Our Meitheal

Below is a guest post by Tracy Keogh.

There is something truly magic about rural places, and especially rural Ireland. It’s an intangible thing.

In trying to explain the 100s of touch points in the building of Grow Remote, one man came to mind — Monsignor Horan. He was an ageing priest who decided he wanted to build an airport in a rural place. He had no money, no permission and no experience in building airports:

This video was shot by our national broadcaster, RTE. Before they arrived, the airport had ran out of money and work had stopped. When Monsignor heard RTE were on the way, he rang the local supplier and asked them to ‘bring down three trucks quick, we’ll say we’re still at it’. Today, that airport brings through 800k passengers through it’s doors who bring a €170million+ spend into the region. Belief combined with action is a brilliant thing, and it’s ingrained in us.

If you watch the documentary, you will see a similar ‘ why’ to ours; “Images of desolation and abandonment had fuelled a feeling of resentment in the west of Ireland”. This is not too unlike the increasing vacancy rates on our main streets, some decades later. This year, the vacancy rates have increased in 19 counties, and this isn’t Covid, this has been a trend for our communities for many years.

The airport was built ‘on a wing and a prayer’, and funnily enough, we have one person in common — Bernard Joyce.

Bernard unintentionally ended up holding the ribbon for the opening day of Knock Airport (we believe he still has it, complete with the signatures of all those who happened to be in the local that evening!). He was also a pioneer in using remote work as a tool for community development, building Ireland’s largest local community of remote workers.

When we began to write this we wanted to mark our second birthday and do something in lieu of our traditional in-person Meitheal. We wanted to list off everyone’s contribution to Grow Remote, but we ended up with the names of 170 people who built us, so our story is probably best told through Bernard’s case.

First, it’s important to know who Bernard Joyce is. He’s the kind of guy who trains the under 16s, runs the local toastmasters, the local environmental group, and supports the local innovation centre. The kind of person every community has — the doer.

We started as people like Bernard, and with us in mind. Through ChangeX, we made public our kit for building local, offline communities of remote workers. People like Bernard could set one up, they just had to give us their motivation and complete five steps.

He started with the motivation: “I started remote working back in the late ‘90’s when there was limited connectivity, digitising drawing for engineering and architectural firms. As a graduate of Rural Development, I strongly feel that remote working is fundamental to building successful, sustainable and resilient communities.”

Bernard partnered with a local bar called Bridge Street. They’re the kind of people who when Covid kicked in, took a look at the allowable areas to see what they would build a business around. They are transforming the high street in rural and regional areas with pubs that have Cappuccino sessions and community spaces.

Out the back of that bar they had transformed an old building into a coworking space. It was there one evening that we walked in to see Siobhan Foody developing a Grow Remote branded ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ flier. It was a very Grow Remote thing — we hadn’t planned to call, we hadn’t asked anyone to design anything. Declan in the bar noticed lots of questions coming into the most recent event, took a note of the most common ones, and Siobhan took it from there. They knew this could help in educating the community.

It so happened that Siobhan’s husband worked for a local paper, and we had great trouble getting local advertising. We would try to advertise Gitlab, Automattic, Doist etc alongside the local job posts but were met with confusion. They wanted to know why were we advertising jobs that weren’t ours? Were these work from home scams? Keith got us media space that allowed us to explain that these were permanent, pensionable roles, and that this could transform our communties.

Bernard started it, Declan supported it, Siobhan communicated it, Keith promoted it. No one planned it.

It was there too, that we saw the full life circle of Grow Remote. A person had been employed remotely for GitHub and came to an event with all 200 cards he was given on his first day. He never had a reason to use them before because all of the local events were for self employed or freelancers (it is said that in rural Ireland you can be self employed, unemployed, or underemployed). He met a local remote worker, and together they planned to hit the kids couch to 5k that weekend — our mission to enable us to work, live, and participate was fulfilled. It was there too, that we found the term ‘hidden employed’.

Sometimes those sessions felt like an Anonymous group — people who were on one off deals for large corporates, who couldn’t speak about it for fear of it being repealed. And of course, the one evening two people met from the same corporate — both of whom were given ‘special permission’ to move home.

For them, they were in awe to hear about the likes of Gitlab, Automattic, etc and all of a sudden, more opportunity opened up for them.

So imagine that case, but multiplied by 139. In the states it’s called barn raising, in Ireland it’s called The Meitheal.

The Meitheal is an old Irish tradition where people in rural communities gathered together on a neighbour’s farm to help save the hay or some other crop. Each person would help their neighbour who would in turn reciprocate. As a collective, on mostly no resources, we achieved:

  • 3 million+ engaged online
  • Empowered 130+ chapters across 17 countries
  • 400+ events ran in local communities making remote work local
  • 10,000+ people have engaged offline at workshops in local communities
  • 7,779 email requests answered regarding remote
  • 40,572 message sent in Slack
  • 221 people trained in the skill of remote
  • 45 one to one sessions with companies on the transition to remote
  • 200+ managers trained in the skill of managing remote teams
  • 93,075 cups of coffee fuelling the community

We know those stats because at some point, we realised we needed to build an organisation so that we could keep up the work. We had to start pitching. And so for the last year we’ve focused on that — the team, the structure, the funding.

We set out 3 goals when we joined Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. Using the analogy of a person we wanted to build:

  • The head — the full time team in Grow Remote who could set the path forward.
  • The legs — the income to keep us going.
  • The core — the processes and procedures to help us deliver.

But there is a point at Knock where Monsignor points out the line on the runway ‘where the government lost heart’. When we were setting our goals for SEI, we hadn’t included our own heart — the simple piece that keeps the whole show on the road, and that’s our Meitheal.

The Meitheal is a concept that is being modernised by the likes of GIY. At GIY, you can plant one type of seed but reap a range of others. The benefit to that, and the old way of The Meitheal is that you get a some clear gratification or reward that is instant, visible, or tangible.

Perhaps the newest version of it is Open Source, but even there, you can track contributions. The contributions in Grow Remote to date have been truly altruistic and ‘anonymous giving’.

At Grow Remote, the reward is longer term and so often, the people who contribute can not reap the rewards until much later. It can be hard to feel the impact as this year contributions happened in silos online, and can often feel like one small part when makers are unable to see the sum total of those individual efforts.

So this year, we wanted to mark our second birthday with just the reward part of The Meitheal, and we’ve listed 170 makers so far to whom a little token of gratitude is on its way.

Thank you to the believers, to those who built and donated to the community, to the makers, to the doers, and of course to each of our 4 doubters.

Thank you to our founders, our funders, our board, and to the team who are now full time on this, who make and take the time to thank others.

2021 is the year for remote, and for it to become sustainable for people, profit and planet. It needs to move from the top 7% and become visible and accessible to everyone everywhere. We need real courage and leadership to not settle until we see a step change in how local economies run.

Next year, we’ll make public our strategy and plans for the coming months and years. We hope you’ll join us and we’re looking forward to bringing our Meitheal back in November 2021