MAKING THE CASE Dr Jerry Cowley, speaking here at his election launch in 2016, feels the State needs to be more proactively disposed towards developments like St Brendan’s in Mulranny.
Case Study: St Brendan’s, Mulranny
In many ways it was the reality of west of Ireland existence that brought St Brendan’s Village in Mulranny into being.
Emigration has been an accepted way of life in the west for generations. St Brendan’s came about out of a desire to help people who were marginalised by its effects.
So for Irish people who had emigrated and wanted to retire and see out the rest of their days in their own community, St Brendan’s gave them that opportunity.
Similarly, for people in Mayo who may have watched children and wider family members having to emigrate, they were often left isolated in their older years and so St Brendan’s provided a home from home, in their general community.
It is instructive, too, that it was a community-led reaction, rather than an initiative of the State, that made St Brendan’s a reality almost 30 years ago.
Local GP Dr Jerry Cowley was and is the driving force behind St Brendan’s, which provides low, medium and high support residential units for older people.
“As a GP, I discovered there was all these citizens in my area, whom I was looking after, who I happened to come across by accident. So people living in remote areas, who when they came to a certain age, they had no place to go. And they ended up going to a strange, faraway place and not living in their locality. The best solution if you cannot live at home is to be as near as possible to the people and the place that you know and love.
“There wasn’t a (state) plan for St Brendan’s in Mulranny, but there was a serious need for it. I was involved in setting that up with the tremendous support of my family and the community and the State, of course.
“It is based on need and I think if you approach it from that angle, you have the right outlook. You would need a statistician who could very well say how much we’re getting and how much we should be getting, but if you approach it from that point of view of need and that’s the way I’d always approach it.
“I always felt if you had services in an area you had people. It is a vicious circle. Who is going to live in an area where there’s no doctor, no garda station, no post office, there’s not a place where you can send your child to school? That’s really what it’s about. If you provide services, you stop the vicious circle of continued depopulation.”
Cowley proudly describes St Brendan’s as the biggest employer in Mulranny with 60 people working there and said it is an example of a how a community can thrive when services are located locally.
He said initiatives like St Brendan’s are an example of ‘bottom up development’ but feels such developments are not always encouraged by the State. He said allowing more authority and finance to local authorities is ‘the missing piece of the jigsaw in Ireland’.
“It’s right that people should be able to decide at a more local level as is people’s rights and people’s lives and people’s area and it should be people’s decision to decide what they want for the area. With older people here, clearly the need wasn’t being looked after.
“It happened despite the state. The plan was to have a centre in Achill but that hadn’t happened then, it happened in the meantime. The State had a different plan for centralising in Castlebar in Westport and many people had to leave their areas and go into central towns.
“You could say this is an example of so much state policy. It was once described as a vacuum cleaner that sucks everybody into the centre.
“Therefore I think it is vital that there is supports for communities to help themselves. I’m not so sure that support is there for centres such as St Brendan’s compared to what could be there,” he said.
He praised the state for their assistance of the Safe Home Ireland emigrant support scheme, established from St Brendan’s and rolled out nationwide, facilitating the return of over 2,300 emigrants but argues more can be done and describes current plans to expand the centre as an ‘acid test’ for the willingness of the state to assist.
“There needs to be more cohesion between the state and the community. The middle ground in terms of the local authorities need to be facilitated to be able to help much more proactively with people like ourselves and others.”