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Ireland's Urban Poor Are Lured to Countryside : Europe: Program has resettled 194 welfare families in rural villages. There are many successes, but it's not for everyone. So far, 29 families have returned to cities.


KILMIHIL, Ireland — Fleeing with her family from the crime, drugs and poverty of Dublin, Sharon Murray was at first a fearful pioneer in an experiment to resettle the urban poor in rural western Ireland.

The wind howled in winter. With no buses and no car, she had to hitchhike to buy food. The thick country accent was hard to understand, and relatives were far away in the bustling city.

"You'd put your nose out the door [at night] and it would be pitch black," the 29-year-old mother of three recalls.

A year later, Sharon Murray and her husband, Larry, are off welfare and have steady incomes and a new rented home. Their children are thriving.

"Now I have a car, Sharon has a car and I've opened a shop," said Larry Murray. "Everyone's so friendly here. In Dublin, you keep to yourself; here, you can't."

They are among the 194 families that have been helped to move to rural villages, mostly in sparsely populated western Ireland.

Not everyone adjusts to country life. So far, 29 families have returned to cities, disillusioned with country life, lonely or even split by the strain. Continued problems with drug and alcohol abuse contribute to some failures, said Paul Murphy, who runs the program, Rural Resettlement Ireland.

But 3,650 families are on the waiting list to move west, waiting four years or more for their turn.

Rural decline is widespread in Europe. The number of farm workers in the 15-member European Union has fallen by 5 million since 1975, largely due to mechanization. As young people leave the countryside for better opportunities, so do shops, services and schools.

The resettlement program was the brainchild of Jim Connolly, a sculptor who works on a wild, windswept finger of land between the River Shannon and the Atlantic. He wondered why this beautiful but empty landscape couldn't be filled with poor families from overcrowded Dublin.

Work is scarce, but there isn't much in cities either, Connolly thought. Ireland's unemployment rate is 14.6%, the second worst in the European Union after Spain.

"In a thunderbolt it hit me: The dole [unemployment payments] was the key. I realized that unemployment is part of life in Ireland--300,000 people are on the dole," Connolly said. "People in a no-hope situation can move and have nothing to lose."

They can receive welfare just as easily in rural areas, and give their children a clean, safe environment and uncrowded classrooms--and perhaps improve themselves, Connolly decided.

When he shared his idea on a popular radio talk show in 1990, the response was immediate. Families packed their bags and some turned up unannounced at the bus stop in his village. Connolly found houses for them.

He says the "blow-ins"--as newcomers are nicknamed--are reinvigorating western Ireland.

"It's like dropping a pebble in a pool," Connolly said. "The ripples go out in all directions as the families begin to integrate. They spend money at shops, contribute to music, drama and youth groups. Their children keep schools open."

But Kate Ryder, a researcher at Queen's University of Belfast who is studying the program, said the economic benefit to villages appears to be slight.

"The only thing that I felt was benefiting was maybe the local shop . . . but not really anything other than that," Ryder said.

Dole checks average 125 pounds ($200) a week, and 61% of recipients pay rents of 21 to 30 pounds ($34-$50) a week; most of what is left goes for food, heat, light, transportation and telephone calls, she said.

Murphy, the program's administrator, counters that resettled families have brought an extra $2 million to the areas where they have been resettled, including $960,000 spent to buy houses this year.

The arrival of new families also has kept village schools and churches open, and required the hiring of extra teachers.

Despite significantly higher rents and food prices, poorer housing and services, all 30 settlers surveyed in a 1993 study viewed moving to western Ireland as beneficial.

In five years, Rural Resettlement Ireland has grown from a corner of Connolly's back porch to a portable office in Kilbaha, on the top of Loop Head, 160 miles west of Dublin.

Three-quarters of administrative costs are paid by the Irish government. Donations, mostly from the United States, cover the remaining expenses. The American Irish Fund, headed by Tony O'Reilly, chief of H.J. Heinz Co., is expected to contribute $100,000 this year.

The office is run by Murphy, a former Dublin bus driver whose family was the second to be resettled by Connolly. Now, the only traffic jam he sees is a herd of cows.

Murphy matches landlords who had despaired of renting vacant houses with urban families. The numbers underscore the challenge: In 1841, before the potato famine, Loop Head had 13,000 people. Just 1,300 people live there now.

Despite the high vacancy rate, Murphy said his job was tough at first. "It's easier now that 'blow-ins' have settled and been accepted. Landlords used to ask, 'Are they on drugs?' and 'Will they rob us?' "

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