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John B Keane once wrote that nobody knows the country roads like a country doctor. It would be a brave person who would disagree with such an authority.
Country doctors know that the speed limit of 80km per hour in twisting back roads is a far more dangerous issue than hedge cutting; they know that country people have been paying for their water for years, and that we are blessed with a naturally clean environment that should be preserved. In 20 years’ time, any country with clean water will be a rarity and can name its price with foreign investors. They know that most villages lack broadband, and hear that countries like South Korea had a countrywide broadband system 10 years ago.
And yet it is impossible to hear a reasonable discussion on the radio or television about rural matters without some bosthoon shouting, ‘you wouldn’t understand. You’re not from here’. It is a nonsensical argument, rather like somebody who works in the laundry of a hospital shouting down doctors, nurses and managers: ‘You don’t understand, I have been here for years. Only I know what I’m talking about.’
I see young GPs who surf and sail and do triathlons and want to send their children to country schools
This argument has been used by gombeen public representatives for decades. They speak with authority about curlews, upland bogs, mining and hedgerows. The only countryside they see is out the car window as they leave their ribbon-development house and drive to Dublin, where they can sit in Buswells and pontificate about what the country people want. They represent contractors, men with tractors and diggers and hedge-cutting machines, men who see the countryside as something to be raped for money. They are the quisling spokespeople for the agrochemical giants, the frackers and the developers. They are the men who see any rural issue as a chance to create divisiveness for their own political gain.
We GPs who meet in the rural doctors’ association know that we have much the same issues, whether we come from Cork or Donegal, and that we should talk to each other, and campaign together, and abandon the politics of the parish pump. They want a row to get them on the news.
It is a pity. My grandfather had a fairly large farm. It gave a living to all kinds of workers, indoors and outdoors, and the families of these cowmen, dairy maids and horsemen depended on it. The countryside contained farmers, but it also had teachers, doctors, blacksmiths, publicans, musicians, home-makers, horse dealers, drovers, fishermen, Travellers, children and shopkeepers.
Now a big farm hosts only one man who sits in a tractor all day long. I know plenty of men like him. They owe the banks a fortune for their complicated machinery and are prone to isolation and depression. The rural structures which evolved down the years have been swept away, like a delicate web.
This is the vision these loudmouth politicians have for rural Ireland; one man sitting in a huge tractor in a barren landscape drenched in chemicals. They tell bee-keepers, naturalists and scientists that they don’t know what they are talking about and they go back to Dublin 4.
In the 1930s, the idea crept in that to appreciate the countryside was something Protestant and for the ascendancy. While Europeans started walking and hostelling, and headed for their cottages in the mountains, we were ruled by gombeens who ordered the closure of our rail networks, capitalised on a post-colonial paranoia and wrecked the rural economy with an unnecessary economic war. These were the early days of tourism and when other rural communities were opening up, Ireland was being closed down. They lauded rural poverty and derided anyone who admired a landscape as an Irish Times-reading West Brit.
I hate to think that country-bred people could not bring their city children to hear a corncrake in the spring without somebody making them feel unwelcome. The same gombeens, or their descendants, have turned their hatred from Protestants to city dwellers. It is an act of contempt to presume that rural people know nothing about beauty or nature, and that there should be war between them and the townies.
I see young GPs who surf and sail and do triathlons and want to send their children to country schools. They would happily live and work in the countryside, if there was a living in it. Times are changing. Eco tourism is thriving along the Wild Atlantic Way. The Rural Practice Allowance has been reinstated. Rural schools are kept open by the families of cheese-makers and market gardeners and artists and micro-brewers. There are many rural voices. Don’t listen to he who shouts the loudest.