The unspoken challenges of rural depopulation in Ireland

Elaine Houlihan, current chairperson of Limerick Macra.

Despite soaring population numbers across Ireland, census data shows a depopulation from rural areas, raising concerns about the problems facing those living in sparsely populated areas  

Limerick Voice Business and Agriculture Editor, Aislinn Kelly, spoke to several people working to tackle rural isolation.

Living between Co Limerick and Co Kilkenny, Elaine Houlihan returned to the Irish countryside of Athlacca,  after studying abroad for six years. 

The Limerick woman is Vice President of the Munster branch of Macra na Feirme, a voluntary body that represents 10,000 young people from rural Ireland between the ages of 17 to 35. 

“You can really see the depopulation at the moment with people leaving our county and country. It’s all people from rural villages because they are saying there is nothing there for them. It’s crazy,” she explained. 

Growing up, in Co Limerick Ms Houlihan had a friend group of seven people – but only two of those friends still live locally. 

“I’ve come back to Ireland and I’ve had that sense of loss of coming back.  Macra is where I fitted back in. I can understand why people are leaving as the government are doing nothing to keep young people.”  

“People hate being around a rural community because they feel like they have nothing to do. Our shops are going, our post offices are going. It’s like people feel that there’s nothing for them there and I feel that we need to do something to combat it,” she added. 

Ms Houlihan is also the current chairperson of Limerick Macra and her home club is based in Kilmallock. 

She urged the government to make it easier to start businesses in villages by reducing commercial rates for rural areas, which are currently witnessing a mass exodus of young people. 

“I think the government isn’t doing enough. They promised they were rolling out rural hubs for working from home, while they may have rolled out some there is none here locally. We’ve been screaming and shouting from the top of our lungs that we don’t have good enough internet, but it falls on deaf ears. It’s like they don’t want to listen and all that matters is their age group.” 

The GAA and Macra are the two biggest organisations young people living in rural communities can join.  

However, when the Covid-19 lockdowns were in place, these clubs were forced to postpone activities and leave their members without their usual supports, which Ms Houlihan believes highlighted the vast variety of issues surrounding rural isolation.   

“People might forget that Macra is more of a social club. In Macra you have your sports, you have public speaking and so much more, it caters for everyone.”  

According to Ms Houlihan many suffering from the impact of rural isolation might be afraid to put themselves into a new environment.  

Doon Social farm in Co. Limerick was once a farm, convent and school belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. Photo by Liam Burke/Press 22

“Everyone is coming from the same background. We are not all farmers, there’s a lot more to Macra than that. It’s more about the social aspect, where you have the opportunity to speak to young people with common interests.”  

Another Limerick initiative aiming to elevate the negative effects of rural depopulation is Doon Social Farm, a 33-hectare organic farm that offers therapeutic services for young people experiencing social isolation.  

Founded by Ballyhoura Rural Services, the farm was gifted back to the community having previously been run by the Mercy Sisters’ convent.  

The farm currently has a group of transition year students visiting for an hour a few times a week. It also welcomes a primary school group called Happy Saplings.  

Farm Manager Marian Clarke describes the programmes offered as a form of green therapy for participants.  

“The experience is about contact with nature and the outdoors with the animals. There is definitely a mental health aspect to everything we do. There’s always a feel-good factor of being out in nature,” she explained.  

Biophilia is the innate human instinct to connect with nature, which the farm gives people the opportunity to enjoy.  

The initiative also helps participants build on teamwork, communication and open about their feelings. The sense of accomplishment working on a thriving farm with bountiful produce also has massive benefits.  

The social enterprise employs both full time and apart time staff, uses community employment schemes alongside running a horticulture course.  

“When you’ve done a job and you’ve finished it, your confidence is boosted. There’s better self-esteem. There’s real feelgood factor out here,” added the farm manager.  

The idea for the farm was based on the success of social farms in Holland and the UK that not only help ease the impact of isolation, but also offer new pathways to education.  

Tunnel planting at Doon Social Farm for local suppliers and the farm’s shop. Photo by Marian Clarke  

Also known as green care, social farming uses a farm environment to educate and help rehabilitate participants.  

The farm also has a shop that sells the organic produce alongside supplying local limerick outlets.  

Doon social farm caters for early school leavers, unemployed, those recovering from addiction, people with disabilities, marginalised youth as well as those interested in working in horticulture.  

Ms Clarke believes that while rural isolation is on the rise, similar enterprises like Doon social farm can help.  

“I think this is a new form of therapy that this is popping up everywhere around the world, not just here. But it’s next to basis is an umbrella term is green therapies.  

“That includes like social therapeutic horticulture, equine therapy, social farming, there’s even stuff like forest bathing, which is just walking in the woods. All of that is there all under the green therapies umbrella, which is a new and upcoming therapy.” 

More stories from our 2023 print edition

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