One of the main reasons that I wanted to study rural development in Ireland was its similarity to my home state of Alabama. Ireland and Alabama are roughly the same size in area and population, and both possess a strong agricultural history. Having lived and studied here for the past six months, I continually make new comparisons while constantly challenging my concept of rurality.
Agriculture was the center of both economies at one time and continues to play a role in both societies. With the presence of farming, both places have significant rural populations that are facing a litany of problems in the 21st century, which of course fits my interest in economic development. With the spread of technology, market forces, and the advent of farming subsidies, smaller family farms are constantly challenged as agriculture declines. Both places now have a farming population with an average age of 55 (or older in the case of Ireland), which is demonstrative of the younger generations that no longer see farming as a viable career option for them. Young people are now driven towards high paying jobs in urban areas, and this brain drain only exacerbates the problems that rural societies face in being able to thrive or even sustain themselves.
Both Alabama and Ireland saw growth in manufacturing jobs in rural areas, which helped to provide outside opportunities to farmers and other residents. Ireland gained from American technology corporations like Dell moving in during the Celtic Tiger years, while Alabama successfully recruited foreign automotive companies like Mercedes and Hyundai. Both were quite prosperous in a boom that lasted for more than a decade until the global economic recession brought it all to a screeching halt. Both faced soaring unemployment rates and economic hard times. For example, rural Alabama has been the hardest hit area in the nation losing more jobs than even Detroit! In Ireland, the toils have taken a heavy toll on the Irish psyche as many fear the island could slip back into history with rising poverty.
Standing alongside the jobs and economic issues, services in rural areas are both weaknesses and opportunities for growth. One of the worst issues is of course rural transport. In Alabama & Ireland, rural dwellers are dependant on their personal cars to get anywhere. Buses in Ireland do travel through rural areas, but as I have learned in my travels around the island, these are not dependable or effective. This issue is one that leaves many rural citizens, especially the elderly, in a state of isolation and social exclusion. Likewise, it makes it difficult for tourists and visitors to venture and explore the picturesque small towns or farms and scenic landscapes that rural areas offer.
Rural Alabama & Ireland both struggle with limited health care access, a dependence on unsustainable energy, a failing and inefficient education system, and a general lack of connectivity without broadband internet capabilities. These weaknesses have the possibility of redefining and rejuvenating rural areas through innovative ideas like the facilitation of entrepreneurship through incentives, enhanced tourism promotion, and alternative energy development. Luckily, both places have begun to realize the importance of such rural investment, including broadband initiatives in Alabama and Northern Ireland, but there is much work to be done.
There are key areas of divergence in my rural comparison of Alabama and Ireland that should be pointed out. There is a drastic gap in farm sizes, as the Alabama average farm is more than 100 acres larger than that in Ireland, which means the scales of production are quite different as well. Along with farm size, proximity is an interesting area as most people in Ireland are easily within an hour or two from the island’s largest metropolitan areas, especially in Northern Ireland. However, rural citizens still feel the need to have top of the line services in every community. Last fall, there were strikes and public outcry over the closure of some rural post offices as everyone would no longer be only two miles from the nearest facility. Ireland also has rural planning laws that govern developments in rural areas. Although these rules do get bent, development of housing and businesses for the most part are only allowed in small towns while a greenbelt of open countryside surrounding such towns is protected. Moreover, planning guidelines dictate how homes will look and can even force a farmer to build a new house in the town and commute instead of allowing one to build on the farm land. In a state like Alabama where people have take great pride in defending their property rights, I guarantee that’s a dog that won’t hunt.
Still I take great pride in having the experience to be able to study rural development and explore these kinds of interesting comparisons, which can even focus on the ridiculous. As many people know, Ireland is actually made up of two countries: Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the independent Republic of Ireland in the south. Likewise, Alabama can be looked at as two different regions with different dialects and cultures. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, North Alabama is the region I call home with its rolling landscape and an agricultural base of livestock such as poultry and cattle. To the south, you have what we refer to a LA, or Lower Alabama with their flatland and fertile black soil suitable for large scale crops such as cotton, peanuts, and soybeans. The trained ear will even recognize the difference in accents which includes a more pronounced drawl in the south. It’s not two separate countries, but for Alabamians, it has a use in joking with each other, or in Irish-speak, slagging.
I have become so comfortable here that I forget Northern Ireland is not North Alabama. I have found that rural culture is never too different as even here you will see tractors driving down the road or people lifting one or two fingers from their steering wheel to wave to passing cars while driving. Just having passed St. Patrick’s Day and the beginning of spring, it’s slurry season for farmers here, which means the sweet, pungent smell of cow manure really makes me feel right at home!