Escaping the lashing rain, in the ambience of the Leaf & Larder bakery in Killorglin, west Kerry, I am listening to four local grannies gossiping away about the filthy weather. It would be easy to slip into the notion that rural Ireland, in economic terms, is an unchanged, undynamic place. Maybe Hollywood would prefer it that way but down the road from here lies the impressive RDI Hub . It is an innovative hothouse of 50 tech companies that employ hundreds of people and is home to dozens of entrepreneurs, the likes of which we associate with Silicon Valley or large modern cities.
Here, in the home of Puck Fair, as traditional a place as you can get, is a vision of the new Ireland, one characterised by the death of distance. The hub is thriving with energy and optimism. Entrepreneurs, those people who back themselves and their commercial ideas in the market, must be optimistic. Unlike the critic, they must believe in the future; in fact, their life is one large bet on a different future. As believers in tomorrow, their enthusiasm is infectious. In time their efforts will propel economic growth in a part of the world that, until recently, lived from farming and tourism alone.
Economic growth, often misunderstood, resides inside the heads of all of us. The human imagination is where growth comes from, and the most productive engine of the economy lies between our ears, in the human brain. The brain that conceives of a new idea or a new company has an irreverent and ultimately dissenting quality. Entrepreneurs diverge from the mainstream. For a place to be economically dynamic, it must accept dissent and diversity. In the past these sorts of places tended to be cities and metropolitan areas, which bequeathed dignity upon the efforts of the disruptive types. The sort of places that didn’t sneer at those having a go at something different, and that didn’t stigmatise failure, were the sort of places that were rewarded with economic success. Traditionally rural areas were not that open to mavericks, places where a commercial flop tended to be met with an “I told you so”.
When that mood changes, innovation emerges.
A factor that has impeded rural Ireland is connectivity. People do not want to move to places that are cut off. Country living may be great, but people require broadband, Zoom and the sense that they have the best of both worlds – the rural idyll plugged into the metropolitan buzz. In recent years, we’ve seen what happens when people feel they can have both. Interestingly, even before the pandemic, a significant proportion of the total number of “movers” in Ireland were Dublin movers making up 94,182 (about 35 per cent of all movers) and 18,716 of these Dublin movers left the county. Kildare and Cork were among the most preferred destinations for movers. Nearly 2 per cent of movers from Dublin headed to Kerry, and nearly 6 per cent headed for Galway – and 45.7 per cent of those who moved in 2011-2016 were aged 20-34 – starting their working careers, deciding where to settle.
According to data from the CSO, before the pandemic, just one in four respondents in employment had worked remotely at some point. This increased dramatically to eight in 10 having worked remotely at some point since. Of those who could work remotely, 88 per cent wanted to continue working from home after restrictions were lifted. This seems to have stayed the case as a third of euro zone employees want more remote working. This is the new way of working. An article in The Irish Times this week told the story of a commuter who lives in Cork and commutes to Dublin. Thanks to hybrid working, this is only a one- to two-day-a-week journey. All around the world, the pandemic and the onset of mass remote working have led many people to make the move to rural areas. In Chile, 380,000 people migrated away from the Chilean capital Santiago. All of a sudden, rural areas saw a big increase in inhabitants. Japan has seized this opportunity by offering a large cash incentive for workers to move to out of Tokyo to other parts of Japan. It might be time Ireland did the same.
Obviously house prices are critical to these trends, and we are seeing these patterns in house prices outside Dublin reflecting demand. Outside Dublin, house prices rose 9.6 per cent last year and were highest in counties Galway, Mayo and Roscommon, which are experiencing rises of about 14 per cent. In Kerry and west Cork, the southwest region saw house prices rise 8.3 per cent. We should welcome these trends, and policy should encourage these moves because Ireland is lopsided and far too Dublin-centric.
For example, Dublin city has a daytime population of 702,159 and a night-time population of 554,554. That means about 150,000 people don’t actually get to enjoy the city they work or study in after work or study. In Ireland, three in 10 people spent part of their day in the Dublin region. Equally, three in 10 people (just over 31.4 per cent) in Ireland live in rural areas. So there are just as many people living in the Dublin region as there are people living in all of the rural areas in all of Ireland.
Up to recently, the reason for this was cash. Dublin, and other Irish cities, have the highest median household disposable income at €46,458. Meanwhile, regions described as highly rural/remote areas scored the lowest with a median of €29,424. One government report estimated that, in 2016, household income in these highly rural/remote areas was 34 per cent lower than in cities.
Imagine if the entrepreneurial spirit so evident in Killorglin were to be replicated all over the country. Already the countryside is changing rapidly. Immigration has altered the population, and for the better. Money that used to be tied up in Dublin is now being deployed in places that were starved of capital. Lots of young couples are moving back to have the best of both worlds and, as connectivity improves, this will amplify. And, of course, Dublin house prices are prohibitive.
Looking at the energy here in deepest west Kerry, it’s hard not to agree with what new Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns said in this publication last week: “I always heard this thing about how … rural Ireland is so conservative. For one, it’s not true. And secondly, it is kind of insulting.”
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