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The (re)population of rural areas

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(Re)populating Leitrim and North-Roscommon (Ireland):
A matter of quality of life


From housing assistance to the
renovation of a cinema, from the
development of recreational areas
and the creation of new services
and activities, a wide range of
means is being used to encourage
people to resettle in the least
populated part of Ireland. LEADER
is playing a key role in this effort.


Once upon a time, there where the River Shannon lazily begins its journey out to the sea, stood a village with the last working coal mine in Ireland. Unfortunately, the power plant which bought 95% of the mined coal shut down in 1990, leading to the closure of the mine. 260 miners lost a job that more often than not had been handed down from father to son. And a countless number of indirect jobs also disappeared... Arigna (current population 500) and the mine’s entire area of economic influence had no choice but to reconvert. Out of this was born the Arigna Catchment Area Community Company Ltd. (ACACC) comprising 40 community groups of the region. In 1991, LEADER I began and the ACACC became the local action group (LAG) for this part of Ireland (1).

“The closure of the Arigna mine was the last economic blow to hit our region,” deplores Pat Daly, director of the LAG. “Take the case of Leitrim: already it was the least populated county of Ireland and, unlike the others, its population has been steadily declining since the Great Famine, falling from 155,000 in 1841 to a mere 25,000 today... The Arigna catchment area is slowly overcoming the coal shock of 1990 - LEADER, for example, has helped create about 140 direct jobs and keep a lot more - but 40% of the young people continue to leave the region. The demographic situation remains our major problem. We must put a stop to the population drain before our area becomes totally lifeless and incapable of recovering the critical mass essential for development, especially since 36% of the working population of the LEADER area still depends on agriculture which here does not have much future with the current situation.”

In addition to the many training courses organised by the LEADER group - especially to help the redundant miners find jobs in the building and transport sectors - the major undertaking for local reconversion is the Arigna Energy Valley project. It is organised around three sites located in the river valley from which the village takes its name: a Mining Museum, an Energy Museum and a Centre for Alternative Energies. “With the mine, the old power plant and the wind turbines installed on the hill, we already have at least three ‘life-size’ infrastructures that we just need to set up as a network for educational and tourist purposes,” explains Seamus Rynn, president of ACDC (Arigna Community Development Company), a well appropriated name in an ‘Energy Valley’ that has nonetheless remained very bucolic and surprisingly well preserved. “LEADER I financed the feasibility study and LEADER II devoted about 270,000 euros to the project. What is difficult for a small association like ours is to find the matching funds. Our mine was too small to be eligible under RECHAR, the European programme for the reconversion of mines, and because County Roscommon does not border Northern Ireland, we don’t have access to the Peace & Reconciliation programme... The fund raising that we have undertaken in the United States has, on the other hand, already brought in 13,000 euros.”

“Another major obstacle that we encounter here in terms of development,” adds Padraig McLouglin, director of the technical college of Drumshanbo and president of the LEADER group, “is the lack of initiative. We often come up against a still very ingrained mentality of the ‘well-paid wage earner’ among many former miners. Miners are not entrepreneurs.”


Electronic commerce

“60% salaried workers, 40% self-employed workers” is precisely the job ratio expected by Bill Connelly and the others involved in the ‘E-commerce’ project which started up in Arigna in December 1999. This is a partnership between the local action group and a software maker - Trojan - based in Boyle (population 1,800). Twelve young unemployed people with basic computer skills took a nine-month training course in electronic commerce: “they learned about the creation of Web sites and the marketing of products on the Internet, and about graphics and advertising,” notes Bill, member of the LAG and headmaster of the primary school of Arigna where the training courses are given. “We will never have major industries here, so this project is a unique opportunity to retain our young people and this thanks to an intellectually stimulating activity. We want to create a centre of excellence, a kind of ‘conveyor belt’ in business-oriented information technology. We expect that at the end of their training, all the participants will be hired by Trojan; later, some will want to venture out on their own and set up their own business.”

The project entails hiring a teacher and a coordinator who is also responsible for finding customers interested in having a commercial Web site. The sites built by the students will finance at least part of the programme, and an electronic commerce company is to be created at the end of the first training session. At the moment, the action (a total cost of EUR 170,000 of which EUR 35,000 is being provided by Trojan) is being funded under Measure C of LEADER. It is part of a transnational cooperation project organised with the South Tyrone LEADER group in Northern Ireland which is implementing a nearly identical project. In addition, McGee College of the University of Ulster will be issuing a certificate for the two training programmes in the North and South.

“The ‘E-Commerce project’ is not only providing job opportunities but also doing a lot to improve the quality of the region’s educational services, a very important factor to attract new residents,” notes John Burke, vice president of the LAG and president of the Uná Bhán cooperative which brings together thirty socio-economic partners from the region of Boyle (all the profit from the café-restaurant opened by the cooperative in 1995 with the help of LEADER I is being reinvested in the organisation of activities and the promotion of tourism in the area).

