City life

Sep 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

Flicking through the satellite channels, Rockworld Television appeared.  There was a Mark Knopfler concert from some time in the past; Knopfler was going through the numbers, including the unmistakable theme music from the film Local Hero.

Set in the Western Isles of Scotland, Local Hero suggests there is something idyllic in the isolation.  The plans to bring industry and change to the place are blocked by the man who owns the beach; and the American industrialist behind the plans comes to the beach himself and discovers a place of tranquility and beauty.

The impression conveyed by Local Hero in the 1980s was reinforced by reading the children’s stories of Katie Morag to a little girl in the 1990s.  Life in remote and isolated spots was something to be desired.  Such rural communities were full of warm and engaging country people along with refugees from city life who realized the superiority of simple things, and eccentric characters who painted or wrote books.

It never occurred to question the received wisdom, that the good life was to be found in the most remote places, until travelling through Manila on a September Sunday evening eight years ago.

Flying into the vast metropolis on a domestic flight, a Catholic bishop offered a lift to a hotel in Quezon City.  Manila was buzzing with activity, as it always was. The bishop’s driver negotiated the traffic with infinite patience.

Underneath a flyover that carried a major road, there were families camped under shelters made for cardboard and tin.

“Bishop, where do these people come from?”

“They come from the country and they stay in places like this until they find something better”.

“But why come to the city to live such a life?”

“Because in the city there are services and there is a chance of work”.

“But what services have they living under a bridge?”

“They haven’t less here than they would have in the country”.

It was baffling, how could living under a bridge be better? The people obviously believed it was better to be here than the places they had left.

Since that Sunday evening drive in 2001, the question of why people move to the city has arisen frequently.  As Dublin expanded through the years of the economic boom, many people would have wondered at the numbers of people coming to live in the vast housing estates that daily spread further and further westwards.  What was it that made tens of thousands of people want to come and fill these houses?

Whatever the attractions of rural isolation, there was a huge vote with the feet for city life.  It was about more than jobs.  Even when the government pursued its decentralisation programme, offering jobs in towns around the country, only a minority availed of the packages – Dublin’s pulling power was far greater than that of the provinces.

Remote isolation makes a good story and a nice place for a holiday, practical living for most people demands much more prosaic places.

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  1. This is something that has puzzled me too. I grew up in the middle of a state forest on the side of the Galty’s and I would love to move back to that area, but I’m an electronic engineer, without changing career there are few opportunities for me to support myself there. Modern society doesn’t approve of a career choice of ‘hunter gatherer’ and I’m fairly certain that my family would balk at the idea. Apart from myself though, the problem is fairly basic (as I understand it). If you have a rural community where everyone has a job to do and it operates affectively then that can work just fine, and I think there are plenty of these in existence. The problem is that such communities can only provide food and employment for a limited number of people, and we are rather adept at making more people, stretching the resources of said communities. Cities have a greater degree of elasticity in this regard, there are more ways to earn money, many of them not very nice, but at least they are available. There is a version of the Amish people (Hutterites) who, if their community exceeds about 150 people they deliberately split it into 2 communities. In fact there are many cases where this is seen to be the natural limit to a close knit community (‘Tipping Point’, Malcom Gladwell), above this and problems arise. Urban dwelling has greater anonymity and as such does not suffer from this limit. So there you have it, rural idyll spoiled by too many damn people.

  2. Maybe it’s about more than practical economics, though. I remember a Canadian friend who had lived in Medicine Hat in Alberta who loved living near Belfast because there were all sorts of cultural opportunities in the city – theatre, music, etc – that had not been available in his former home. Having just got my Leinster season ticket through the post, cities also provide the critical mass for major sporting events. Travel opportunities are also far greater (no matter how much I may hate Dublin Airport).

    Now I must head out to journey to Rathmines for a meeting and Ballybrack is not the ideal starting point – N11 or M50? Hmmm.

  3. Hmm, different strokes for different folks I guess, but I still reckon the example you gave is down to resource poverty from overcrowding, rather than the desire to catch the latest cultural must-see.

  4. I can’t for the life of me understand why. I live in a city where traffic’s in gridlock, everyone wears black, it costs a fortune to commute and I’m only 40kms from the CBD . . Why does everyone have to start work at the same time and work in town? Actually my new job is all about decentralising and building affordable, sustainable houses and communities in the burbs . . not sure if you can actually construct a community where there was none but we’ll see in 20 year’s time. Grow Up has a point. I think the other issue is that kids in the country don’t want to be ‘boghoppers’ or farmers, they prefer the buzz of city life and simply ‘end up there’. You’re right about theatre, clubs, sports . .they’re largely city based. For the Phillipinos and even more particularly the Chinese, cities mean wealth, they are paid much better than if they were on the land despite their appalling work conditions. It’s only as we get older I think, that we appreciate the simplicity of rural life. I’d trade it in a heartbeat if I could earn a living in the country.

  5. Certainly for the people in Manila it’s about resource poverty (you are old enough to know not to expect consistency from clergy!), but I think the ‘Local Hero’ sentiment in these islands isn’t as widespread as we imagine. The idea of country life is OK but when it comes to choosing somewhere like the Irish Midlands for home, work and family life, the enthusiasm is not so great.

  6. I could earn a living in either place and have always said I planned moving to a rural parish in 2011, but, as the year comes closer, I am less sure. My Leinster Rugby season ticket would hardly be feasible; nor would seeing Bruce Springsteen or Fleetwood Mac; and a distant move from the airport would mean day trips to England to see family or friends would no longer be an option.

    Church life in the country would be different, the levels of attendance are much higher, but the challenge would not be there in the same way.

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