Sometimes big revolutions are low-key, slow burning and very localised affairs. Like the bicycle.
As a nipper we’d be driven up to visit my great grandmother in Clones in Co Monaghan. Born in 1891, she was a pleasant but no-nonsense sort. Well into her late eighties, she was still doing her household chores daily in her town cottage, cooking for bachelor sons with a northern fondness for mushy peas that her great grandkids didn’t share.
She and her generation experienced the greatest changes for humankind ever in the span of a single lifetime.
Great granny was about when Victoria was queen of Ireland and she had spoken to people who had lived through the Famine. Her youth was the horse and cart and the steam train. And at the other end of her life, she saw the arrival of the home computer. In her near century on Earth she saw in electricity, radio, the telephone, television, antibiotics and nuclear weapons. Her life ran from the Wright brothers scooting on sky kites to Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. But as a ‘townie’ in a largely rural border location, it was border politics and the price of spuds that mostly held her interest.
I do clearly recall a conversation we had on the subject of the bicycle when I was 12 and had just got my first proper one. She screwed up her face at my news and informed me conspiratorially that when she was little anyone seen on a bicycle was considered to be mad.
Her point was that no one could foresee at the time that those first laughable bone shaking wobbles by the Clones town eccentrics marked the onset of a social revolution for rural Ireland. The bike would expand the social boundaries of younger people by tens of miles.
Rural broadband rollout will impact bigger again. We have certain expectations for it, but much more than we expect could be rolled out along with the fibre. We’ve heard so much about it for so long that new updates on its progress fly over our heads. And for those towns awaiting it, fibre broadband has been seen primarily as an urgent requirement for homes and businesses to catch up. But its impact might be much more profound than that, as estate agents have been discovering.
The most recent Irish Independent/Real Estate Alliance Average House Price Index published last month was first to highlight a strange departure in the Irish property market. City-based people are suddenly swarming all over properties in certain scenic and more metropolitan rural locations. Competition not seen for years has started breaking out for homes and prices are suddenly creeping up. And it sure isn’t about holiday homes.
“Houses are now taking an average three weeks less to sell across the country, driven by a combination of low supply and highly-motivated buyers,” said REA spokesperson Barry McDonald who expressed concern at the pace of buying but also at the increasing shortage of stock coming up for sale.
Carlow agents reported competition from buyers that drove town prices up 4.5pc in three months. Agents in Navan said prices were rising by almost a percentage point per month.
Similar news was coming in from Kerry, Waterford, Donegal and Co Cork. In Carlow, a fifth of buyers reported leaving Dublin, citing lifestyle choices.
In Mayo, it emerged that most were originally from the area, had moved to Dublin or Cork for educational and/or career purposes and were coming back seeking a house with good home office potential and most importantly of all, broadband. It seems Covid has shown us a new world of home working potential from which there might not be a defined return when it finally dissipates.
City buyers are being pushed and pulled. Property prices and rents in the cities are extortionate, the cost of living and childcare costs are high. And spending one sixth of your woken life in a traffic jam is not normal. Vitally, for the first time, broadband makes a bold move possible.
In fact workable broadband undermines the reasons why generations have traditionally had to move to the cities and then had to stay there.
It’s not just returnees. City-born buyers are also looking to move out for the same reasons. The chance for a bigger house near mountains or sea, for less money, smaller class numbers for kids, fresh air and healthy amenities. Only recently is broadband making that truly possible.
The flood of city buyers has been so pronounced in West Cork (mainly from Cork City and Dublin) that The Southern Star newspaper which serves the area, is this week publishing a special one-off buyer’s guide aimed at outsiders and featuring properties for sale in the area.
As early as July The Southern Star reported on the unexpected surge in enquiries from couples and singletons wanting to move ‘back home’ and leave the cities. It reports that Cork agents have even been getting calls about properties for sale from New York. West Cork in a famously scenic location where prices are high by national standards, particularly on the coast.
The paper’s Clare-born news editor Siobhan Cronin long ago moved down to Skibbereen from Dublin and has herself been enjoying the life change, particularly the salt water swimming which she asserts is “life affirming”.
“Since the start of the pandemic, estate agents in the area have been inundated with queries about West Cork properties, at all ends of the scale,” says Cronin.
“Lockdown in a city made many apartment dwellers and homeowners living in crowded suburbs realise there just had to be more to life. The yearning for wide open spaces and beach walks isn’t just an Irish phenomenon. Right across the globe the arrival of Covid-19 has left people wondering if there has ever been a better time to just go for it – find that home by the beach, on a leafy country road, or nestled in an atmospheric forest, and just do it.”
But while fibre broadband for every home might not yet be a reality, Cronin says another innovation is helping to seal those decisions to move.
“E-centres and digital hubs, where residents can go to work and avail of good broadband, are springing up faster than daisies,” she says pointing out that new hot-desking facilities offer an office environment but within a few minute’s drive from their new doorstep.
The county council has opened many new centres but there are also local business groups organising facilities such as EBantry in Bantry, EMizen in Goleen and Mix Coworking in Clonakilty. The same story is repeated in Waterford, Mayo and Navan.
With city slickers putting their money down for home deposits, it proves that rural broadband rollout might indeed be revolutionary, for rolling the people back into rural Ireland.
And to my 12-year-old self: Yes we do have the video phones from Star Trek in 2020. But for various reasons most of us still stick with the ‘sound only’ option.