Coping Pastorally with the decline of Rural Ireland
The issue of rural depopulation and increasing isolation is a cyclical problem for many country areas in Ireland and has been for quite some time. It is an unfortunate reality for many young people that they have to leave Ireland in order to get a job, maintain a livelihood of sufficient quality and be able to raise a family to a reasonable standard.
The Reality of Emigration – A constant Shadow for Irish People
Having gone to secondary school in Connemara in the 1980s there was always a strong link with England and America as so many people had to emigrate from a very young age. The concept of the “American wake” agus ag dul ar imirce nó ag dul ar an mbád bánwas very much part of life. Brian Friel in “Philadelphia here I come” records in dramatic form a snapshot of this and the effect it had on the psyche of those thinking of going and the sadness it left behind. Many however had the option of returning after a number of years with young family after earning some money and an improving local economy. For some coming home was permanent, but for a significant number the return was not sustainable with a further decline in the economy and the difficulty of getting worthwhile jobs at home.
Safe Houses across the Water – A land of Opportunity and Fresh Beginning
Fortunately, the safety valve of travel to the US, England and Australia gave a lifeline for countless people. For so many the sonnet New Collosusof Emma Lazarus at the Statue of Liberty in New York was almost Messianic:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I recall being on a bicentenary school tour with the staff and students of Sr. Jarlath’s College, Tuam in 2000, the year before 9/11 when the Twin Towers and so many people tragically perished. Even the young students were moved almost to tears with the nostalgia and sadness of the legacy of the generations of ancestors who would have pased through the gates and doors of Ellis Island intent on survival and the adventure of making a new way of life.
A less favourable climate emerging towards the migrant
A certain amount of apprehension and fear, hopefully unfounded has emerged that this ongoing welcome might not continue under the current political regime in the US with a threatened policy of exclusion and resistance to the emigrant and refugee looking to make a new life in a land of opportunity that was traditionally so welcoming to the stranger and emigrant. The escalating threat of the evil of terrorism and uncertainties because of Brexitdo not make the option of heading to England much more palatable. Who could not have been deeply moved by the harrowing scenes of loss of life, mass migration and movement of refugees in the Mediterranean and environs in recent times. The movement of peoples and accompanying factors both favourable and blocking that are a human reality as old as the human race.
Religious interest in the human in “transit”
One of the key themes of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is care for the stranger, the traveller, the homeless, the wanderer, the dispossessed. From Abraham to Amos, from Exodus to New Covenant, from Christ-like Benedictine hospitality for the stranger to the welcome for the medieval pilgrims, from the Mendicant love of the poor to the Optionfor the same of the more recent Liberation Theologyand the emphasis on Franciscan ideals by the current pope – concern for the human who is in transit has been a dominant theme of our Christian faith.
The reality in the rural Ireland
Since being ordained for the predominantly rural Archdiocese of Tuam in the west of Ireland over 26 years ago, I have witnessed a steady decline in the rural population and migration towards urban areas within Ireland and a return to the days of emigration. Some of this has been due to the downturn in the economy as a result of the departure of the Celtic Tiger, but even with the improvement of the finances, country areas are still declining in numbers.
Decimation of Island Way of Life
One of the ministries I most enjoyed was being on the pastoral ‘rota’ for Island ministry, mainly the English speaking islands off Galway and Mayo, but occasionally the Irish speaking also. There is a relaxed and friendly quality of life and living there that would be hard to find anywhere in the world. In the 20thcentury the population of many of these islands have literally decimated. The beautiful island of Inishturk is reduced to less than 50 inhabitants, with a mere two students in the local school!
The Killaloe Situation
Over the past year since I came to minister in Kiallaloe in various Church areas in the diocese many people have expressed great concern about the struggle for communities to continue to thrive. In the few weeks before Christmas with various trips to meet parishioners – in almost every rural Church Area, Day Centres & Nurshing Homes for the elderly this, sadly was a constant refrain.
In one small beautiful coastal village in West Clare, I was shown the sad reality of over 12 empty houses on the main street of the village. Another village in East Clare boasted of a population of over 8,000 people some years ago and is now doing well to maintain 1,000. In the last month one of the Parishes of the diocese in North Tipperary had the sad event of the ritual and ceremony of the closing of the local national school, due to declining numbers and this has had a profound effect on morale in the lead up to that.
A number of local GAA teams have had to amalgamation of teams in order to survive especially at U-21 and senior level. Concern, sadness and disappointment has been expressed at the closure of Garda Stations, Post Offices, Local Shops, Pubs, GP Practices and even local rural presbyteries where the Priest was very much at the heart of the community. At a meeting of Care for Carers in one of the county towns, the group gave voice to the sad reality of isolation and loneliness in many country areas.
What is being done to address the Problem?
Well done to the many public representatives who are working in this area to bring about an important initiative which will help overcome rural isolation & hardship. With the recently announced Government Action Plan for Rural Irelandthe guts of the €60m ‘Action Plan for Rural Ireland’ it is aimed to create 135,000 jobs across rural Ireland, notably along the Atlantic Economic Corridor. Key to it is revitalising town and village centres, apparently, including restoring derelict buildings, and also reducing one-off housing by building small housing schemes. Sustainable communities are part of the scheme, as are apprenticeships, enhanced broadband, and infrastructure. It is heartening to hear of this scheme.
Local Council Efforts
At local level in Limerick, University Seminars and think thanks have been held to address the issue and in Clare, the County Council have been working hard to link in with the above initiative. In April of this year the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Heather Humphreys TD, addressed the Clare Rural Development Forum on the opportunities for rural communities in Clare through the Government’s Action Plan for Rural Development. Staff at local level have worked hard to produce a plan, the commendable details of which are on www.clareruraldevelopment.ie. The Action Plan for Rural Development, Realising our Rural Potential, includes a number of key targets, including creating 135,000 jobs outside Dublin by 2020 and boosting rural tourism by 12%.
The Local Church
From the Church point of view – this is an area that has come under severe pressure in recent times with the decline in vocations to priesthood and religious life. In Killaloe diocese 1/3 of the population of the diocese is concentrated around a very few urban centres. 8 parishes currently have no resident priest at all and a further 12 would have none if it weren’t for the generosity of pastors working way beyond retirement age. One would be tempted to concentrate all the services around the urban hub areas, but as much as practicable a basic service and presence is kept in as many rural venues as possible. The Church will continue as far as possible also to be proactive in this area to ensure services are maintained, as far as resources will allow, but it is going to be a major challenge! Our own Fr. Harry Bohan has for many years been a pioneer and leader on this issue nationally and he continues to come up with many ideas to address the growing crises. Groups like Church Servicesare innovative and work hard to reduce isolation by trying to introduce Parish TV and already many parishes and Garda services have been linking into the world wide web in order to link local communities.
Overall coming up with strategies to help is an important issue for rural and urban Ireland, essential in order to maintain the values that rural living contributes and for the quality of life for those resident there. It is one that Church and State can profitably address together to continue to work for the common good of the many people involved and to be faithful to the Gospel value of care for the marginalized, the lonely and vulnerable.