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The Co Sligo village where self-help is the path to growth

Órla Ryan finds some traces of recovery in a rural area long used to battling on by itself.

Pasted image at 2016_02_12 03_51 PM

As part of our election coverage, we sent some of our journalists back to their hometowns to report on the issues concerning the people who live there.

Órla Ryan from Easkey, Co Sligo, visited the village to find out what’s gone wrong and right since the last election five years ago – and what people want to see happen after this election.

EASKEY IS A small seaside village located about 40km south of Sligo town.

It’s rural and many of the residents travel to surrounding areas for work. The Celtic Tiger was more of a cat in the region, which relies primarily on two things: agriculture and the Atlantic.

IMG_7964 Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

The closure of the local factory and caravan park, years before the recession, hit the village badly.

As of the 2011 Census, just over 65,000 people live in the county. Of these, about 1,500 call Easkey home. The CSO doesn’t keep unemployment statistics for towns, but Sligo itself has 4,300 people (6.6%; compared to 8.6% nationally) on the live register.

I grew up in Rathlee, just outside of the village. In recent months there has been more of a buzz about the place than there has been in years. Jobs are still hard to come by but the village is recovering and new businesses have opened.

On a cold but bright January morning I went home to talk to locals about how the village is doing ahead of the general election.

Easkey is representative of a lot of rural areas in Ireland. Its garda station was one of the 139 shut down in recent years. Some people there feel that politicians have forgotten about them, noting there simply aren’t enough votes at stake for someone to focus on helping them out.

IMG_7928Main StreetSource: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Many of the residents wish there was a councillor or TD from the area to fight their corner in terms of funding – citing the impact Fine Gael TD Michael Ring has had on neighbouring Mayo.

After growing tired of waiting for politicians to get things done in Easkey, residents took matters into their own hands.

A group of people formed Leap, Living in Easkey and Proud – an initiative to organise local clean-ups and events, and lobby for money for schemes to improve the area.

Three of Leap’s board members – Marie Weir, Carmel Gordon and parish priest Fr Kevin Loftus – sat down with TheJournal.ie to discuss what Leap has achieved in its first year of existence.

IMG_7880Fr Kevin, Carmel and MarieSource: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Marie tells us “the enthusiasm of the community” is keeping the group going.

“This area has no elected representative, either on the county council or further up. I think that has left us kind of isolated,” Carmel notes.

While Fr Kevin adds: “There’s a huge area who wouldn’t know who their representatives are, who wouldn’t be familiar with [the TDs and Senators] … They’re all on the other side [of the county], they’re not up in this area. It makes a huge difference to any locality not to have a public representative. [TDs] have no input whatsoever, we don’t see them at anything.”

Some 18 candidates are running in the Sligo/Leitrim constituency in the general election. There are four seats up for grabs.

sligo Source: TheJournal.ie

Carmel describes Joe Queenan and Michael Clarke, councillors who are based in nearby areas, as “good men” but added: “We don’t have anyone to push that little bit more for us … There’s nobody there to shout for us.”

We just feel very neglected … [TDs] come on whistle-stop tours, leading up to an election we’ll see more of them. They’ll come into the place for two minutes, maybe have a cup of tea, photoshoot and out again – and we won’t see them again until the next election.

“We don’t see them or they don’t really want to deal too much for us because our votes aren’t that important because there isn’t enough of us to vote to make a change,” she notes, adding it’s the same in other rural areas throughout Ireland.

“It’s hard to know who’s responsible for governing the country.”

As an example of this she notes how, when driving into the village to meet us she passed by the road into the local GAA club. Years ago a project to widen it was started, but never completed.

“Nothing has changed … you’d wonder just what that was all about.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Video edited by Nicky Ryan

Fr Kevin says: “Rural life is not a priority for [politicians]. It hasn’t the population, it hasn’t the return.”

“Who do you go to? Who do you shout at?,” Carmel adds.

“We’d like to think that it would be [different if we voted for the opposition], but I think we’ve to do something for ourselves. It has to become a self-help thing.”

IMG_7940 Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Marie goes back to the detrimental effect not having an elected representative from the area can have.

“I think it’s not so much the politics as the person, a local person.

The day of ‘my family always voted Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, whatever you want, Fianna Fáil’, has gone to an extent. If there’s a local man standing they’ll be voted for locally, but then again are there enough votes to get him in because there’s not enough of us.

This comment provokes Carmel to reminisce about a recent trip she took to Offaly.

I went down to Tullamore there to a match. We went into a lovely stadium, which was badly needed and is a great facility. And sitting in the stand looking across there’s a hospital like Sligo General and then there’s a brand new state-of-the-art hospital, and my brother says to me ‘Be careful, you’re walking on Brian Cowen’. I said ‘Where is he?’ ‘He’s all around you’. And you do see that.

