With freezing temperatures paralysing parts of Cork, the now familiar topic of rural isolation is once at the forefront of conversation.
Many groups charged with tackling the issue will argue that this is not just a seasonal problem.
The obstacles those in urban areas face as a result of a big freeze – immobility, a sense of remoteness enforced by limited transport options and near seclusion – are experienced by people in rural Ireland all year around due to a lack of infrastructure and a dearth of public services.
These groups are at pains to highlight the work that is needed to combat an ever present, and constantly growing problem.
One such group is North Cork’s Avondhu-Blackwater Partnership, the result of an integration of the Blackwater Resource Development and Avondhu Development Groups. The company is based in Fermoy, but caters for the wider North Cork area, incorporating areas such as Blarney and Mallow.
“We have just launched a new evening bus service for the Aghern-Conna parish area.” Damien Tobin of the Avondhu-Backwater Partnership explains. “Right now most people are using it to go to their local pub, but it’s there and can be used for community meetings, youth club meetings, to visit family or groups. We believe there is scope there for early and late evening services,”
The Avondhu Blackwater Partnership currently runs 40 bus services, six of which are at night. Other parts of rural Cork served include Araglin/Kilworth and Ballincurrig/Lisgoold. Damien claims Bus Eireann cutbacks that have prompted a greater need for the rural transport scheme in Cork.
“Bus Eireann cut some services in Waterford and Cork recently. We had fought for the retention of a service that had run since the late 1960s that went from Dungarvan through Conna, Fermoy and Mallow. It was a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday service that had been set up to replace the train service that ended in 1967. We had a lot of passengers contact us because that service was withdrawn,” he explains.
While the Rural Transport Scheme, as enacted by groups like the Avondhu-Blackwater Partnership can counteract cuts in public transport provisions, the service, like everything else, is at the mercy of weather conditions. The key to maintaining some level of service to people isolated in rural areas is to improvise with the schemes in place.
“Last year we were taken aback by how bad the weather got. We run several programmes here, including the Blackwater Community Connect; a telephone line for isolated people, which doubles as a handyman service. People call it when they need someone to come around to their house and fix something.
“With the bad conditions, loads of bus services had to be cancelled. Some people worried about those who had to go without their second and third services. So between drivers of our own buses and volunteers we made sure that an offer to come out to people was there for those who are stuck at home. If people were stuck we would sort something out to bring provisions and medicines if needed. We teamed up with Meals on Wheels and had some volunteers in 4×4 jeeps offer to bring meals to people.”
With the flexibility that providing their services requires, Damien says the group is always happy to hear from anyone who wants to volunteer.
“We have volunteers, but we need more. We are lucky in once sense, that we have several in the Fermoy catchment area, but we need volunteers in the Mallow and Blarney hinterland, especially someone who may have a jeep that can get to places our bus or car can’t.
“The handyman service was inundated with calls about burst pipes, there was lots of demand for that one in particular, whereas the Meals on Wheels was not called upon as much. We find that neighbours are good to help out and give older people a hot meal. But the basic handyman service is in big demand because people cannot always rely on their neighbours, who may be busy themselves, to help fix things.
Last year we found our handyman service was tackling burst pipes all over the place; they were fixing them for weeks after the freeze. Our ideal situation would be to be set up as a coordination centre, where people call us and we in turn put them in touch with the nearest volunteer,” Damien explains.
The schemes implemented by the Avondhu-Blackwater Partnership are subject to government funding, and with a harsh budget expected next week, all eyes will be on any measures to reduce essential grants.
“This time last year the An Bord Snip Nua report wanted the Rural Transport Scheme taken away completely, which came as a major surprise to us. We didn’t realise that we were under consideration. That said, the claims made in the report were ridiculous. It suggested that there is no need for the service due to the high number of cars in rural Ireland. The reality is that a lot of people living alone have their family far away from them, and don’t always have neighbours close at hand.
“Our funding was not touched last year, thankfully, and so far the indications we have received for next year are good,” Damien concludes.
The provision of public services goes beyond transport measures, yet the demise of rural post offices for example has, in turn, increased demand on Bus Eireann and other providers to bring people to neighbouring towns and villages to visit a post office. Many depend on Post Offices not just to send mail, but to pay bills, collect pensions or receive other social welfare payments.
The knock-on effect on areas that lose a post office is clear. January 2008 saw a family tradition spanning some 150 years draw to a close when Breda McDermott retired as Post-Mistress in the rural village of Glenville. Breda had spent 41 years at the post office, 39 of those years as Post Mistress, a title she inherited from her mother-in-law who ran the local fixture for over 50 years.
An Post announced that the small post office would close, coinciding with Breda’s retirement. Nearly two years on, Breda describes the aftermath of the decision. “The closure has been a disaster, now people go to Carrignavar and Watergrasshill to collect their payments, get their stamps, do everything – once they are there they’ll do their shopping, pick up their groceries, the lot.
