By Nicola Corless
UNEMPLOYMENT and emigration rates increased more in Gort than any other town in the country, according to research revealed this week.
Figures for towns in other parts of Ireland will not be released until April, but Professor Cathal O’Donoghue of the Teagasc’s Rural Economy Development Programme outlined details of the group’s research in Gort to a meeting of Galway County Council on Monday, as part of a presentation from The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Area (CEDRA).
According to its national town rankings, which take into account unemployment and emigration rates, Gort has seen the biggest fall nationally in a Teagasc index of small and medium sized towns. In 2002 and 2006 it was just outside the top 10% of towns in Ireland but by 2011 it had slipped to the bottom 10%.
The South Galway town lost 400 jobs in just five years, between 2006 and 2011. While the population of the town dropped by approximately 9% during that time, from 2,782 to 2,530, the working-age population dropped by close to 15%. However, the number of people employed fell by about 30%. The jobs lost were primarily in construction and manufacturing related industries.
Speaking to The Clare Champion, Professor O’Donoghue said, “The combination of the loss of those jobs, which are really down to two main factors, the loss of the beef processing plant and the over reliance on construction – I think 21% of people were working in construction in Gort in 2006 which is very substantial. It is a lot higher than the national average. Essentially Gort is a microcosm of what happened nationally except it is magnified. Also Gort was an expanding town. It was expanding at one of the fastest rates in the 10 years before 2006 and the population was made up of a lot of Brazilians, who were transient, when the jobs went they left. Houses were built to house the new workers but they were transient so when the economy went into decline they left.”
He also pointed out that this further impacted the economy because of decreasing demand for rented property.
The Ardrahan man compared two Galway towns, which fared very differently since 2006. Oranmore gained 150 jobs and its working age population grew 12%. It maintained a population with a high education profile and had half the unoccupied houses of Gort.
“Gort’s decline mirrors but magnifies the decline seen nationally due to an over reliance of construction prior to the crash, an unsustainable increase in economic activity over a short period and an unsustainably fast population and housing rise prior to 2006,” the presentation stated.
A Teagasc study by Dr O’Donoghue, Cathal Geoghegan, Kevin Heanue and David Meredith on the economic structure of towns in Ireland noted “the significant impact of the downturn in Gort which has fallen in the rankings more than any other town in the country”.
Given that the town had been ranked just outside the top 10% nationally in relation to employment and migration in 2002 and 2006, the authors said it “reflects an underlying historical strength in terms of its economic potential and so has the attributes to grow again if the right decisions are made”.
Professor O’Donoghue said it was only when he started to really look at the figures in relation to Gort that he “realised that Gort is being really hit by the downturn. I guess you can see some of it but until you see the numbers, they have lost 350 or 400 jobs in five years and it has lost one sixth of its population, those numbers are pretty stark”.
Continuing, he said, “There are good reasons why it was strong historically but I guess too many eggs were in one basket and when they were affected it fell down the rankings down to the bottom 10%, down to the bottom 10 towns in terms of that measure but that is not saying it has to stay there. I am saying I don’t think people quite realized the extent to which the crisis particularly hit Gort.”
The report noted Gort’s position at the centre point of a high education axis that follows the road between Limerick and Galway where the ratio of post secondary educated to those who left education before 17 is double. It is thus a rural area with relatively high human capital.”
“The geographic position is also reflected in excellent road, rail and airport links as well as close proximity to major tourism assets such as the Burren, Coole Park, Galway Bay and Lough Derg. Indeed geologically, Gort froms part of the Burren lowlands. Gort als has a significant cultural heritage as a central location within the Celtic revival movement at the turn of the last century.”
The report highlighted the town’s “significant tourist potential” which it says is “under-exploited”.
Across the country the study found that “poverty rates are also higher in small and medium sized towns and the open countryside, with one third of working age households with no one in work, 50% higher than in cities”. Dr O’Donoghue said that “national policy really ignored small and medium-sized rural towns.”
Local councillor Gerry Finnerty agrees and believes planning policy in particular hasn’t helped.
“Cathal has put his finger on it. Gort was over reliant on the building boom and the population decline is in part down to the loss of the Brazilian community. Unfortunately their jobs weren’t high skilled or high tech so when the downturn came their jobs were first to go and therefore there was a massive exit of people out of the town,” he said.
Councillor Finnerty added that “the Main St in the town is completely empty. We have no people living in it. Businesses are closed in it especially family businesses. Traditional shops which might once have been there are now located elsewhere in the town. Small flats for rent above shops is not what is needed in Gort, really you want business premises with bigger, family accommodation over them so that people can live over their shops.”
Turning the corner on Gort’s recent decline can only be achieved, according to Councillor Finnerty, through joint co-operation between businesses and local communities.
By Nicola Corless