By Niall Gartland
RURAL depopulation. It’s a big, scary term and there are no easy fixes, but the close-knit community centred on Cushendall has taken a proactive and innovative approach to holding onto those who may be tempted to pick up sticks.
Former Antrim hurling star Neil McManus is part of the ‘Grow the Glens’ group that has transformed the former Cushendall PSNI station into a community digital hub where people can work remotely.
The Glens are off the beaten track and the inevitable consequence of its remoteness is that an increasing number of natives have taken the plunge and relocated to urban areas.
That can’t be good for the local community, and it’s not good for the long-term vitality of hurling in Antrim’s foremost hurling heartland, but they’ve taken a big positive step forwards.
McManus, who is still starring for Cushendall a full two decades after making his senior debut, said: “Over the last number of years we’ve been involved in a process of trying to gain ownership of the defunct, disused police station in Cushendall and we’ve done that successfully.
“We received the grants required to essentially buy the building off the government, to repurpose it as a remote working hub. Companies can either have their employees working there using the hotdesk facility or can rent an entire office themselves if they need privacy for the job.
“We officially opened the facility on the first of September and there’s been a phenomenal amount of interest in the resource.
“It’s a brilliant facility kitted out to the highest standard with all the mod cons. It’s a very good option for companies and we want people to live and work in the Glens and not have to commute long distances. We’re trying to improve the employability of people in the Glens, not every house has a suitable workspace and we’re already receiving feedback about how much they’re enjoying working in the new hub.
“There are areas in the Glens where the home internet connection isn’t brilliant, we’re lucky to have superfast broadband, it’s actually faster than the Google Headquarters in Dublin and that gives you a feel for how good the connectivity is. The internet is provided by Fibrous who are Antrim hurlers’ sponsors so it all ties in together.”
Another major benefit of the new hub is the potential to cut down on significant commute times, something McManus is only too familiar with via his own job.
“Every company in Ireland has people commuting when they don’t really need to. It’s just about that culture change becoming embedded in the fabric of society.
“One of the biggest banking institutions in the world, its name escapes me, said all their staff had to come back to the office and 20 percent of its employees resigned there and then.
“People want to spend time with their family and have a better balance to their life. I commute to Belfast every day, I spend a working week every month just commuting and that’s no good to me, there’s no winners with that.”
It goes without saying that the future success of Antrim hurler is in many ways dependant on the strength of the prominent feeder clubs in the Glens. McManus hopes that they can stem the flow of families from the area by improving the amenities on offer.
“Rural depopulation is the biggest problem facing rural communities, especially in the Glens as we’re very, very remote.
“One of the recent GAA Presidents said it’s the biggest problem facing the GAA community as a whole.
“Rural clubs are struggling so badly for numbers as families have had to move elsewhere for work. School numbers are down and children aren’t entering the local clubs. You’re seeing a lot of amalgamations at club level including in the Glens.
“It’s a struggle and on top of that, families are a lot smaller than they were in the seventies and eighties. From the perspective of the Glens, we really need to have more social and affordable housing built to allow the young people to stay here.
“It’s a huge issue but so much of the available work these days is Internet and IT-based, and if we have the right facilities it’ll hopefully enable us to keep more people based in the community they grew up in.”
Antrim hurlers have made significant strides in recent years but it’s hard to be over-confident about future generations given the aforementioned problems.
“This is exactly why we’ve embarked on this initiative. Rural depopulation is creating problems for all sections of the community and if we manage to arrest the problem, Antrim hurling will be a massive beneficiary in the long run.
“The vast majority of our players do come from north Antrim, and as a county we’ve been dependent on a supply of hurlers from the area to the intercounty team.
“There’s no doubt if rural depopulation continues at this rate we will struggle, but there’s a good appetite in the community to work towards solving the issue.”