“When we had the post office here we had three shops – now two have closed, we only have the one left,” Breda said. The post office was more than a service, but a social hub where people had met for decades. “It had the village switchboard when my mother-in-law ran the post office. There were no phones in the village so people would be sent into a small kiosk in the office and they were connected through the switchboard.”
In modern times it’s where people met on Fridays. “They would all meet there, when collecting their pensions.” continued Breda, “The closure was a big loss to them. I never left the place early on Friday, they were all there. I would have handled thousands on Fridays, especially when we got more customers after the closure of the Kildinan Post Office two years before we closed.”Breda explains that the closure meant the loss of the part-time helpers she used to take on, including students on summer holidays. The postmen and women who used the base as a sorting office have been redeployed to Watergrasshill.
The silver lining for Breda is that she is enjoying her retirement. She expresses concern at the lack of security in rural villages, and admits that she was often fearful of a break-in considering the amounts of money the post office was required to keep on-hand. Breda says she sleeps much better now, knowing that there isn’t a safe full of money in the room below her, with no Gardaí in the immediate vicinity to come and help should anything happen.
One man who knows the difficulty of rural isolation is Donoughmore publican Tony ‘Hoggie’ Horgan. Hoggie’s Bar has felt the effects of a lack of transport in the area. “There are no services here, we have one bus in the morning, the rest were taken away.” he told The Cork News. “I have a small seven-seater minibus for customers, but it is just not viable during the day to hire someone for behind the bar in the middle of the week to bring people over and back. There is nothing going on during the week. Since the cold spell in the last week or so, I could have shut at nine o’clock to be honest, the “seasoned campaigners” won’t come out in the weather, it’s too dodgy. They don’t want to end up in the ditch with their car,” Tony says.
The publican believes that the extent of the social isolation in rural Ireland is often understated.
“In rural Ireland, in Donoughmore at least, the social life is based around the community centre and the pub,” he says. “Trade has been affected here big time, to be honest, and in rural areas the social aspect is totally nil at this moment in time. We don’t have the facilities that are there in the city to bring people together, and there are no next-door neighbours popping in to see you for a coffee.
“The pub across the road, the 909, closed two years ago. There was a social gathering there on the last Thursday of every month where musicians and trad music fans would gather. They would regularly get crowds of 40 to 50 people. Since that closed, they came to my place and in the two years since we’ve seen the crowds dwindle to ten or 15,” he reveals.
While the minibus is there for the weekend, Tony says that many people are still reluctant to travel to the pub when the inconveniences of the logistics are considered. “The only time I use the bus really is at weekends to ferry people home. The problem is that not many people will drive to the pub and then want a spin home. To some it’s like going home without your right arm. They won’t want to go without the car in the morning so they ask themselves if it’s worth the hassle going to the pub. I run an off license here too and people tend to pick up a bottle of wine here and then drink it at home,” he explains.
Diversification, Tony says, is the key to survival and Hoggie’s is now home to an off-license, a restaurant and a wholesalers business. “The only way rural pubs can make money now is if there’s a party and that’s it. Pubs are driven to open ’till all hours to survive. There’s no such thing as closing time in a rural pub as such.
“Pubs have taken a whipping in the last four years, and credit terms are gone. Publicans are now coming to me to buy as they can’t get the credit to buy supply anywhere,” he reveals.
But not every rural pub can diversify to the level Hoggie’s has. Not every hinterland can sustain a business that covers as many bases as a pub/restaurant/off-license/wholesalers. The future for the stand alone pub in rural Ireland, according to Tony, is bleak. “The rural pub industry is a white elephant.” he concludes.
The HSE received nearly 700 calls last year to a special helpline dedicated to tackling rural stress. The Farm and Rural Stress helpline was initially targeted specifically at farmers and people who live in rural areas who may be feeling down, suffering from stress or depression or those who are concerned about someone. However the type of calls being received this year has been changing, with people expressing financial fears about the ongoing recession.
Brenda Crowley, Mental Health Resource Officer, HSE South said, “Stress and anxiety are huge factors as many farmers have large loans taken out and are having huge difficulties getting grants and entitlements. We would urge people who are feeling stressed or lonely to call our helpline and talk to someone in complete confidence.”
The HSE Farm & Rural Stress Helpline is available from 6pm-10pm on 1800 742 645. Avondhu-Blackwater Partnership can be contacted on 025 33411.
For more information on Avondhu Blackwater Partnership,The Rural Transport Programme and Blackwater Community Connect, visit our webpage at www.avondhublackwater.com and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for up to date news on events, courses and other funding opportunities!
(Original article written by Joe Leogue at www.thecorknews.ie)