“And even Michael Ring out in Mayo he’s done so much for that little area, but as I say we just don’t seem to have anyone in this area to advocate for us.”

Marie says locals are “most definitely” sick of relying on politicians and are improving the area themselves “from bottom to top”.

‘We lost a generation’

Marie notes that the village has “lost a generation of people” to emigration. “They’re all away, there’s nothing for them here. Everyone’s gone. All the jobs are really on community employment schemes.”

IMG_7866 Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

“It went so fast downhill, all the builders and those people … you had families moving to Australia, people coming out of college – there’s no job at home so they leave,” Carmel adds.

“Because it’s 30 miles to Sligo and 20 miles to Ballina there are jobs there. People are travelling in and out, but in terms of the village that was once a bustling place full of all sorts of different businesses … that’s gone.

“In the last 30 years there has been a huge decline and when the factory (which made wine accessories) out the road closed that kind of signalled the end.”

That was in December 2005. It employed about 50 people, and even more at its peak.

_MG_8036The old factorySource: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Fr Loftus notes that the closure of the caravan park killed “the buzz in the village”. It closed in the early 2000s and the land is now a housing estate.

A new caravan park re-opened in 2014, which he says is “finding its feet” but not as busy as the previous one as the area “lost momentum” when it was without any such facility for several years.

Carmel notes that people “didn’t go crazy” building houses in the village “by virtue of the fact of where we are”. “We’re not in a tax incentive area, whereas Enniscrone (a nearby village also popular with tourists) was,” Marie elaborates.

IMG_7976 Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Despite this, Fr Loftus remarks: “Going out through the countryside, I was doing that the other day, quite a number of houses are empty. Even between here and Dromore West (about 7km away).”

He notes that people are now looking towards tourism as a way forward.

One time you’d say ‘Oh, it’d be lovely to have a little factory’, and we know how long factories last – a very short time, and you know bring people home, but I think that idea is gone. We have to appreciate what we have, and what we have is environment and sea and surf and heritage, the Wild Atlantic Way and all that – tourism really.

Agriculture is still a huge staple in the area.

Marie notes that some farmers also do self-catering as they “have to have an extra job on the side”.

IMG_8000 Easkey Castle Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

“Before this a lot of the small farmers were working in construction or something, or the wife had a part-time job or something. Again, you’re travelling out of the area so you’re not bringing anything into the area.

“Every farmer can’t set up a B&B because it’s not going to work. Unless we all start visiting each other,” Carmel laughs.

We know we’re not going to get a big factory back here now in Easkey, that’s not going to happen. But to build on what we do have, it can generate a better place to live.

All three agree that more of a buzz is back in the village thanks to a new café that opened up last July.

Pudding Row

Dervla James was one half of the duo behind the Pepper Pot – a popular café in Powerscourt Townhouse Centre in Dublin city.

IMG_0060 Source: Andrea Flanagan c/o Pudding Row

She left Easkey at the age of 17.

Dervla took a big risk last year: moving from a successful business in Dublin to open a new one, Pudding Row, in a rural area.

She says she’s wanted to move home for about three years, since her daughter was born.

“While I still wanted to pursue my career in baking, my priorities changed a little bit.

“Customers in Pepper Pot would say to me, ‘You know you’ll never be as busy as you are up here’. At the time I’d say, ‘I don’t want to be that busy. I don’t want to be crazy busy. I don’t want to have no time for myself or no time for my family.’”

IMG_0034 Source: Andrea Flanagan c/o Pudding Row

Dervla says living in Easkey offers her the chance to be part of a “much more close-knit community”.

She and her husband Johny expected the café to be “a smaller operation” than it has been.

We got here and it turned into this crazy, exciting kind of hub and hive of activity for the community. It doesn’t stop at Pudding Row for us. We want to buy a little house with some land and eventually we will grow all the veg for Pudding Row.

“We’re basically living in this lovely little hub where people just help each other out.

“People just don’t have the time in Dublin to do all the things that they do there … You definitely have to sacrifice a lot, but you have to sacrifice something different. You have to adjust to the pace. What you have to sacrifice here is not half what you have to sacrifice in a larger setting like Dublin.”

IMG_9956 Source: Andrea Flanagan c/o Pudding Row

The café has been a major hit, attracting crowds of locals and tourists alike. It’s about to re-open after being closed for the winter as it’s too difficult to source produce locally during this time.

As well as the café, Dervla has been running baking classes – all of which now have waiting lists, attracting people from as far afield as Donegal and Galway.

“The catchment area is much bigger than you’d expect.

“I think when the caravan park closed, people stopped coming – [Easkey] wasn’t really as family-orientated. There was a massive decline. That got people down a little bit. Maybe it stopped them from seeing the potential and feeling the buzz, the buzz that we have now with people coming.

