Much as in the recent scandals in the Catholic Church, the banks or in politics, the human tragedy of Irish society’s uncanny ability to consistently and wilfully deny the truth until it is too late, was typified in the recent comments of the Offaly County Coroner, who warned recently that suicide was now ‘rampant’ in rural Ireland. The comments echoed those of the Clare County Coroner and separately by the Kerry County Coroner, who also highlighted a worrying trend in the growth in the number of rural suicides in both counties. The latest published figures for suicide in Ireland produced by the Central Statistics Office show that there were 527 cases, up from 424 in 2009.
Pointing to newly released figures from South Kerry, Terence Casey, the Kerry County Coroner, was particularly concerned of the rising trend in suicides in elderly people. In the past five years older age groups made up the highest numbers of suicides. In 2009, four of the 13 suicides were aged 60 and over; three in the 40-50 age group and two aged over 30. Provisional figures for 2010 showed eight verdicts of suicide were returned. Three of the dead were people aged 50 to 60. Mr Casey said it was critically important that society asked why the trend was changing. Most of the recorded suicides were in isolated rural parts of the county where meeting places like the local pub and the creamery no longer existed and the mail was left at collection points rather than the post office. Loneliness and isolation seems to be at the heart of the problem. “There is a gap in social life in rural Ireland. We have to question the suicide trend in the older age groups” Mr Casey said.
Of course it is easy to call for people to question, but will anyone respond? Historic evidence suggests not. Irish society is extremely adept at avoiding such issues which are briskly brushed under the carpet to ensure the status quo is maintained until a report in twenty or thirty years hence finds that in hindsight society should perhaps have been more questioning. Some, including organisations such as An Taisce, have in the past attempted to answer questions and draw the link, quite logically, between isolated one-off housing and social isolation. In the context of an aging population it has been suggested that the current laissez-faire approach to isolated one-off housing is storing up major social costs for the future. Regardless of your pre-programmed view on this matter, at least they are asking questions.
Yet the slightest attempt to challenge such a sacred cow of Irish rural life is promptly denounced with cries of Elitism! Big-Brotherism! Despotism! Fascism! and the like. Ironically this sentiment is no more keenly felt than in the South Kerry region, the stomping ground of the infamous Healy-Rae dynasty, who has been vocal opponents of those who dare to question the wisdom of unfettered rights of local people to build on their own family land. Like many rural regions, one-off rural housing has long been a key source of political capital in South Kerry. The political value of this fiercely guarded right-to-build is self-evident. Securing planning permission essentially amounts to a massive windfall gain for the fortunate landowner while the inflated costs – in infrastructure and service provision – are transferred to everyone lese. For a politician at local or national level, pandering to this rich source of local political capital fits neatly with short election cycles, wider conservatism and the large land owning class in Ireland.
Since 2001, 170,000 planning permissions have been granted planning permission in Ireland. One-off houses are defined by the CSO as detached houses in rural areas with an individual septic tank or other individual sewerage treatment system. While many rural politicians feebly rebuff the CSO statistics on the basis that they may include individual houses built in urban areas, the empirical evidence available to all but the most biased observer would indicate that we are continuing to build a significant proportion of our housing stock in isolated and sparsely populated rural areas. For many, halting population loss and ensuring the continuance and regeneration of rural communities has always been the overriding imperative and justifies all new development in rural areas. This understandable rationale has become even more acute with the return of emigration and mass unemployment which has disproportionately affected rural areas.
But at what cost? The National Council on Aging and Older People has estimated that by 2021 the number of males aged over 65 will have increased by over 70%. The corresponding figure for females is over 50%. The counties with the highest projected increases are predominantly in the western half of the country – the region where the proliferation of existing and new isolated rural dwellings is at its greatest. It is clear therefore that more and more older people will be living in isolated rural areas. The customary repost from rural politicians is to call for greater investment in rural social services, expand rural public transport and maintain rural postal services.
But who pays? These services are notoriously expensive to provide and have always been on the edge in terms of viability. In an age of fiscal austerity maintaining investment in such services, which are a lifeline for many rural communities, will be increasingly difficult if not impossible. But the public exchequer and social costs are not the only concern. A recent report by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice found that a large number of rural-dwellers cannot afford a minimum essential standard of living if they are on social welfare or the minimum wage. The report found that rural households need between €70 and €109 more than their urban counterparts, depending on the type of family, to reach an essential minimum standard of living.
The report found that when housing costs were excluded, the two biggest factors adding to costs of living in rural areas were transport and food. The inflated transport costs were due the necessity of many rural households to have two cars making them highly susceptible to rising oil prices. With energy prices anticipated to inflate significantly over the coming decades, it is clear that the collective blind spot of the body politick to the long-term issues associated with one-off housing will mean that rural families will be forced to face many additional challenges even long before they reach old age. However, a steadily fed diet of exaggerated self pity and paranoia about ‘them up in Dublin’ will mean that they may never stop to question.