Monday, April 2, 2012

Ireland's Rural Rebound

I grew up in the rural west of Ireland, surrounded by fields full of cattle and the crumbling houses abandoned by generations of emigrants. The area had been economically stagnant for a long time and young people fled to cities or to the US and UK. It was a place people came from, and to which only nostalgic Irish-American tourists would sometimes return for short visits.

Left behind economically, the rural areas still had a kind of cultural clout because early 20th century Irish nationalists had identified the rural peasantry as a moral ideal for the nation: simple, hard-working, Catholic, communal and decent. This contrasted with those city-dwellers who were judged to have been corrupted by the distractions of British and American cultures, who had become sophisticated and Anglicised, secular English-speaking hedonists. At least that was a very broad idea. It was typified by the astonishing speech given by Eamon de Valera, one of Ireland's leading 20th century politicians, when he was Taoiseach (prime minister) in 1943:
"... The Ireland that we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. . . ."
Godly, simple, pure - and utterly alien to the materialistic comfort that Irish people would actually seek and enjoy decades later.

Anyway this powerful image of the pure Irish peasantry, described again and again in Irish drama and literature, would provoke some irritation among the urban people for whom it meant little. New films and literature emerged based around gritty urban Dublin life: crime series about human trafficking and drug gangsterism, dramas about fashionable, unsmiling urbanites' careers and adulteries. All this was a new Ireland that seemed modern, sophisticated and integrated to Europe and the world. This was very far from the old, Catholic, rosy-cheeked rural innocence.

Of course the countryside was changing rapidly too. Where I lived economic decline caused mass-emigration and whole communities died off. The spread of communications technology had the same impact there as elsewhere; I grew up watching Spiderman and Bugs Bunny on Saturday morning TV shows. Free public schooling probably helped to even the educational gaps between urban and rural, so that when I moved to Dublin at 18 I had little culture shock. The city was like lots and lots of country people all living in the one place.

And yet there were differences. Catholicism seemed to linger stronger in the countryside, while class division and class identity were stronger in the city. Most of the national news media were based in Dublin and country people complained that they were not represented in Dublin-dominated news. Even I was surprised one summer when I worked in a local pub in a small town and saw the kind of country and western music my neighbours were enjoying. Their simple and predictable songs had nothing in common with the sexed-up pop and rock of the city. There was a continuing rural culture that was mostly (though not entirely) ignored by the mainstream media.

One consequence of this may be an underestimation by urban media of the strength of rural beliefs and values. I noticed this a few times recently, seeing the contemptuous amusement of journalists and others on Twitter over the emergence of an Irish country and western band called Crystal Swing. The band consists of a mother and two teenage children who sing rather unfashionable and cheesy music - the exact same kind of music that played in the small pub I worked in years earlier. In fact I knew that this kind of music was unremarkable and probably playing in small towns right across the country. Should you be interested, here is Crystal Swing's He Drinks Tequila:

Granted, to me it also seems pretty odd, but it's no surprise. This is like an unusually competent version of what I had to listen to when serving larger to contented locals at that old bar. I was surprised by the astonishment with which this track was received: did they not know that this music was popular in the countryside?

This hip urban confusion when faced with rural realities seemed to apply to more serious issues too. The survival of Catholic conservatism in rural areas, and the general failure of left wing movements to take root to the extent they had in Dublin long ago, led to the perseverance of right-conservative politics.

For example, before 1995 divorce was illegal in Ireland. That year a referendum was held to decide the future legality of divorce. Every Dublin constituency voted in favour of the change to legalise divorce. Yet the western constituencies, belonging to the poorest and most rural populations in Ireland, overwhelmingly rejected it. The following are all the western constituencies making a line down the western coast, and every one of them chose to retain the prohibition on divorce:

Mayo West
Mayo East
Galway West
Galway East
Kerry North
Kerry South
Donegal North-East
Donegal South-West

This illustrates the cultural differences between the conservative western rural Ireland and the liberal eastern urban. The referendum was passed in the end, barely. I remember it because I was in school at the time and the Vote No campaign was loud and assertive in my rural region.

All of this came back to me yesterday when I noticed this Eurostat press release looking at the urban-rural demographics of the EU. Eurostat explain:
The urban–rural typology is based on a classification of grid cells of 1 km² as either urban or rural. To be considered as urban, grid cells should fulfill two conditions: a population density of at least 300 inhabitants per km² and a minimum population of 5 000 inhabitants in contiguous cells above the density threshold. The other cells are considered as rural.
With this categorisation Ireland is, well, very rural indeed, by far the most rural country in the EU with 73% of the population living in rural areas. I have described the population decline in rural areas, but not the revival. In the late 1990s the economic boom allowed people to pour back into Ireland and many of them rushed back into the countryside, filling shrinking country schools with a new generation of children. Eurostat note:
In nearly all Member States, it was in urban regions that the population grew most rapidly. Ireland was an exception with growth in its rural population, while the urban population declined. The highest population growth in urban regions in 2010 was observed in Sweden (+17.3 per 1000 inhabitants), Denmark (+15.0‰), the Czech Republic (+10.2‰) and Finland (+10.0‰). Lithuania4 (-13.6‰), Ireland (-5.7‰) and Latvia (-5.4‰) recorded a decrease in their urban populations.

The rural population rose in ten Member states and fell in fourteen. The largest increases were registered in Belgium (+7.3‰ in 2009), Ireland (+6.1‰) and France (+5.1‰ in 2009), and the largest decreases in Lithuania4 (-31.6‰), Bulgaria (-13.2‰) and Latvia (-11.6‰).
So the balance is shifting again, with growth in the countryside and decline in the cities. Will the new generation of rural people - influenced by national education and international entertainment media - be identical to the urbanites in culture and politics? Or will the religiosity, insularity and conservatism of the countryside lead to a revival of those traits as its population rebounds? Perhaps, at least, city-based journalists need to be aware that the cultures they experience every day on 'the streets' are, in Ireland, the cultures of an urban minority.


  1. Great post again.

    1. You're much too polite to say it, but what you are describing is the depth of ignorance and narrow-mindedness which characterises most of the in-bred Irish commentariat, whose ideas of sophistication are self-serving delusions.

    The ignorant, glib, unapologetically offensive, self-regarding urban weltaanschung of "The West" - in Ireland, it is The East, of course - is responsible for most of the seemingly intractable problems of the world today.

    2. Dev's 1943 speech was not at all astonishing.

    Only a few years earlier, Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister of the home of The Industrial Revolution (but before that of The Agricultural Revolution - not many people know that) was known for similar reveries based on English rural idylls. Yet Britain is the most urbanised country on the planet, and has been since before Baldwin's time. See, for example

    Not many people know that, either.:-)

  2. Typical.

    The young ignorant urbanites who run Blogger decide to garble the apostrophe in O'Rourke, no doubt because it is too redolent of rural values !

    And, no, I am not paranoiac :-)

  3. Thank you Fergus - that is fascinating indeed about Stanley Baldwin's thoughts on a wholesome rural Britain.

    By the way the CSO have just published lots of interesting information from Census 2011 on Ireland's urban-rural population shifts. I think I may have been too hasty in accepting Eurostat's definition of rural: CSO writes that the urban population is 62% of Ireland's total population. A colleague suggested that the rise of the "rural" was really a rise in the population shifting away from city centres and out into commuter towns, which would be still heavily influenced by the city:

    You can see a pretty cool interactive map exploring population increase and decline by region here:

    It shows quite a chaos of change, with regions experiencing major increase and decline in the same counties. There are big areas of decline along the western seaboard, but also pockets of decline in the heart of Dublin. Interesting stuff indeed.


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