— Ballycotton (@BallycottonIRE) July 31, 2018
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In 1875, a Cork antiquarian named Philip T. Gardiner donated a cross to the British Museum. The item, found in a bog near Ballycotton in east Cork, was an oddity – a jewelled Celtic cross with a black glass jewel which bore an Arabic inscription which may be interpreted as ‘As God Wills’, ‘In the name of Allah’ or ‘We have repented to God’. The question was – how did a Christian cross come to have an Islamic inscription at its centre? But Ballycotton is precisely the kind of place you would find evidence of the collision of worlds – Arab and Christian, sea and land, old and new.
The village itself is a resettlement of an earlier medieval settlement that was lost to coastal erosion, one which features on maritime maps from the 14th and 16th centuries. The bay has long been deemed a safe harbour, and the village has had a long history of battles with the sea – the RNLI vessel the Mary Stanford sits proudly atop the cliff walk, having saved the lives of 122 sailors over her time at sea, most famously during the Daunt Rock lightship rescue in 1936. The village got its name in the papers for another disaster in 1995, when Hollywood legends Marlon Brando, John Hurt, Johnny Depp and Debra Winger were there to shoot Divine Rapture, a film production which collapsed two weeks into filming when it transpired the production firm behind the film had no money. The villagers a sense of humour about the experience, calling the film Divine Rupture, while Pier 26, a gastropub that sits just above the harbour, has a framed letter and cheque from the film’s producers, apologising for the whole mess. The operators of Pier 26 may well have a sense of humour about life – when work started on a dramatic building overlooking their premises, they were convinced that it was an ultra-modern hotel that would put them out of business. In fact, it was to be the home of a local-boy-done-good who would go on to lead a one-man crusade to reinvent the village he grew up in.
Pearse Flynn fished for lobsters as a boy, rising at 5am and baiting traps before heading out on the trawlers. Later he went to Midleton CBS, then on to UCC where he studied applied physics. He went on to work for tech firms like Wang and Compaq, moved to Scotland and specialised in transforming the way companies did their business, like a more benevolent, approachable Steve Jobs, and currently heads up Creditfix.
Unsurprisingly for someone who grew up at the point where a road tapers off into a pier and then into the sea, Flynn was drawn to rural outposts – his call-centre firm Connect4U set up operations in Dingle and Donegal. Flynn was also an early proponent of Last Mile Distribution System, a late Nineties concept that would see wireless broadband for television – because when you grow up in a rural community, you understand that connectivity is key to survival.
The disintegration of the partnership bidding for the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan came as a blow to those of us in rural areas. When you move to the country, you expect changes to your infrastructure – you spend more time in your car, your car spends more time in potholes, and you are suddenly looking after your own water and sewerage. But the one thing you don’t expect is how poor the broadband is going to be (if you are able to get it at all). We tried one satellite provider who promised great speeds and actually delivered lower than 1mbps. We then moved to fixed line broadband, which gave us top speeds of less than 3mbps. We had only moved three kilometres from the town, but our internet speeds had moved back in time to 1999. We could deal with the potholes, the pumps and the poop if only we could watch Netflix without it going into soft focus every few minutes, or if my son’s video games didn’t take a week to download, or if the broadband didn’t just randomly cut out every few hours, meaning that we are constantly hopping from hotspot to hotspot and network to network. We try to make it work, but it is incredibly frustrating, especially for my children who remember what having decent, reliable broadband was like before I dragged them kicking and screaming into the hills.
High-speed internet may not be seen as vital infrastructure, like clean water or electricity, but it is now central to work and home life for the majority of Irish people. Consider Pearse Flynn and how having a local success story like him has impacted the village of Ballycotton – he bought and renovated the Inn By The Harbour and Pier 26, and is linked with a proposed redevelopment of the old Protestant church on the way into the village. He believes in this quaint little village and wants it to thrive. Outliers like him may only come along once in a generation, but we certainly aren’t going to improve that frequency by denying a generation of Irish people access to decent broadband and all the professional and personal opportunities that it offers, and bridging the last great gulf in the urban-rural divide (apart from the crater-like potholes).