Ailin Quinlan: A chilling warning that Ireland may be losing its friendly glow

A wall of unfriendliness and chilly silences seems to be descending on Irish people, so says Ailin Quinlan
Ailin Quinlan: A chilling warning that Ireland may be losing its friendly glow
At the bridge at Innishannon, was Author Alice Taylor. Picture: Denis Boyle

THE Cork writer Alice Taylor this week posed a deeply uncomfortable question. Are we really starting to lose our grip on the friendliness for which Irish people are internationally renowned?

Taylor believes that we are, and given the strong and concerned reaction to her comments from all over the country, she’s not the only one.

There’s another question which follows logically from the first. Is the acknowledged coldness and anonymity of the urban environment of today starting to infect small rural communities, as house-hunters beset by the shortage of accommodation and high property prices in cities and towns search for more affordable housing in rural areas — and, ideally, a more relaxed and amenable lifestyle while they’re at it?

Taylor, who has written more than 20 books championing the impact and power of positive, supportive community life in rural Ireland, where she has lived all of her life, had her personal Road to Damascus moment about all of this when she walked through the car park of her home village of Innishannon last Sunday morning.

It was, she recalled, a bright, sunny day, and the car park, which was adjacent to the village’s state-of-the-art local playground — installed, it should be said, primarily thanks to a long-running, very active and determined local campaign by parents to raise large sums of money for the amenity — was busy with young families leaping out of vehicles en route to the swings and slides.

The writer, who has lived in Innishannon for decades — her house is attached to a local supermarket and post office on main street — and is a driving force in the local Tidy Towns committee, was in high spirits as she set off to go for a walk in the local forest. The way to the woods was through that busy village car-park.

Taylor, now in her early eighties, cheerily saluted several couples as she strolled along. She was rattled by how often her casual warmth was met by indifferent, stony faces, as she told me the following day.

People were reacting to the writer’s friendly greetings with chilly stares and silence, almost, she pondered, clearly unsettled, as if she was intruding in some unpalatable, unwelcome way into their personal space.

Taylor has lived for most of her life in this picturesque, friendly little West Cork village. It’s a small tight-knit place where everyone knows everyone.

However, given its location — an easy drive to Cork city — Innishannon is increasingly being seen as a desirable neighbourhood for people who want to own a home within commuting distance to work in Cork, and new housing estates are popping up around it.

Her experience last Sunday morning, gave Taylor pause for thought about what might be happening, not just in Innishannon that day, but in Ireland generally.

One interaction stood out in particular. As she passed a trendily-dressed young couple out for a walk with a lovely dog, she greeted them, too. The only one who responded, she recalls, was the dog, who wagged his tail. The couple just stared expressionlessly at her.

A wall of unfriendliness and chilly silences seems to be descending on Irish people, believes Taylor, whose books strongly promote the values of rural Irish life and the hugely positive power of small, caring communities.

My instinct is that she is right. And given the fact that her concerns were highlighted by a number of different media organisations this week, many other people think she’s right too.

The problem is that while all of this is somewhat understandable in a busy urban environment where you tend not to know the people who walk past you on the street, this chilliness may be contagious.

It may be spreading outside the towns and cities, transmitted by the very people attracted to the more manageable property prices outside the city and a happier lifestyle wrapped in the warmth of smaller, rural, close-knit communities.

People, in other words, who move to the countryside from busy urban environments.

Such people should be aware that they risk bringing with them the very thing they’re trying to leave behind — urban chilliness.

If you move to a small rural community, you must behave as people do in that small rural community. You don’t respond with coldness, anonymity and lack of interest to the other people in your small tight-knit rural community.

If you’re moving to a place where people still say hello and smile at each other, you don’t just stare expressionlessly at someone who greets you.

It’s a very bad idea to move into a village or into a housing estate on the outskirts of a small rural village and continue to unthinkingly behave as if you’re still living in a large town or a city.

When in Rome (or Ballinascarthy, Innishannon, Rosscarbery or Whitegate) for God’s sake, do as the Romans do.

Because if you don’t; if you continue to behave as you would in sprawling urban suburbs like Bishopstown or Ballincollig, and if enough of you are moving from these urban environments into small, close-knit, rural communities like Innishannon, and if you are continuing to behave on their streets as you would in Bishopstown or Ballincollig or Douglas, then you will eventually have an impact.

Continue to push past people without as much as a smile or a greeting, and you and the other urban blow-ins will eventually begin to change the happy, positive atmosphere that attracted you all to that small, friendly community in the first place.

Get a grip, folks.

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