About 10 years ago I was on a work trip to Italy visiting farms in Tuscany. And seeing that I was among journalists from a number of different countries, I decided to ask them about the issue of rural isolation. Some years earlier I had done a series for RTÉ on the issue. Martin McAleese, husband of then President Mary McAleese rang me and invited me to meet him at Áras an Uachtaráin. Out of that meeting, the GAA social initiative was born. In conjunction with the GAA, this body was established with the aim of tackling the issue of rural isolation, particularly among older men living alone in rural Ireland.
I believe now it may have been subsumed into other areas of the GAA network. In one interview I had done in rural Kerry, I asked a farmer living at the end of a long lane to describe isolation and he told me that he would go days and maybe even a week without seeing another person. The pandemic over the past couple of years brought the issue into sharp focus again. People living alone were prevented from socialising, going to church, to football matches, to play cards, to the mart, to the pub or to visit or be visited by family and friends.
Technology now allows for us to keep in regular contact with others virtually rather than physically but one of the great reliefs of recent months has been the freedom to move and mingle again, particularly for people who are socially isolated, be it living in a rural area or even a busy town where isolation exists too as I discovered during the course of the establishment of the GAA social initiative.
But back in Italy, I was surprised to discover from the handful of journalistic colleagues from around Europe that isolation was a big issue in their countries too. In fact, one anecdote that sticks out was the story a Dutch colleague spoke about where a village close to where he lived in the Netherlands had been “closed down”. In other words, it was officially “decommissioned” by the local council due to the fact that it had become virtually deserted thanks to migration to bigger towns and cities.
I discovered from that vox pop that rural isolation particularly among older people was very much an international issue and not just confined to Ireland.
As we welcome Ukrainian refugees into Ireland, the pressure is going to grow for accommodation.
A drive through most rural towns and villages in Ireland now, especially those that have been bypassed, paints a very sorry picture. Boarded up shops and derelict and vacant street houses grey and dirty from the splashing of passing vehicles are commonplace in many of these towns.
But the Government does have the power to buy these properties and breathe new life into these towns. It is wrong to conflate the homeless crisis and the arrival of refugees but it should not have taken the requirement to house displaced refugees for the Government to create emergency accommodation which may include compulsory purchase orders on vacant or derelict dwellings.
But if it happens and some properties are brought back into liveable condition, then we should all make sure that it is not held up with red tape and bureaucracy or planning issues. This is an opportunity to revive rurally isolated Ireland as well as showing our goodwill and kindness.
We are only a couple of weeks in and I am all for giving experiments time but I can say right now that the GAA split season is a disaster. The championship is being rushed and all fans will realise this come the second half of the year. Time to revert to normality.