The European rural model
[ Index ]
LEADER, a tool for economic diversification
and quality of life in southwest Ireland
The Duhallow Tiger
Against the current backdrop of very strong growth
in Ireland, the people and businesses of Duhallow
are implementing innovative economic, social, cultural
and environmental projects on a large scale.
The aim is to tame the "Celtic tiger" for the resettlement
and development of this marginalized rural area.
Shannon airport. Signs above the luggage turnstiles tell travellers
to "unpack your suitcase and start a new life again" by finding work
in Ireland through a new job search Internet site. Two or three
years ago such signs would have seemed surreal. Ireland, which for
almost two centuries saw a good portion of its children leave for
more agreeable destinations, is now looking for labour. How could
this be? Without going into detail on the famous "Irish economic
miracle" which the press has already widely covered, let us take a
second look at some particularly impressive figures: average annual
growth rate of 8% in the past six years, plunging unemployment rate
(17% in 1994; 4.3% in 1999) with 700 000 jobs created in ten years,
per capita income now exceeding that of the United Kingdom,
transformation of what was a languid or even "backward" country when
it joined the European Union, into a high-tech country which is
today manufacturing 60% of the software marketed on the European
"The 'Celtic tiger' is not benefiting all the regions of the
country," points out Derry Fitzpatrick, president of the IRD
Duhallow Development Agency, the LEADER local action group (LAG).
"It's an urban phenomenon aboveall which mainly benefits Dublin,
Cork and the small towns located along the main roads and easy-to-
reach coastal areas. For rural areas like ours, this phenomenon is a
double-edged sword. Like elsewhere, our companies are benefiting -
the building sector, for example, is rapidly growing here too - but
the economic miracle is quickening the pace of departure of young
people. The 'tiger' is taking away our living strength..."
And Duhallow does not have too much of that: the population of
this very rural area, bordering counties Cork and Kerry, has been
steadily declining over the past twenty years. The rate of
dependency is considered very high here, with 18.4% of the
households made up of elderly individuals or couples, which in
Ireland is a lot. One third of the working population are farmers,
"but for a large portion of them how much longer will it last?,"
wonders Mary Burns.
Mary is not concerned about her own fate. In 1973, she and her
husband switched to farmhouse cheese-making on their 90-ha farm. An
exporter at heart, Eugene Burns soon managed to market their
excellent semi-soft cheese in France, then Great Britain, Italy, the
Netherlands and Spain, "until the international campaign against raw
milk emerged", explains Mary. "Then we had to make a choice; by
opting for pasteurisation we had to accept to lose the French
market. In 1998, LEADER helped us obtain the necessary
pasteurisation equipment and expand our facilities."
According to Mary, the quality and taste of their cheese have not
changed, but production has risen from 14 to 40 tonnes. They have
gained a foothold on the American market and in 1999 they won two
British Cheese Award prizes for "best Irish cheese" and "best
European semi-soft cheese". Today, the farm and cheese dairy provide
8 full-time jobs.
Diversification, innovation, relocation
The area's living strength must be encouraged to stay. As far as
agriculture is concerned, the watchword in Duhallow, like in the
rest of Ireland, is "diversification". A considerable share of the
LEADER budget is earmarked for this. What is most remarkable,
however, is the often innovative nature of the new activities chosen
by the local farmers to diversify. The Hickeys saw the income from
their dairy farm rapidly decline. An acquaintance of theirs, who had
recently invented and patented worldwide a revolutionary roadside
curb for easier drainage of rainwater, asked Billy Hickey to
manufacture this zinc and cement product. LEADER enabled the farmer
to turn an idle barn into a production unit, which recently began
assembling 300 "Drain-O-Kerbs"‚ a week, creating two new jobs and
supplementing the family income. "The technical assistance from IRD
Duhallow LEADER, which provided financial leverage and the open-
minded credit union were decisive for us," stresses Billy, who even
confides: "eventually this activity might even replace the farming
we do; the market is immense with all the new roads being built and
"We had become Saturday evening farmers, the farm had no future
anymore...," says James O'Sullivance, 45 years old, who after the
death of his father turned the family farm into a wooden garden
furniture business manufacturing a whole range of products,
including pergolas, flower boxes, children's playhouses and bird
houses. "Fingerprints Wood Products" increased its business
threefold between 1996 and 1999.
"Profit margins are high - between 45% and 65% -, especially since
all the wood is utilised, with the sale of any remaining waste as
firewood," explains James. Having participated in five training
sessions (management, marketing, etc.) organised by IRD Duhallow, he
too underlines the quality of the technical assistance of the LEADER
group and insists on the importance of the local presence of
businesses: "sustainable diversification must be part of the area's
resources." James, who currently employs three local young people,
knows what he is talking about: as a food scientist, he was made
redundant when the company where he was working relocated.
