Monday, July 27, 2015

Viewpoint: Should we go back to the Big Tree?

They cut down the Big Tree in Kilcullen in the early 70s, writes Brian Byrne. 'They' being Kildare County Council. Without a by your leave, without any kind of what today would be called public consultation. Without even putting up a notice on the tree to say what they planned.

Which was an irony. Because the Big Tree, located where is now the entrance to Conroy Park estate, had for probably hundreds of years been the village notice board.

The contractor who cut it down in an early morning operation found that out to his cost. In the subsequent 'slicing' of the massive trunk, he broke chains regularly on his saw from the hundreds of nails it encountered. They were buried through it, covered by years of successive new rings of bark. I acquired some of that timber to fuel my home fire over later years, and found many of them too.

We can surmise the range of things the notices and posters might have announced. 'Wanted' notices for those required to answer for their crimes were probably among them. Indeed, some local people recall the Big Tree being known also as the 'hanging tree', so some serious miscreants whose doings were posted might have ended up swinging beside their own posters.

Of course, there would have been lots of other news on the tree. Con acre to let, items for sale, auctions, official notices of forthcoming courts, possibly some casual work opportunities, maybe even timetables relating to the coaches which used to change their horses at the stables up where Nicholastown Green is now.

This was all before internet social media, before TV, before radio, before telephones, and even before when newspapers became available for many to buy. But people at least had a central point in the village where they knew they could find essential information.

Today we have the plethora of electronic and print information sources which literally bombard us with news, notices, advertisements, gossip, entertainment, argument, sport, and much more on a 24/7 basis. It also lets anybody and everybody contribute to the remorselessly endless stream. Life has become like a radio discussion where everyone is talking at once and nobody can, or wants to, hear anybody else.

An unintended consequence is that important stuff can get lost in the noise, if not the cacophony. Well, let's be blunt. It does get lost.

I'm prompted to all this by a motion that's to be discussed in Kildare County Council today, put forward by Cllr Fiona McLoughlin Healy (who has a Kilcullen connection in being married to Bernard Healy). Stripped of motionese, she's saying that lots of people don't know stuff that Kildare County Council is doing. Especially when it's something that requires public consultation.

The thing is, local authorities still, to a large extent, depend on fulfilling their statutory obligations of notices to the public simply by placing an advertisement in the local papers. Sometimes they will also take out radio advertisements. And they may nowadays put a press release in the news section of their websites, and might also put a link to that information on their social media accounts. For key matters, such as development plans, these notices will direct those interested to view them either in the Council offices or your local library.

Which is all very well, and indeed it has to be said the embracing of modern digital media by Kildare County Council has in some ways been a leader to other local authorities around the country.

But all that depends on readership at newspaper level, or 'likes' or 'followers' on social media. And if we look at these, how successfully our own local authority actually gets engagement from the people it serves might need some evaluation. Which is part of what Cllr McLoughlin Healy's motion is all about.

Local newspaper penetration has declined dramatically over the last decade, especially in counties around Dublin to where city families have migrated in great numbers and who don't have, and generally don't develop, an allegiance to a local paper. So-called 'free sheets' typically don't get the same level of attention and scrutiny that a paid-for paper will garner.

Local radio has arguably a much greater 'reach' to the population of, in our case, County Kildare. But radio by its nature is 'written on the wind' and unless expensively repetitive advertising is used, a local authority's public consultation message is not likely to be effective.

Those traditional media will also pick up on some of those matters and do news or features on them. This is probably where more attention is gathered. But page- and air-space is limited, and only 'sexy' — bluntly, controversial — stories will be prioritised.

Facebook and Twitter are the 'sexy' communications media at the moment, but they're very noisy with 'me' chatter, and even if 'liking' or 'following', it isn't clear if a relatively dull announcement about a public consultation will catch the attention of any of those ostensibly connected with the Council. It certainly won't get to anybody who hasn't connected.

As a point of context, if we take it that there's a population of some 210,000 in County Kildare, the Council's Facebook account has a mere 1,715 'likes', and its Twitter followers are rather, but not greatly, better at over 3,000. Neither penetration levels look useful.

So, back to my Big Tree, should our local authority be looking at that heritage for keeping in touch with the people it serves?

I've been in the communications business for most of four decades. In that time I've written, photographed, broadcast and published on a variety of print, radio, TV and internet platforms. And still do. I've been a local, national and international journalist, done PR — hated it — and communications training. But one of the things I still do most every day is walk down the street of Kilcullen and look at the notices in the windows.

That's where I get much of my information and heads-ups for the Diary, and for my 'Down and around in Kilcullen' page in The Kildare Nationalist.

That's where the core of local communication is. And, I believe, that's where Kildare County Council should be looking at, in the various communities it serves.

Everybody in those communities goes to their local shops, their Post Offices (if they still have them), or at least walk the streets of their village or town. And they always look at posters and notices in the windows they pass. So there's a case to be made that the Council should also put their important notices directly in the communities that are particularly affected.

We don't have the Big Tree in Kilcullen any more. As I said, the same Council cut it down. And, as it happened, caused my first published piece, an angry one on the back page of The Bridge, entitled 'The Big Tree is Dead'. I haven't stopped writing since.

But Kildare County Council could be a leader in the country, even in this digital age that I am very much a part of, by establishing a protocol that physical notices be published directly in the communities which they affect. In those shop windows, Post Offices, or — better — even in dedicated noticeboard facilities on the street.

It goes against the whole trend towards digitising everything in our lives. But it might actually be better communication to all of us.

And I might even forgive them for felling the Big Tree ...