Houses on Inis Mor overlooking the Atlantic towards Connemara, Co Galway
For as long as I have been reading the pages of this newspaper, and observing political debate more generally, public discourse has been gripped by the trials and tribulations of a place called “Rural Ireland”.
While nobody ever defines where this place actually is, by common consensus it seems to be somewhere, or everywhere, out there “beyond the M50 motorway”.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan was the latest to incur the instant wrath of “Rural Irelanders” by having the temerity to suggest that the radical lifestyle changes, which every major political party agrees will need to be brought about in response to climate change, may require a future with fewer cars.
The reality is that the narrative of “Rural Ireland” is now often deployed as a catch-all euphemistic trope to camouflage the deeply reactionary, car-based culture that we have allowed to develop over the past half-century.
We know from the census data that, in general, the vast bulk of “Rural Ireland” is located within 10 kilometres of a large town or city; those commuting greater than 30 minutes to work typically have higher incomes; and live in much larger houses.
“Rural Ireland” has a lot of genuine challenges which need urgent, sustained attention, but it is not a homogenous space.
North Leitrim is not the same as north Kildare. Much of what we class as “Rural Ireland” is, in fact, the sprawling geographical extension of “Urban Ireland”, or what is more pejoratively referred to as middle-class flight.
As the debate on what we do about climate change intensifies, so too will the prominence of “Rural Ireland”.
It therefore behoves us to have more nuanced media reporting. This will require a recognition that; not only does its car-dependent legacy create very many real and practical problems for decarbonisation; it is also a state of mind that needs to be challenged.
Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place,
University of Liverpool.
Previously: It Takes A Village