A New Irish Migration - Back to the Country

Eight years ago, Paul Murphy was a bus driver and aspiring writer in Dublin, trying to make ends meet for his family.

Today he is a published author who helps other harried city dwellers make the move to rural life. Since coming to Kilbaha, a tiny harbor village in County Clare in southwest Ireland, Mr. Murphy has become administrator of Rural Resettlement Ireland (RRI), a group that helps urban families move to depopulated areas.

The west of Ireland experienced a huge population decrease in the Great Famine of the 1840s, when large numbers of people left the region, more often than not for the United States. Today, natives still leave because of a lack of employment opportunities and the lure of big-city amenities.

Now some urban families are reversing the trend. The majority of those who move to western Ireland have lived in housing developments in Dublin. These sprawling urban neighborhoods are troubled by crime, drugs, and unemployment.

Murphy was one of the fortunate few who had a job. But he worried about the safety of his two children and about the opportunities for them as they grew up. So the family decided to go west. With the birth of a third child two years ago, Murphy says, their "roots are here in Kilbaha."

Over the last eight years, 315 families have made similar moves with help from RRI. Some 3,600 more are on a waiting list.

Paul and Stephanie O'Neill and their three children moved two years ago to Waterville in County Kerry. The O'Neills say the hardest part was saying goodbye to close neighbors and relatives. "Leaving my parents was the real heartbreaking thing," Mr. O'Neill says.

Few of the families can afford a car, and many miss the convenience of having stores close by. "There's no such thing as saying, 'I'll go down to the local shop,' " O'Neill says. "You're talking about two miles to get a bottle of milk."

This sense of isolation has led about 10 percent of families to return to their urban homes.

But a recent survey of participating families shows that more than 95 percent feel safer in their rural homes and say their children are receiving a better education than in crowded urban schools.

David and Anne Gibsons also left Dublin for County Clare. Their eldest daughter, Gillian, recently started an accounting course. Mrs. Gibsons proudly notes, "She is the first in David's or my family to attend college, and I wonder if we had stayed in Dublin, would she have got the chance?"

The RRI program also "immediately gives a spur of life to an area and provides a base on which to build," says Brian Keary of the University of Limerick. But unless employment opportunities are provided, he notes, "we are only putting off the problem."

The success stories so far are encouraging. O'Neill has just completed a painting contract for a government agency - work he says he would not have found in Dublin. A soon-to-be published academic survey finds that those who migrate are three times more likely to find employment than if they had stayed in the city.

O'Neill says the move also improved family life. "We have more time together, more time to share walks and talk," he says.

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