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Look at them now: This rural town has turned its fortunes around after last year's blow

Last year Gort made headlines for being part of the rural area most affected by the economic crisis. This year, things have changed.

Cathal O’Donoghue

A YEAR AGO Gort and the surrounding area known as the Burren Lowlands made headlines for being the rural town that was most affected by the economic crisis. However the area since then has experienced a resurgence in fortunes. 

Gort is the main town in the Burren Lowlands; a limestone area, with Turloughs and lakes, stretching from Kilcolgan in South Galway to Crusheen in North Clare and from the Slieve Aughties to the Burren uplands. It is an area synonymous with the Celtic Literary Revival as the home of Yeats in Thoor Ballylee and of the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Lady Augusta at Coole Park and Edward Martyn at Tullira Castle.

Gort which, according to Teagasc, had been a prosperous town in the top 10% in the country in 2006 had fallen to the bottom 10% in 2011, having lost 350 jobs during the crisis. Like many other rural towns, the crisis was visible in terms of closed shop fronts and emigration, losing a staggering 15% of its working population in five years.

A catalyst which brought the community together

While the bad news story at the time was a sobering experience, it was a catalyst which brought the community together. A public meeting was called, with 200 attending. Rather than feel sorry for itself, opportunities were identified and plans were drawn up to make the most of the positive aspects of the area. The tone was one of self-help, putting a hand up rather than looking for a hand-out. The all-volunteer based Burren Lowlands Development Company was established to make the plans a reality and to make the area a better place to live to visit and work.

Given the rich cultural and ecological heritage and its position on the Wild Atlantic Way in Kinvarra, tourism was identified as a potential growth area. A range of projects were undertaken by the community.

The need for a tourist office to promote local tourism offerings was identified as a key need. Building upon community resources, trades and skills and utilising the vacant property of a local businessman, a tourist office was opened on the square in Gort within two months of the public meeting. A website showcasing destinations in the area, www.BurrenLowlands.org was launched at a major local community and business exhibition, partnering with Bank of Ireland last month. Discussions are currently underway with Failte Ireland to build further upon the Burren Lowlands position on the Wild Atlantic Way.

A massive impact on tourism 

The area was put on the map during the visit of Prince Charles and Camilla, as President Michael D. Higgins hosted a dinner for them at Lough Cutra Castle. It had a massive impact on tourism, early in the Summer.

The Yeats connection is in particular being recognised, given the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth. A range of Yeats themed cultural activities are being held from a themed parade on St Patrick’s Day to two legs of the Yeats 2015 Festival of Moons to art exhibitions organised by the Library to daily Yeats poetry readings to concerts in the hall of Lough Cutra Castle to the Yeats-Lady Gregory Heritage trail.

Pride of place however goes to the re-opening of the home of Yeats, Thoor Ballylee. The Burren Lowlands experienced bad flooding in 2009, forcing Thoor Ballylee to close. It has remained closed to the public until now. However, the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society was established to restore the tower and has fund raised extensively in Ireland and abroad, including a charity auction from the tower a fortnight ago. In record time, at a fraction of the anticipated cost, the tower will re-open this Saturday, June 13th to mark Yeats’ birthday, accompanied by celebrations at the nearby Kiltartan Gregory Museum.

Many of these projects cost relatively little money, but have made a big impact on the ground, particularly in terms of the morale within the local community. The gains have both resulted from a strong local community spirit and activism, but also the dynamism that these activities have created are further enhancing that spirit and energy.

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Wider economic development is taking off

In an area so strongly hit by the crisis access to resources locally are limited, new policy initiatives such the implementation of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, the roll out of the new Rural Development Programme and implementation of Counties Galway can Clare’s Local Economic and Development Plan will be necessary to make the maximum impact.

While tourism projects have led the way, wider economic development is taking off with the announcement of the new Apple plant in nearby Athenry and the construction of the new motorway from Gort to Tuam. This will mean that with Shannon Airport 30 minutes away and the entire Galway labour force, which is the most highly educated outside of South Dublin, within half an hour’s drive, it makes the Burren Lowlands an ideal production location for high value added  businesses exporting or connecting through Shannon Airport.

The area is already feeling the positive impact of all these initiatives as the properties vacated by the emigrants are full again, with no vacant properties. The live register is down by 18% in the local area and by 35% amongst under-25s since the peak.

Local communities in the Burren Lowlands and across the rest of the country are stepping up as part of a rural revival. However, while voluntary, community energy and dynamism, are important drivers of economic recovery in rural areas, they cannot do it all, themselves. Public policy needs to back this local ambition and drive.

Prof Cathal O’Donoghue is Head of Teagasc’s Rural Economy and Development Programme and was CEO of Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas. Cathal.ODononghue@teagasc.ie.

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About the author:

Cathal O’Donoghue

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