Analysis: sport, healthcare, the environment and culture are constantly supported by rural volunteers who willingly and freely give up their time
Voluntary activity is often considered the pillar of community work and it can be the glue that binds a declining economy in many Irish rural communities. The activities carried out by volunteers in areas such as sport, health care or the environment create connections and networks that build resilient Irish rural towns and villages.
As a form of social integration and way to promote the development of community relationships, volunteerism can make a considerable difference to rural society. However, individuals and organisations who carry out voluntary activities face difficulties in excess of their urban counterparts. These difficulties are largely due to a lack of facilities, funding, ongoing support and suitable transport and travel. Nonetheless, volunteerism has the ability to enhance communities and become a vital lifeline for rural regions facing dramatic change and decline.
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How rural Ireland is changing
In the last two decades, rural areas have witnessed unprecedented change, driven largely by globalisation and changes in technology and society. Many EU countries, including Ireland, experienced rural economic decline which resulted in a rise in rural service industries and a decline in the importance of agriculture. Social change has resulted in population decline in some rural areas and an influx of new rural dwellers in others. Issues around commuting, access and mobility are currently widespread in some rural regions, with many others facing problems of isolation, deprivation and poor service provision.
The means and support for dealing with such change can often be limited for rural communities, resulting in a reliance on voluntary activities and the volunteer sector. Subject to such change, many Irish communities have worked tirelessly to retain community engagement, build capacity and enhance social capital. The post Celtic Tiger era was difficult, with austerity measures severely impacting rural community funding and support services and national spending on community and voluntary activity being reduced by 45 percent (see Downsizing the Community Sector).
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During this period, both volunteers and volunteer organisations were under financial pressures, but persistence and dedication ensured government policy refocused its efforts in more recent years, providing additional funding and support for community and volunteer involving organisations. A somewhat reenergised volunteer sector was evident in the Commissioning for Communities report commissioned by Clann Credo, the Community Foundation for Ireland and The Wheel in 2016.
This provided evidence from over 560,000 people volunteering their time every year in Ireland’s 11,500 community and voluntary organisations. Additionally, funding has been allocated from the Department of Community and Rural Development to fund Volunteer Ireland, a national volunteer development agency and a support body for all local volunteer centres and volunteering information services in Ireland.
Meet the volunteers
In studying volunteerism in rural Ireland, recent research carried out in NUI Galway in conjunction with Volunteer Ireland, eTownz and the NUI Galway Community Knowledge Initiative showed that slightly more males than females are involved in voluntary activities in rural areas. The people involved come from varying backgrounds, with some being long-term residents, while others are "newcomers" to the area. An examination of the employment structure of volunteers showed that people assisting their local community ranged from professional workers to people employed in the service industry and in agriculture as local farmers.
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One volunteer stated that: "volunteerism acts as a gateway for new members of a community to get involved in helping to make their new area a better place for all its inhabitants. Volunteerism, in whatever form, makes it possible for members of the community to come together in a socially positive way. With many of our main volunteers in Achill being from other locations around the country and some from different parts of the world, it really gives us a diverse view on different events and ideas to improve our community"
Rural voluntary activities and Impacts
The variety of activities carried out by rural volunteers is inspiring and ranges from sporting engagement to care services in local communities. Club involvement of different varieties is hugely popular in rural areas, with over 38 percent of rural people involved in a club. Although participation in GAA activities was by far the most popular, many volunteers also carried out activities with charities such as St Vincent de Paul, Foroige, Tidy Towns, Meals on Wheels and local Town Development Associations.
The time, energy and effort freely given by rural people to volunteer activities is the lifeblood of rural society
Undoubtedly, the services and facilities provided by rural volunteers impact dramatically on the quality of life of rural residents, but voluntary activities also have an economic impact on the state. Our research showed that 83 percent of the rural people believe that voluntary activities carried out in their rural area saved on public spending by relieving pressure on public services. Additionally, networking, cooperation and linking people together in rural communities is greatly enhanced by voluntary activities which in turn enhances the personal development of individuals within the community and improves the mental health and wellbeing of people in the community.
Rural Ireland has struggled in recent years to rise above issues of economic decline, population changes and a depletion of rural services and facilities. Nonetheless, the work carried out by volunteers in every town and village across Ireland is fundamental to the mainstay of rural Ireland. Yes, there are issues, including a lack of volunteers, an over reliance on the same people; inadequate financial support from local and state government and a need for continued support and training. But the time, energy and effort freely given by rural people to volunteer activities is undoubtedly the lifeblood of rural society.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