t it easier to live in towns’, but there is no comparison to the way of life here,” said Cllr Coyle.
He feels that, while emigration had a devastating effect on the area, people were still able to live in the area from money sent home from England and America. Nowadays, however, there is no money coming in to the area, he believes, a situation which necessitates a complete rethink on policies towards rural Ireland.
The experience of local shop owner, John Munnelly is that business has been steadily declining for the last decade. John, who helps run the family shop and pub ‘High Chaparral’, says it has been increasingly difficult to stay open as people are not settling in the area. The shop has been in the family since the 1920s, but if the current trend continues he fears for its future.
“Business is not a patch on what it was ten years ago; the shop business is way, way down.  Rural transport is also hitting our business and we are not getting any breaks from it. The locals are all going out on public transport to Ballina and Castlebar and, as a result of this, in a couple of years it won’t be viable for the small shops to stay open. People are not supporting the local shop at all, you are just depending on them to buy the basics,” he comments.
And with tax, insurance and overheads to be paid regardless of the level of business taking place, rural outlets are really struggling.
“You have to do your books and you have to pay your accountant, whether it’s quiet or busy, and that costs a couple of grand. Nobody minds paying tax or insurance, but we’re trying hard to keep businesses going in rural Ireland and we are not getting any tax breaks,” explains John.
Along with the post office, the shop and the pub have been the backbone of rural communities in terms of services. Like everything, when it is there it is taken for granted, but when that service is gone it will be sorely missed. Unless efforts are made to make rural communities more commercially viable, that loss may be felt sooner than people realise.