Thanks to lockdown and the necessity to work remotely, I relocated myself to my holiday home in Gweedore, Co. Donegal since Spring 2020. Never having spent more than a couple of weeks in the place, and usually on holiday, I worried about the practicalities of living and working long term in this remote corner of North West Ireland. I need not have. There is no roadmap in Donegal, but an aural tradition which reveals itself slowly to the visitor, provided you are willing to listen and adapt to the pace and informality of life.
Let’s start with the oxygen of any international business today- connectivity. 4G is pervasive across the county but there are still some gaps in the rollout of the national rural broadband programme – which my home falls into. But Donegal people are resourceful and a neighbour signposted me to a simple wireless solution for wi-fi (which previously tried to avoid on holiday). Local businesses which had already benefitted from the hi-speed broadband rollout programme, including my local garage were happy to accommodate me for an afternoon of Zoom calls – the new sharing economy in action – and a backdrop that created plenty of interest! I could also access one of many co-working hubs that are springing up across the County – the closest one to me in a re-purposed industrial park that now serves as a base for FDI companies like Randox and Pramerica as well as indigenous manufacturer Irish Pressings who are a key supplier to Honda. The business ecosystem there provides flexible solutions for start ups and flexible working – with the added value benefit of views across the Atlantic! In the last few months, I’ve met many people, including diaspora back from Dublin, Boston, New York or London who are using the opportunity to test a new work / life balance. A number commented that even with the co-working hubs approach, the sense of independence and Donegal authenticity shines through – old traditional school houses and bygone dance halls that would have been at the centre of communities now transformed to support the growing creative and software clusters.
I played golf with a couple of local high school teachers and as well as competing hard on the course, the real competition between them seem to be the level of educational attainment from their senior students now heading for University places in Galway, Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Educational attainment is a serious sport in rural regions driven by the legacy of reduced employment opportunities. There is now confidence and belief that the region will not only attract back its students once they have experienced a bit of city life but it’s also desirable for non-locals – the largest FDI employer in Donegal has 39 nationalities working there highlighting the attractiveness of living in a County where you are never more than 20 mins from a beach.
Aside from world class and very competitive links golf, the recreational options in County Donegal are as varied as they are unique- treking in Ards or Glenveagh national park, art and literature from the Island traditions of Tory and Aranmore, game and sea fishing, water sports on the most amazing unspoilt beaches. Dining out was a bit restrictive this year but the enterprising locals turned pubs into pizza huts; and fresh fish deliveries and coffee vans popped up in the most unlikely places.
The Wild Atlantic Way has opened up the North West to a lot of first-time visitors, especially domestic ones in 2020 who have discovered the magic of Donegal. The biggest rise in tourists this year was from the millennials – surfers in discovery mode, foodies and those getting in touch with their heritage and cultural roots. Small is cool now as long as the overall experience is good. An ongoing challenge for the region is the availability of accommodation, well served for hotels and more private sector investment flowing in on that front but less so for self-catering options like rental cottages and there is a growing interest in camping which is underserved.
Finally one of the highpoints of my summer was the successful tender and appointment of my firm OCO Global in partnership with place marketing experts eutopia to develop a place brand and website for Donegal County Council. It’s not often the real and lived experience is better than the expectation and our team is looking forward to helping Donegal reach its potential. You’ve got to love your work, and this commission is special.