Northern Ireland

Rural isolation: Bus providing lifeline for country folk

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Media captionThe bus provides an essential service to those living in rural areas in County Fermanagh

It can be idyllic to live in a rural area of Northern Ireland, but that can mean being cut off from essential services.

But a transport scheme operating in County Fermanagh, one of 11 throughout Northern Ireland, is giving a life-line to people living in the country.

Without the dial-a-bus scheme, May McCaffrey, 72, would be completely stranded. She lives a good distance away from Garrison in County Fermanagh.

To get to her house, you have to make your way up a steep hill and around a long, bumpy lane.

At least once a week, she uses the Fermanagh community transport mini-bus. It takes her to the shops, funerals, social clubs, to collect her pension or see friends and family.

Image caption Driver Roley Livingstone said many people in the area felt isolated

She said: "This bus means a lot to me. I wouldn't get out from Sunday to Sunday if I didn't have the bus to contact and bring me out."

Rural isolation is a big issue for the Department for Rural Development. It launched a £16m Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation framework two years ago.

Among the schemes to benefit, were the 11 community transport projects across Northern Ireland that allow members, who have paid a small joining fee, to book a journey in a bus or car.

The need for rural buses is growing. Banks are closing branches across Northern Ireland.

Libraries have closed in a number of rural areas over recent years, including in Moneymore, County Londonderry and Moy in County Tyrone.

It has been estimated that one in five of Northern Ireland's pubs closed between 2000 and 2013 and the rate is not believed to have slowed down.

Roley Livingstone, a driver with Fermanagh community transport, said many people in the area felt isolated.

But, he said, the bus "gets people together and gets them out to socialise more or less. To meet each other".

A particular problem for parents, disabled or the elderly, is the inability to get to hospital or the doctors.

Eileen Mcgarrigle, 77, has to go from Garrison to the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen for regular checks on her wheelchair.

She is thankful for the cheap bus service and said she would hate to live in a town or city.

Image caption May McCaffrey said she would be stranded without the bus scheme

However, she feels there is an emotional stress that goes with living so far from other people.

"If you were living in the town you'd have always your neighbours to come in to talk to you maybe or, you know, you'd be out and about," she said.

Stephen Henry, 57, moved to Fermanagh last year.

At the time he was a little bit concerned about becoming isolated, but when the estate agent told him there was a community transport service, he decided he could cope.

When the BBC met him, he was making his way to the dentist with toothache.

Without the bus he would have been stranded and in pain: "I wouldn't be able to go because I couldn't afford a taxi."