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The European rural model

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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 Continent[1]...

"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[2] 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 Dublin's expansion..."

"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 development agent.

"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 created shortly.

"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.


Country Parks

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"[3], what is probably a unique ecological area in Europe. Open to the public in 1995, the park is a real microcosm of Ireland's "cultural landscape"[4].

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[5]), 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 Duhallow.

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 programme.

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 amateurs.

"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..."


[1]Source: Robert Kuttner in "Business Week",
July 2000, and John Murry Brown in "The Financial
Times", 23-24 September 2000.

[2] The LEADER area more or less corresponds
to the old barony of Duhallow from where it takes its name..


[4] On the concept of "Kultur Landschaft"
("cultural landscape"), see LEADER Magazine No. 24 p.16.

[5] The breakeven point is estimated at 50 000 admissions.


source: LEADER Magazine nr.25 - Winter 2000/2001

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