"I have calculated that out of the EUR 665 000 injected by LEADER II
in the projects of entrepreneurs, about EUR 260 000 have not left
the area but have directly benefited other local businesses by
providing goods and services," claims Lorraine Singleton, LEADER
"Without LEADER, I don't think that we would have moved to Kanturk
even if I am profoundly attached to my home town," says Patrick
Buckley, representative of the Community Councils on the governing
board of IRD Duhallow and manager of a project involving the partial
return of an innovative company to the heart of rural Ireland. EPS
is a family business founded in Kanturk (pop. 1 700) in 1968 but
relocated in 1975 to Mallow, one of those medium-sized Irish towns
strategically located along the main roads. With 130 employees, the
company is specialised in the treatment of waste water. In
partnership with an American partner, EPS has developed an "aerobic"
waste tank, much more environmentally friendly than the usual
"septic" tank. Patrick has convinced his company to develop the
product in Kanturk. "We were extremely interested in the project,"
explains Lorraine Singleton. "For LEADER II, we didn't have any
concrete environmental projects; the application from EPS came just
at the right time. It combines waste management and job creation."
LEADER therefore contributed EUR 19 000 to build a unit to
manufacture these tanks, a unit that is now employing four full-time
people. Two factors make Patrick Buckley very optimistic: the
construction boom in Ireland and the application of the European
directives on the treatment of water and waste. "In the short term,
our objective is to assemble 500 tanks a year, that is EUR 1 270 000
in sales, but recent projections put demand from the Irish rural
market alone at 5 500 annual units in the next four to five years.
Just add that up..."
Playing in the big league
In addition to the special capacity that local businessmen seem to
have of putting innovations to work, the visitor is struck by
something else: next to the sectors of activity commonly found in
rural areas (agri-food, building, transport, local services),
Duhallow is also home to a certain number of companies one would
imagine near a big city rather than in this remote corner of
Ireland: based in Rockchapel (pop. 450), ADA Ltd. assembles and
distributes alarm systems across the country. Employing some twenty
people - "recruited locally," claims its manager, Pat O'Connor - the
company has obtained EUR 65 000 in LEADER II aid to build an alarm
production unit and a monitoring station, two projects that should
create an additional 9 jobs.
"The renovation of Shannon airport offers great prospects,"
explains Pat O'Connor, "and until last year, before the LEADER aid,
we weren't able to bid on this type of
market. LEADER is enabling us to play in the big league."
"Playing in the big league" is what the company Avonmore Electrical
Ltd. has been doing for several years now, steadily growing since
its foundation in 1958. Launched by Jerry Sheehan in his small
workshop in Millstreet (pop. 1 500), this company has become a
leader in the reconditioning of electric engines in Ireland.
LEADER has made it a leader: about EUR 95 000 in LEADER I aid enabled him
to buy more technologically advanced equipment, to satisfy the ISO
2002 quality standard and to fill larger contracts (testing and
maintenance of heavier engines).
With EUR 63 500 in LEADER II aid,
he has been able to do maintenance and repair work on train engines.
The result is that the Irish Railway Company no longer sends its
engines to Great Britain or the United States for reconditioning,
and the number of Avonmore Electrical employees rose from 53 to 67
between 1998 and 1999 and an additional 9 jobs are expected to be
"These are highly skilled jobs that pay on average EUR 30 000 a
year. That's a payroll of nearly EUR 2 million injected in the local
economy in 1998, not to mention the EUR 380 000 or so spent each
year locally on purchases of goods and services," points out Pat
O'Sullivan, sales and technical manager. Here too, we are struck by
the size of the plant "in the middle of nowhere" or rather in the
middle of a magnificent 5.5 ha green area near Kanturk.
Perhaps more than making sure that his factory runs smoothly, Jerry
Sheehan's great passion is the protection of nature. He is a
"Duhallow development agent" all by himself. Jerry is not only the
founder of Avonmore Electrical but in 1989 also founded IRD
Duhallow, an agency that today has 13 development workers and
manages a number of national and European development programmes.
But Jerry is also a leader in other respects: in love with his part
of Ireland and partial to fishing and gourmet food, this self-made
man put his all into an almost crazy project. In 1973, he bought 203
ha of heath and moorland around Musheramore Mountain (612 m), went
into deer farming then between 1986 and 1991 designed what is now
becoming the great attraction of Duhallow, "Millstreet Country
Park", what is probably a unique ecological area in Europe. Open
to the public in 1995, the park is a real microcosm of Ireland's
Part of the area can be toured on a minibus
but visitors with more time can walk along the many trails in the
park. In addition to observing over 700 deer and other animals, it
is possible to admire various gardens and an arboretum, meditate in
front of a Bronze Age stone circle, fish in a lake, attend field
trips and conferences, consult a large collection of nature books in
the library, etc.
A visitor's and interpretation centre, which has a
projection room, a restaurant and music stand, make up the rest,
which required about EUR 3.8 million in investments, mostly private.
LEADER II contributed EUR 38 000, mainly for promotional actions.
