Skibbereen success: Death to small town syndrome

9 Nov 2016

The O’Donovan brothers celebrate their Olympic medal win in Skibbereen. Image: Emma Jervis

Gráinne Dwyer, CEO of the Ludgate Hub, is preparing for the launch of National Digital Week which starts tomorrow (10 November). Ahead of the event, she spoke about the small town formula for success.

In 2015, I came across a very insightful article by Kieran McCarthy about how small communities statistically can produce more top-level athletes than larger urban areas.

The article, full to the brim with science and statistics, provoked my thoughts about rural areas, and small communities, and how they can position themselves to be competitive, to be unique, and to churn out high achievers.

Future Human

As mentioned in the article, Dr Jean Cote, professor of sports science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, conducted extensive research that suggests that someone born in a small town (like Skibbereen) has a better chance of becoming a top sportsperson, compared to someone born in a big city (like Dublin).

It’s called the birthplace effect.

Cote found that the advantage of smaller towns is thought to lie in the easy accessibility of role models, the ‘cultural importance placed on sport’. Smaller towns ‘offer increased opportunities to experience early success in sport’, such as easier access to facilities and less travel time.

Cote’s findings can not only be applied to sport, but to science, the arts, enterprise, and literature. In the case of Skibbereen, a small rural town in the south-west of Ireland, it has a litany of successful ‘high achievers’, often recognised individually, but not often enough as a collective.

Rural ambition

A new rural paradigm is shifting the orientation of rural enterprise, innovation and local accomplishments. Today, successful and sustainable economic development is all about high-value positioning and acting locally – while aiming globally.

Rural areas are typically home to a homogeneous landscape of employment, namely agriculture and fishing. For decades, rural communities have been at the forefront of innovation and enterprise because, quite simply, they had to. When you live in an area with limited resources, an innate ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. Entrepreneurs from rural areas quite often need to innovate or emigrate.

Today, the rural landscape is changing and digital connectivity will pave the way for new economic opportunities through the services sector and through digital connectedness with other industries. Connected communities will give an opportunity to rural areas to be able to compete and trade with the world, and foster innovation and enterprise at local level.

‘When you live in an area with limited resources, an innate ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in’

The start of a new era

Skibbereen is a fantastic community and [we] have labelled ourselves as underdogs for years. The town has a brand new state-of-the-art school, a new arts centre, a bustling town centre, a dedicated community, the fastest broadband and rowers in the country. It is home to internationally renowned festivals, the Skibbereen Arts Festival and A Taste of West Cork Festival.

Combined, Skibbereen has the ambition and opportunity to thrive and prosper and churn out more global champions.

In the case of the O’Donovan brothers, they are now the strong leaders of Skibbereen and will instil inspiration for the younger generations of our local community to work hard and develop their talents. The success of the Olympic champions has lifted the spirits of Skibbereen, adding to an already optimistic environment.

Skibbereen is also home to ‘enterprise champions’ with an impressive list of home-grown enterprises, all who have reached global heights.

Spearline Labs tests global toll-free numbers to 54 countries worldwide from its office on Main Street, Skibbereen, and aims to double their workforce this year.

All successful, fast-scaling companies located [here] are typically exporting over 90pc of their products or services. Technology has enabled routes to trade and exports, but ultimately attitude and grit have paved the way for the globally trading enterprises located in the rural town of Skibbereen.

Ronan Harris, Kevin Buckley

From left: Google Ireland CEO Ronan Harris with Spearline Labs CEO Kevin Buckley. Image: Emma Jervis

Home-grown heroes

The small town with a population of 2,500 has produced many heroes and well-known high achievers.

Skibbereen-born Brian Carmody is a managing partner and co-founder of international production company Smuggler, with offices in Los Angeles, New York and London. Carmody’s company has twice taken home the coveted Palme d’Or, Cannes Lions Grand Prix, Emmy and D&AD Pencils, as well as [participating in] Sundance, London, Berlin and Venice Film Festival Awards.

Skibbereen’s soul star, Brian Deady, has drawn praise from such influential artists as Nile Rodgers and was voted Best Irish Male of 2013 by MTV.

Maurice Healy, founder and chief executive of the Healy Group, has an annual turnover of about €70m, and he donates 20pc of the group’s pre-tax profits to charity each year. Healy was also chair of Philanthropy Ireland and current chair of Traidlinks. Healy has been nominated for EY Entrepreneur of the year.

In science, Prof Séamus Davis, a native of Skibbereen, was selected to receive the Science Foundation Ireland St Patrick’s Day Science Medal in 2016. Davis is highly regarded for his extensive contributions to the physics of quantum materials and is also a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Skibbereen-born Agnes Mary Clerke, who has an indent on the moon named Clerke’s Crater in her honour by NASA, was one of the world’s most respected scientific writers in her field of astronomy.

Percy Ludgate, born on Townshend Street, designed an analytical engine in the early 1900s. While the prototype was never built, it was a blueprint for what would have been the world’s first portable computer. The Ludgate Hub, Ireland’s first rural digital hub in Skibbereen is named after Percy Ludgate in recognition of his achievements.

‘It does not matter where you come from, Dingle, Dungarvan or Drimoleague, every town and every village has a champion’

Community spirit

It is frequently debated that champions are made up of 100pc pure talent, however, it is often said that hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.

I cannot judge if the success of Gary and Paul O’Donovan at the Rio 2016 Olympics is due to talent, hard work or quite possibly a hybrid of both.

One thing that I am sure of, is that they have set the bar quite high for the next generation of champions – sporting, science or any industry – to hail from Skibbereen. They have proven that anything is possible through hard work, determination and grit.

It does not matter where you come from, Dingle, Dungarvan or Drimoleague, every town and every village has a champion.

In the end, success breeds success.

By Gráinne Dwyer

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

National Digital Week returns to Skibbereen, West Cork from 10 to 12 November, expecting over 1,600 attendees for two arenas with over 80 speakers. National Digital Week 2015 was a sell-out, and you can book online for 2016 at, and follow @DigitalWeekIrl and #NDW16 on Twitter for updates.