The Ballyhoura region is scenically diverse, and rich in local history. It is dominated by the Ballyhoura Mountains which are located on the border of two Irish counties: Co Limerick (195,000 inhabitants) and Co Cork (124,000 inhabitants). One of the characteristics of this rural region of Ballyhoura is the absence and limitations of public transport: it is almost impossible to move around the area without one’s own car. At the same time, what might be equally surprising for visitors is the richly developed network of recreational, hospitality and tourism outlets and facilities.

Ballyhoura Development CLG a socially-innovative non-profit organisation

The head office of Ballyhoura Development CLG is located in Kilfinane, a small town of less than 1,000 inhabitants. Ballyhoura Development’s mission is to work in partnership to develop empowered and inclusive communities and to drive positive sustainable social, environmental and economic change across the Ballyhoura area. One such activity is supporting communities to develop and fund community centres, on social enterprise models. These community centres act as meeting spaces for local residents and combine various functions, such as recreational facilities, community cafés, workspaces and meeting rooms. Their function is to act as hubs which respond to the multiple needs of the local community.

Researcher’s Notebook: Mara van Twuijver
Reflections on the Ballyhoura Region (Ireland)

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Reflections on life in the Ballyhoura Region (Ireland)

In October 2017, I moved from the Netherlands to Ireland in order to take the position of an early stage researcher in the RurAction project. I left the low and flat Dutch land behind and now I am living at the foot of the Ballyhoura Mountains, in the highest-located village in Munster. Naturally, this change in scenery has made me aware of the role that natural surroundings play in day to day life. Of course it has practical implications: I had to get used to driving the narrow and windy country roads (especially the ones used so rarely that they have grass growing in the middle). This also made me realise that these surroundings greatly determine the specific challenges that different rural areas need to face. Dispersed villages and single dwellings, narrow roads filled with potholes and lack of well-developed public transport can make access to shops, services and basic social life challenging in this region. Especially to people who, for whatever reason, do not have access to the car.

The strong ties with history and local traditions

What struck me is how much the landscape is intertwined with the history of the local people. Here you can find a farmhouse built just 15 meters away from a 400-year old castle. Cows graze in the remains of a stone circle over 1,000 years old. This is a reminder that people have been living in these rural areas since the beginning of mankind and that these places still play a role in our future and that of the next generations.
I think that in our search for progress and innovation, we sometimes forget the immense value and strength of ties with history and local tradition. I think it is important to find a way to preserve and make use of these ties to help rural areas find solutions for the challenges they face.

The value of community involvement

In my opinion in Ireland this is exemplified by the high level of community involvement. I met an extraordinary number of people who volunteer as part of all sorts of community groups. I am amazed by the huge amount of time people are willing to devote to their communities. At the same time, many of my interlocutors have a feeling that this community engagement has been lessening over the past decades. They presented the changes in their communities, how young families are moving to bigger towns and cities in order to find better jobs and easy access to services. How houses become derelict and become eyesores in the village streets. How is it getting more difficult to find people to volunteer because of professional and family commitments.
Slowly, the connection formed by working on land is being severed with people moving to other professions. And with that, the social fabric that comes with living from land also starts to fall apart. The Irish rural tradition of ‘meitheal’ in which neighbours come together to help each other out with harvesting the crops or other tasks on a farm, is breaking down. Coming from abroad, I nevertheless see this tradition reflected in the high level of community engagement in volunteering. I also see in the rural social enterprises that I examined. The time and effort, very often volunteered by the community, is of vital importance to keeping these organisations going.
It is important that this is acknowledged by researchers, policymakers and anyone involved in rural social enterprises. At the same time there must be an awareness that not everything in community development should be borne by volunteers. My experience in the RurAction project has, among other things, taught me that in looking for new ways of doing things, we should build them and connect them to the already existing structures.

Pádraig Casey and Catherine Smyth explain that by engaging closely with local communities, Ballyhoura Development is able to guide and support communities to develop services, facilities and economic and social enterprises which respond to needs which have been identified by the communities themselves.

Joint development of action plans: Croom Community Centre

Croom Civic Centre in Croom town is located in the newly developed town park. Elaine Butler, CEO of Croom Community Development Association, explaining that the Civic Centre, Town Park, and Community Enterprise Centre in Croom have all been developed following a community-led, bottom-up development approach.

Researcher’s Notebook: Lucas Olmedo
Impressions from rural Portugal and Ireland

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Impressions from rural Portugal and Ireland

Rural Portugal

In the early summer of 2019, I went for two months to southern Europe, specifically to Moura in the Baixo Alentejo region in Portugal. I felt at home right from the start: the structures of the towns, villages, and fields but also the cultural codes are very similar to those in Andalusia in the south of Spain where I was born and grew up.
Although the “Concelho de Moura” is affected by a decreasing and ageing population, high unemployment, small average income and purchasing power, I could see that several social entrepreneurial initiatives were at work to valorise the potential of the region and its people.

Openness to new ideas

I felt that especially when I was just a short-time visitor struggling with basic understanding, the locals were very supportive and I felt welcomed.
Another teacher told me that hearing a new language, people are torn between curiosity and uncertainty. The older they get, the more often they tend to lean to uncertainty and start to reject what they do not understand.
My experience is proof to the contrary: the practitioners strived for constant openness to new ideas and the participants were willing to connect and tell their stories.
However, this openness is accompanied by equally constant negotiation of the limits of the participants’ capacities, commitment and resources.

