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Column: We don’t know our neighbours anymore. Let’s change that.

Changes in Irish society have meant people lost touch with the communities around them, writes Alan Jagoe.

Alan Jagoe

WHEN THE CELTIC Tiger economy came to an end, our society suffered a massive shock.

Our priorities had changed. We were living the high life, and we had lost our sense of community. But the changing economic environment forced us to reconsider what was important to us – and it wasn’t money.

Family, friends and feeling like you’re a part of something is what makes people happy. The changing social landscape in Ireland over the last 20 years has affected the community dynamic. During the boom, many people were commuting long distances to work or moving into areas that they were not originally from to avail of new opportunities.

A rural organisation in Ireland for 67 years, Macra na Feirme witnessed these changes. In 2005, we felt that the growing population around urban areas meant that neighbours no longer felt such a strong sense of community and belonging. So we decided to establish the Know Your Neighbour Weekend. We hoped to encourage people to re-engage with their communities and reap the many benefits.

While some areas, such as the Liberties in Dublin, have in many ways retained this strength of community – something which can be seen on a daily basis as neighbours greet each other by name on Meath Street – other areas and towns have lost the connection to those living closest to them as they meet the demands and stresses of work and family.

Macra na Feirme established the Know Your Neighbour Weekend to create an opportunity for individuals and Macra clubs to get to know their neighbours in any way that they felt suited their community. The response was fantastic and the Know Your Neighbour Weekend is now actively supported by individuals, community groups, charities and Macra clubs throughout the country. There is no barrier to involvement – age, size of event, the size of your community and location do not matter

‘Don’t walk by, say hi’

The Know Your Neighbour Weekend’s slogan is ‘Don’t walk by, say hi’. It’s a simple action that could open up doors. When we reach out to our neighbours and communities we get ten times over what we gave in return. The idea isn’t ‘what’s in it for me?’. But by being involved in the community, you will gain friends, personal satisfaction and a sense of community surrounded by people who will be there to support you, as you have done them, in times of need.

Getting to know those living closest to you could be as practically beneficial as having someone you trust to take in a package from the post man, or as personally enriching as making new friends who are there when you need them. Community interaction is important to ensure a strong support network, particularly in today’s hectic and stressful environment.

Belle Nor, a resident of Monasterevin, Co Kildare, for five years and originally from Malaysia, held a Family Fun Day in her housing estate in 2011. She said, “As soon as I heard about this event I was really excited about the idea and thought it would be a great way to get to know about my neighbours. I am sure many people are like myself – living in their neighbourhood for a few years but yet still don’t know much about their neighbours.

“So I decided to take this opportunity to organise this event to break the ice and hopefully be able to build a strong community spirit. This event also brings a few strangers into becoming good neighbours and friends, creating a closer and safer community and building a multi-national culture with respect and tolerance. I hope we can create a better environment and culture for our children.”

Young people

In 2011, we carried out a survey with Red C which found that an overwhelming 8 out of 10 people interact with their neighbours at least once a week. Seventy-four per cent of those said they would attend a Know Your Neighbour event. This speaks to the value of knowing your neighbours, the benefits of which are recognised by those who already count them as friends.

We also found that 74 per cent of 25-34 year olds surveyed would attend a Know Your Neighbour even. Young people settling in new neighbourhoods or finding their feet in a new area want to build a sense of community.

Sean Ronan, from Skibbereen, Co Cork organised a sandcastle building competition and barbecue on Inchydoney beach with his Macra club in Clonakilty last year. A local teacher, Sean lives in a rural area.

“Last year was the second year we held a sandcastle building competition and barbecue for Know Your Neighbour Weekend and from that it has expanded into the Random Acts of Kindness Festival being held in Clonakilty this year over the weekend of the 20-22nd July.

“All the local businesses, clubs and societies are involved and the community spirit is fantastic. We found that local people came back the second year having enjoyed it and were asking in advance was it taking place again. There was a great atmosphere at the event and some amazing sandcastles- many people came along to support competitors and see the sandcastles.”

Hold your own Know Your Neighbour event this year, and soon you’ll see the benefits of a strong community spirit. Log on to knowyourneighbour.ie for more information and to register your event.

Don’t walk by, say hi.

Alan Jagoe is the national president of Macra na Feirme.

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Alan Jagoe

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