For most of us, running out of milk is a mild inconvenience. For Martin Buckley – and the eight volunteers he recruited – it was a game changer for Pullough, Co Offaly.
When Changing Ireland took to the country roads of west Offaly, seeking a community project that stood out, we rounded the corner into Pullough village and struck gold.
It was as if we’d been fated to be there.
The inaugural meeting of Pullough Men’s Shed was taking place that evening and, better still, it was taking place in the Pullough Community Shop and Cafe.
There are only seven or eight community shops in Ireland, so it was the sign above this shop that caused us to stand on the brakes.
The village is in a picturesque spot, but the needs are obvious: rural isolation is evident in every direction in this boggy part of the country near the River Shannon. In the winter, cut off by snow or storms, this is a place where neighbours have to rely on each other.
Since our visit, the desolation (for want of a better word) has only grown worse. The post office has closed, and mass layoffs from the local peat-burning electricity station that is being decommissioned will hit hard.
The villagers are undeterred by supposed setbacks. If it weren’t for them being ready to put in long volunteering hours, and having a small bit of good fortune, the place would be on its knees.
If it weren’t for the fact that Martin Buckley ran out of milk one evening, it might have been a different story.
Isolation becomes inspiration
Martin knew something needed to change when he drove home one “dirty winter’s night” having forgotten to buy milk when passing through Tullamore, the last big town.
“I was going to sit down and watch a match on TV, and we all wanted a cuppa. By the time I got into the car, drove up the road to Ferbane and returned with the milk, the match was over,” he said.
He cursed remembering the incident.
“The shop here was closed for two years. It wasn’t commercially viable – you can’t compete with Tescos – but the village needed somewhere for people to buy bread and milk.
“We’re cut off from the mainstream; isolated. It’s a 25-minute drive to Tullamore, presuming you’ve a car.”
This was exactly what was needed to inspire a comeback for the village.
Martin and a team of volunteers set about reopening the shop and revitalising the community. There were even plans for a full-on café, though the HSE ruled out that possibility due to the number of regulations that would need to be adhered to. The volunteers took it on the chin.
“Some of the regulations – in hindsight – were good for us, because the shop is now becoming more of a youth space,” said Martin.
“Now, the kids are our best customers. They have a community hall, but they have no after-schools club, no Foróige, no Scouts. They had all that, but it’s all gone. So, this is more than a shop now.
“We put in a pool table for them and we’re developing the space.”
When the group applied to the Applegreen Blossom Fund, they were one of just 62 successful applicants out of more than 300. This win funded development of the shop’s youth space.
But how did they get the shop so easily in the first place?
“We have an agreement with the owner who’s after letting it out to us,” said Martin.
The owner, Joe Bracken (who we also met), believes that if the village benefits, everyone wins.
He is enjoying the village’s resurgence and is a member of Pullough Men’s Shed, which is now running successfully, with members producing a range of craft goods at Christmas time for sale locally. Funds raised were invested back into the community.
Community pride to personal growth
The opening of the Community Shop has had a marvellous ripple effect.
Martin said, “We set up our action group [Martin is chairperson], and volunteers have kept this going, doing a shift or two a week. We’ve helped ourselves. Paddy O’Reilly, our treasurer, put in four shifts a week during our first winter to keep it going.
“From that, he has become involved now in Pullough’s residents’ association. The group had collapsed, but they have resurrected it and now they meet once a month.”
“And I’ve gone back to college,” he added.
Martin recently completed a Level 6 course in advanced community development with NUI Galway. He is also learning on the ground by becoming involved in the local Public Participation Network and West & South Offaly Homefix.
“I was self-employed – I lost my job in ’09 with the recession. My missus is working full-time and I minded the kids. When they started going to school, I had a bit of extra time and said I’d put the time into the community. It’s taking up more time than I thought it would, but it’s very enjoyable. In October, I went back to studying.”
Bringing new life to the village
Pullough’s development began as a local initiative and has now become an example to other villages of what can be done by volunteers with a little luck, small amounts of funding, and support through the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme (SICAP).
“Offaly Development Company have been brilliant. They were with us from day one,” said Martin.
“CEO Brendan O’Loughlin has been out to lend support. Their social enterprise manager, Sarah Kennedy, came to meetings and encouraged us to start a committee.
“Within a few weeks of setting it up, all the councillors on the Local Community Development Committee came out to see what we were doing,” said Martin.
Their hard work is paying off and winning the tiny village much respect.
In early January, TG4 visited to showcase the community shop.
In December of last year, Pullough Community Shop won the top award for Outstanding Group at the Volunteer Ireland Awards.
The judges in Volunteer Ireland saw great merit in what Joe, Paddy, Martin and their fellow activists were doing. They said:
“In spite of the fact that they had no money to bring about their dream of re-opening a shop which had fallen into disrepair since its closure a few years ago, this group set about fundraising to set up a community voluntary-run shop.
“Within a few months, they had secured permission from the owner to lease the premises, raised enough money to cover the cost of insurance, repair, restore and stock the shop.
“Overcoming all obstacles, they forged ahead and opened Offaly’s only community shop in June 2017. Since then, they have remained dedicated to their roles as volunteers. The shop is open seven days a week, even remaining open during the severe storms and snow of the past year.
“The reopening of the shop has brought new life to the village. It not only provides local people with the opportunity to buy food locally, but has become a ‘social hub’ and is greatly contributing to inter-generational interaction through the hosting of community events. The creation of a youth space in an area of the shop is a wonderful addition.
“This venture has re-ignited the passion people have for the betterment of the village.”
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