Rural Ireland

Before I came to ADC Moura, in early summer 2018 I had been seconded to Ballyhoura Development where I had an opportunity to learn about social enterprise operations in rural Ireland.

Assessing social impact

During my first weeks together with my colleague Mara, we visited different social enterprises in the area and produced a document called “Conversations with Organisations”. After a number of conversations, we came to a conclusion that the organisations were willing to recapitulate their work in order to present it to the different stakeholders. Following this suggestion (and a discussion with the other members of Ballyhoura Development), a Social Impact Pilot was launched to integrate theory and practice, tested by different organisations in the area.
Apart from the pilot, these months were key to a better understanding of the region including roads, villages, political and socio-economic structures, accents, acronyms, landscapes and the most important: the people in Ballyhoura. After this intense summer of preparatory work I was able to carefully select my research cases.

Immersion in small but active communities

Since I started collecting data in the early autumn of 2018, I have been absorbed by the “community” because the selected social enterprises are from a community and work for a community. To me it is a combination of social relations, material and symbolic meanings that intertwine in a specific location.
During the year I participated in numerous community (planning) meetings, fundraising activities, shooting of a documentary, vintage runs, litter picking days and community markets. Furthermore, I also visited community shops and cafés, community gardens, social housing, community childcare and adult education courses. Surprisingly, all these social entrepreneurship activities took place in only two Irish small villages with populations way below 1,000.

Conclusions – dynamic and vibrant rural societies

In summary, what I experienced were dynamic and vibrant rural societies. Furthermore, I realised that rural regions vary and are heterogeneous in several aspects: codes, interests and the pace. However, they share exciting examples of social entrepreneurship. All this is reflected in structural contexts where distorting factors affect rural communities and where forcing change is anything but easy. Nevertheless, the people and organisations in the different locations do their best to improve the living conditions in the regions.
The goal of this conclusion is not to romanticise rural areas in Ireland or in Portugal. In fact, many of these places are facing great problems. My aim here is just to stress the vibrancy and social entrepreneurial initiatives launched in these rural communities and to point out the value of a regular and open dialogue between researchers and practitioners.
I experienced lots of things when I interacted with people in rural areas. Last but not least, I saw considerable community engagement, high commitment, great passion, capacity to create visions, openness to the future and embracing the past as well as supportive and enabling institutions.

Integration and care of people with dementia: Carebright Community

CareBright is a social enterprise which has been providing care in the community for over 20 years. CareBright Community is Ireland’s first purpose-built community for people living with dementia, and is centred around three bungalows, each containing six private living spaces and gardens. The environment supports social interaction but also provides peace and autonomy

Nisha Joy, Director of Nursing explaining the Carebright Community ethos of creating a ‘home from home’ for clients. Clients have their own spacious en-suite bedroom and can bring items of furniture from home. The facility’s 4-acre parkland has a large kitchen garden, sensory and remembrance gardens and outdoor seating areas.

Mary Ann Kelleher welcomed us into her home in the Carebright Community. Each bungalow has a spacious living room, dining room, kitchen and utility room and ‘nook areas’ for quiet time. Mary Ann also showed us her private bedroom and was very proud of her collection of spoons, which she had gathered throughout her life.

Noreen Mullane, another resident, enjoys availing of the community spaces in the Carebright Community. The communal spaces, including a community café, are open to both residents, guests and visitors, which facilitates ‘real-life’ interaction.

Colette Ryan, the General Manager, outlining that the layout and design of the Carebright Community is one of many innovative aspects of the facility. All aspects of the facility have been conceived and designed to facilitate social interaction and to replicate opportunities for socialising outside the Community. In this way, Carebright Community has found a novel model to meet collective needs, within the broader Bruff town community.

Local sports activities: Mitchellstown Leisure Centre

Mitchelstown Leisure Centre in Mitchelstown is a community-led social enterprise, which provides a range of sports facilities to residents of Mitchelstown and surrounding communities. Facilities include a fully equipped gym, fitness classes, basketball hall, meeting rooms, and an outdoor football pitch. The complex is used by community members and groups of all ages.

Community members and users of the Leisure Centre take great pride in having a new, fully equipped, multi-purpose sports facility in their relatively small town of less than 4,000 residents. The fact that the Leisure Centre is managed and funded by the Community gives further cause for civic pride.

Innovating through the bottom-up creation of facilities for everyday life in structurally weak rural regions

Community, social and economic development in the Ballyhoura area is grounded in the principle of working with communities, based on the needs and priorities which they have identified, to enhance their everyday lives. This model of social development and innovation has become Ballyhoura Development’s hallmark.

This idea of social innovation proposed by Ballyhoura Development and its collaborators is therefore straightforward yet delightful in its simplicity.

The bottom-up approach to community facilities is evident in everyday activities, such as the bingo games organised regularly by Croom Community Development Association. These bingo games provide a focus for intergenerational social interaction in rural towns such as Croom, and attract large numbers of local residents, in the hope of winning prize monies!