With the creation of some 30 jobs and a steadily growing public (40
000 admissions in 1999, +35% in the first half of 2000),
Millstreet Country Park has given this small bit of Ireland a
particularly solid structure. "The Food Training Centre was our key
project in LEADER I (see boxed text, ed.), the park is the flagship
of our LEADER II programme," sums up Maura Walsh, director of IRD
Millstreet Country Park illustrates so to speak on a large scale an
approach currently found in most of the area's communities: the
transformation of derelict buildings and "village wasteland" into
areas of culture, greenery, recreation and social interaction.
Because there are no municipal authorities - the smallest unit of
local government in Ireland is the county - everything depends on
the work of associations, volunteers and quite often the LEADER
In the village of Banteer (pop. 600), three community
groups have turned an old school into a playhouse whereas several
others have joined forces to transform the banks of a long neglected
pond into a public garden. The same has been occurring not far from
there. The inhabitants of three nearby villages have cleaned up the
banks but also the bed of their river, making it attractive for
fishing and taking walks.
In the town of Kiskeam, considered one of the oldest human
settlements in Ireland, a village initiative has turned an old
unsightly area into a "Bronze Age Park" by placing megalithic
sculptures there. In New Market (pop. 3 000), it is the association
of horse breeders that is developing a multi-recreation area. Each
village is in fact benefiting from a renovation operation with the
aid of LEADER.
"Kanturk holds the sad record of the most ageing population in
Ireland," deplores Frank Healy, another local "leader" who for the
past 40 years has with a few friends been keeping the small town's
green area clean on a voluntary basis. "We're delighted that more
and more young families are staying and even moving here, as we've
seen recently. This kind of quality of life that we are trying to
achieve by taking advantage of the amenities of the villages is a
fundamental challenge for the future of this region, and LEADER is
giving us the means to do this."
"It's a service worthy of an important town," says Christine O'Shea,
director of a primary school, member of the LAG board of directors
and a tireless musician. With LEADER's help, she set up a music
school a few kilometres from Nead (pop. 500). She has some one
hundred pupils, both children and adults. "More than just a music
school, it has become a place for both young people and parents to
meet, in short a real social club for the whole village."
Music is the other (the most important?) asset that Duhallow wants
to take advantage of. The community of Castlemagner (pop. 1 400) has
been organising musical comedies of professional quality since 1994.
Here, under the direction of a local young man, Neil Moylan - he was
15 when he began in 1994! - some one hundred villagers have turned
into singers, actors and extras to interpret "The Sound of Music"
(1994), "Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (1996), "My
Fair Lady" (1997) and "Me and My Girl" (2000). The initiative has
been crowned with several invitations for the village theatrical
company to perform at the Cork Opera House, a first in Ireland for
"We had a dream these past fifteen years but couldn't do anything
about it... It has only been with LEADER that we've been able to
change all that!" says Jack Roche... from Rockchapel (!). The
village's name sounds like a U2 title, but the president of the
"Bruach Na Carraige" (The Sound of the Rocks) association is not an
ardent admirer of Irish rock groups. Indeed, Jack is quite a purist:
"It was here in 1583 that the first written score of Irish music was
found. You can say that our region, the 'Sliabh Luachra' (Rushy
Mountains, ed.), is the birthplace of Irish music. As such, it is
our duty to preserve this heritage, the repertoire of the 17th, 18th
and 19th centuries. So-called 'traditional' Irish music that is
heard a bit everywhere is in fact much more recent and often
distorted. We are trying here to safeguard authentic Irish music and
the dances that go with it. The young people who attend the centre
are probably the only ones in Ireland who still play this music and
dance these dances."
In addition to the active preservation of this
heritage, the aim is to attract specialised tourism from the whole
world, thanks among other things to the 400 or so Irish music
associations scattered across the globe.
A few great moments for Jack and his association have been the
awarding of a LEADER grant of about EUR 70 000 (half of the
project's cost), a report by Japanese television on the Centre, its
official inauguration in June 1999 by the President of Ireland, Mary
McAleese, and especially the daily joy of seeing several dozen young
people from Duhallow using their free time for something they really
love to do.
So, "unpack your suitcase and begin a new life"... in Duhallow or in
other rural areas of Green Erin? But what about the people who are
already there and have never packed their suitcase?
Jerry Sheehan has his personal view on that: "We have trouble recruiting our
engineers and technicians locally and keeping them for more than two
years. Yet, rural Ireland has a great future ahead, the quality of
life has clearly improved and there are wonderful jobs for the young
people who want to stay in the country... But first we might want to
tell them that! Everyone has to contribute, beginning with the
teachers. They have to tell the secondary school pupils about the
real possibilities they have of living and working here. LEADER+
should plan strong actions with teachers. We underestimate too much
the role that they can play in local development..."
Source: Robert Kuttner in "Business Week",
July 2000, and John Murry Brown in "The Financial
Times", 23-24 September 2000.
 The LEADER area more or less corresponds
to the old barony of Duhallow from where it takes its name..
 On the concept of "Kultur Landschaft"
("cultural landscape"), see LEADER Magazine No. 24 p.16.
 The breakeven point is estimated at 50 000 admissions.
source: LEADER Magazine nr.25 - Winter 2000/2001