“The (new) caravan park is open, the Wild Atlantic Way has done amazing things.

IMG_8012 Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

“All I wanted to do was create a space for the community to come together.

It’s like the news doesn’t always reach this far. We’re west Sligo. There’s loads of buzz happening around Sligo town and Strandhill and Mullaghmore, that kind of area. We kind of miss it a little bit out here.

“If you look at a community where there’s no hub outside a pub … you won’t have people there because not everyone wants to drink, not everyone likes that kind of social scene.”

Pudding Row now employs nine people, two part-time.

IMG_7953 Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Rosie’s Pottery Studio is another business benefiting from the Wild Atlantic Way. Rosemary McGowan set up the shop in 2007. After the blow of the economic crash, business is doing well again.

“There was a big dip with the whole recession, but the last few years are picking up again.”

12113428_886242838132831_4020697988805815829_o Source: Facebook

Rosemary says: “Incentives for new businesses in the village would help everybody.”

In a broader sense, the area could be advertised better, with better facilities and advertising. Sometimes it feels like West Sligo is a bit of a no man’s land. When I travel to other parts of the western seaboard it seems like we have catching up to do in some respects. But we have to be careful that we retain the wildness and charm of the area, we have to get the balance right.

‘When the recession hit, people were at a loose end’ 

Gabriel McHugh, chair of the local GAA club, says the recession has had both positive and negative effects on sport in the area.

“One of the advantages was there were people around here who didn’t have any jobs … who helped out with hurling and football and all that.

When the recession hit, people were at a loose end, they had no work. They were at their wit’s end, a lot of people got involved with the GAA as a result.

Gabriel says emigration hasn’t had a huge effect on the club’s senior teams as a lot of players finish once they leave school.

“Here, from once they reach 18 they’re gone to college. They’re staying in Dublin or maybe they’re going abroad but they’re not really coming back.”

Christine Kilcullen, the club’s PRO, says the effects of emigration are evident in other ways.

At the moment we’re struggling for numbers at under 14 level because some people did emigrate way back and their children are not now here.

IMG_7905 Christine and Gabriel Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

The club is currently trying to buy the old factory to use as a training facility during bad weather, but fundraising alone won’t secure it.

“It costs so much to run the club … It’s kind of hard to keep the fundraising momentum going.

We need government support as well, everything is being sucked into the town. What we find is that any new initiative seems to be going to another area.

“An area maybe where there is a good spokesperson. It’ll flow that way more than it flows this way,” Christine adds.

The recession might be coming to an end in some people’s eyes, but people are still struggling.

_MG_8024 GAA pitch Source: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

“In an ideal situation, we need more financial government support. That’s the biggest single thing.

“We have been given one grant, a Lotto grant, but it’s a small amount relative to what they’re getting in Mayo you see because [Michael] Ring is, sort of, giving the big money to his clubs, to the local clubs there.

The government have to come on board and pump more money into it because they’re really getting it back. The young people are educated, they’re not causing hassle. The benefit is massive from the government’s point of view.

Continual withdrawal of services

Michael Clarke is an independent councillor in the nearby village of Dromore West.

michael Michael Clarke Source: Facebook

He says Easkey and the surrounding areas were “very badly hit by turndown”.

Michael notes the negative effects the closure of the factory and Garda station (in 2013 after years of a reduced service) have had on the village.

“Easkey I think stands out in the whole country as a parish and an area that has been abandoned by the state through the continual withdrawal of services.

The boom time that other parts of the country experienced never came to Easkey, it remains the same as it did at the turn of the century.

“Easkey has been decimated by emigration for generations, the infrastructure and roads haven’t been changed for years.”

Michael says the government’s policy is to “suck people out of rural areas into towns” and services are closing down as a result.

The government needs to understand the importance of vibrant rural towns as well as vibrant urban towns.

‘The Celtic Tiger died on the way to Sligo’

Sinéad Maguire is a Fine Gael councillor based in Strandhill, a seaside area closer to Sligo town.

She says the main issues people raise with her are childcare costs and job creation.

In terms of rural garda stations closing down, she notes that there are “other ways to tackle crime” such as community alert services.

sinead Sinéad Maguire Source: Facebook

Sinéad thinks the boom times never really made it to Sligo so it ”may not have seen the dramatic stop that other areas did” in the depths of the recession.

She says jobs are filtering down but notes:

In many ways the Celtic Tiger didn’t reach Sligo. There’s the saying that he died or fainted on the way down the road to Sligo and he didn’t quite get to us.

Originally published: 8.30pm, 15 February

Read: I went home to Cork city to see how people feel ahead of the election

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Órla Ryan

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