If the powers-that-be were really serious about looking for a blueprint, for redressing the imbalance between the over-development of Dublin (polluted air, over-trafficked streets, prohibitively expensive houses) and rural depopulation and decline, then the powers would find such a stragagem in Ballymacarbry.
Ballymacarbry? Yes, Ballymacarbry, that attractive village in County Waterford, just over the border from County Tipperary, which has, for many years now, been quietly doing its own thing. It has been enhancing its environs, building attractive homes, looking at the social and cultural needs of its community. And in recent times it has been celebrating the tenth anniversary of the development of one of its most significant achievements - the building of 15 special houses for the accommodation of older people.
But back to that blueprint! Ballymacarbry has all the ingredients for proper planning. It has history, tradition, location and it has industry. Its location on the main road between two towns - Clonmel and Dungarvan - enables easy commuting for work. But more importantly it has its own thriving industry with a workforce of 300, and this has encouraged many people to live in the village. Traditionally, Ballymacarbry has had some form of industry, dating back to at least the 1830s, and the manufacture of cloth, later replaced by flour-milling and later still by a sawmill.
The village, too, is located amongst some of the most glorious landscapes in Ireland, where the Comeraghs and Moanavullaghs drift into the foothills of the Knockmealdowns. It is a countryside not only of beauty and antiquity but of the Deise Irish language, still reflected in its place-names, and sited in its hinterland there is Sliabh gCua - probably the location of the last school of Gaelic poetry in Ireland.
But, it seems to me, that what Ballymacarbry now has, and which supersedes everything else, is its COMMUNITY (and I write that in uppercase), and nowhere was this more evident than at the recent celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the Ballymacarbry Elders Housing Association Ltd. (And like the apple which doesn’t fall far from the tree, this sense of community, too, is reflected in the local landscape where there is archaelogical evidence of human occupancy which goes back, at least, to Bronze Age times. The stone circles, the earthworks, the vertical and incumbent stones of places like Tooreen East testify to the existence of a community which had all the requisites for communal living - places for human and animal shelter, celebration, ritual, worship and burial).
The recent celebrations were held in the very well-equipped Community Centre which is situated in the housing complex. The centre has facilities for sports, cinema, theatre, entertainment and catering and is open to the entire community but on Thursday afternoon of each week the occupants of the houses meet there for both social events, educational courses and to listen to story-telling, talks and lectures. A bus takes them to Clonmel twice a week, and there are occasional trips to places of interest.
All of this requires organisations and commitment and we are back, once more, to community and to volunteers. The dedication of all of those volunteers was warmly acknowledged at the anniversary celebrations. The occasion also saw the publication of an attractive illustrated booklet under the title “Then and Now Cairdeas Cairbore (Ballymacarbry Social Club) 2009-2019.”
This takes a glance back in time at farming methods, at the history of churches and schools, buildings and pubs in the catchment. There is also a section which gives most useful information particularly relevant to older citizens: when, and how to access various services.
Community volunteers, however generous and willing they may be, have to have more sustainability than just being well-meaning. The scheme of housing in Ballymacarbry did not just happen because there was a need for such a development. Translating the need into a positive reality required research, commitment and above all establishing all the criteria for access to the many forms of grants and funding which are now available from Government grants and through the medium of the Local Authority.
Nobody is suggesting that this - taxpayers’ money - should be frittered away on airy-fairy ideas, but it sometimes seems to me that the official language used in advertising these schemes is a put-off, a discouragement, to ordinary communities. Should these be augmented by some public relations and user-friendly language?
In this context it was interesting to hear the comments of some of County Waterford’s elected representatives who attended the celebrations - Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Independents, acknowledged that they had campaigned together in making their way through the bureaucracy in support of the housing project.
A casual stroll through Ballymacarbry today reveals a confident cared-for place; a thriving industry, attractively presented homes, business premises and well-kept public spaces, a picnic site, a wild-flower patch, neat flower-beds and the now ten-year “elderly” houses with the attached community premises.
It seems to me, that for all of those depressed villages and small towns, in what we now call “rural Ireland” (but which, in fact, is the Real Ireland), Ballymacarbry offers much hope. All you need is the mobilisation of community, the identification of needs, researching Government grants and the recruitment of dedicated volunteers who will stay the course, even when the going gets difficult.
All of that, and getting the politicans on your side!