With the phenomenal growth witnessed by Ireland in recent years (over 8% a year in 1997 and 1998) and the resulting situation of near full employment (jobless rate below 6% in 1999), even in the rural counties (see article “The Irish Way to Rural Resettlement”), it is more quality of life factors that are making the difference between an attractive area and an area that people tend to leave.

Leitrim/North-Roscommon is full of natural and cultural resources: an undulating landscape full of the vast lakes found throughout Shannon and dotted with quaint villages and castles, the LEADER area has everything to please tourists and also people looking for a rural place to move to.

In addition, better road facilities and the widespread use of the Internet mean that the remoteness of the area is no longer an intractable handicap. “The telecommunication lines are better than in Dublin - 44000 bits here compared with 33000 bits there - and we are soon going to have ISDN,” says Liam Breslin, researcher in the field of information technologies who in 1998 moved with his companion, Aedin McLoughlin, to Ballinaglera, a village of 300 inhabitants along Lough Allen (Leitrim). And he adds: “here, people take their time, even the butcher is a philosopher and then there is another reason for our presence here - we are still far enough away to escape babysitting our grandchildren!”

“The quality of life is our major asset,” notes Brian Nerney, managing director of the Roscommon Herald newspaper. “We have been penalised by our proximity to the border with Northern Ireland. For investors, big and small, we were considered a region at war... The November 1999 agreements are the best news we’ve had in a long time.”

So, with this feeling of optimism, local officials are dusting off projects that had been put aside pending. One example is the magnificent forest park of Lough Key, the oldest national park in Ireland whose visitor numbers have dropped since 1991, which is going to be revitalised and undergo a genuine overhaul. Nearly EUR 6 million are going to be invested in various facilities (new interpretation centre, self-catering cottages, recreational equipment, etc) that will be fully integrated in the environment. “Here too, we are confronted with the problem of low population,” recognises Frank Feighan, elected councillor of County Roscommon: “nobody wants to invest in a luxury hotel in the park; all the potential investors that we have approached say that our population is not large enough...”



“Housing is today the biggest obstacle to resettlement,” says Noel Collins, resettlement officer for County Roscommon working on the Pilot Scheme for Rural Resettlement (see article “The Irish Way to Rural Resettlement”). His counterpart in County Leitrim, Tina Rehill, shares his view: “On the one hand, there is not enough suitable housing. On the other hand, prices have gone up so much these past two years that owning a home or even renting has become difficult for many people...”

The Upper Shannon, encompassing the entire LEADER area, is the geographical area chosen by the Irish government to test between 1999 and 2002 a rural renovation programme (Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme) based on tax incentives, namely, a 50% cut in the capital tax for the building of a new home and a 100% reduction for the renovation of an existing dwelling. “The public has shown great interest in this: in barely four months, we have received several hundred applications,” underlines Gillian Buckley, project manager at the Western Development Commission which is overseeing the programme. “This is the rural application of a model that has proved successful in urban areas. It is a programme that is essentially aimed at the average-income owner and emigrants who want to return. In a sustainable resettlement strategy, we must target these two categories which are more ‘economically reliable’, if I dare say that, than the disadvantaged groups or the neo-ruralites who are attracted above all by a new way of life.”

As for the LEADER Initiative, it is largely directed at supporting the repopulation effort engaged in Ireland and in a rather wide range of sectors, for instance, help to create 12 jobs in a new home for the elderly, support for the creation of new local services (eg, a beauty salon), the establishment of a centre for community activities and cultural events (exhibition space, recording studio), renovation of the Carrick-on-Shannon cinema which was going to shut down. “It was more the arguments of the LEADER people than the funding (17% of the 130,000 euros that I invested) that convinced me: keeping a cinema open is very important for a small town like ours,” stresses the owner of the Gaiety Cinema.

“We want to keep people here,” repeats Padraig McLouglin, the president of the LEADER group. “You know what really motivates me is that my entire family is near me and not in America, England or somewhere else.”



Surface area: 3 285 km²
Population: 56 936 inhabitants
LEADER II funding: EUR 6 250 720
EU: EUR 2 180 000
Other public funds: EUR 935 000
Private: EUR 3 135 720

Arigna Catchment Area Community Company Ltd.

Enterprise Centre, Arigna
IRL-Carrick-on-Shannon (Co. Roscommon)
Phone: + 353 78 46 186
Fax: +353 78 46 188



(1) The LEADER I Arigna catchment area (1991-1994)
also covered part of Counties Sligo and Cavan,
or 4,500 km² in total (90,000 inhabitants).


source: LEADER Magazine nr.22 - Spring, 2000

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