Tuesday, February 06, 2007

OUTSIDE POLITICS - Not Fáilte but Fan Amach

Con Moriarty is a Kerry mountaineer and a visionary or 'saoi' when it comes to the Irish countryside,its beauty, culture, heritage and landscape. He is pictured on left here in the Magillicuddy Reeks in Kerry alongside the renowned British mountaineer Chris Bonnington.

He is also a good and dear friend of mine. His shop Spórt Corrán Tuathail in Killary is not only an outlet but also serves as a hub for outdoor adventure and appreciation for the whole of South Kerry.

In November 2006 , he wrote an amazing 'from the heart' article about access to the Irish countryside. It appeared in the Irish Examiner. I reproduce it here in its entirety.

by Con Moriarty
SCANNING media coverage debate about access to the countryside in the course of the past couple of months, two words seem to have magicked their way into most of the headlines.

They occur variously, alternatively and, sadly, uniformly.

The first one is payment. The second is its close cousin: compensation.

The use of those words in the debate brings a certain amount of anguish to my heart. For they seem to perpetuate the simplistic storyline that access is an issue that polarises farmer versus walker, as well as dividing the industries of agriculture and tourism.

The cardinal point I would make is that access isn’t the simple issue. You have to look beyond the difficulties experienced by hill walkers and tourists.

And also beyond the compensation for ‘access’ being sought by farmers.

To confine the debate to such narrow ground ignores the significance of the issue for the entire nation of Ireland.

The access issue affects all who seek to engage with Ireland’s natural and cultural heritage. By this, I mean you and me and every man, woman and child; farmer and shopkeeper; archaeologist and fisherman; whale and bird-watcher; tourist and native alike. It’s often distilled down into something of concern only to ‘hill walkers and tourists’. In other words, other people, not us. But does it not touch also on children from Dun Chaoin or from the Black Valley who are doing a school project on an ogham stone or a river bank? They are left in an uncertain state as to whether or not they can leave the public road and engage with their heritage. Indeed, it is being felt in the hearts and souls of every Irish man and woman who might want to get up close to that stone circle or peer over the sea cliff but who feel like thieves for even thinking of jumping over a ditch that displays the ‘Private Property, No Trespassers’ signs.

I grew up in the Gap of Dunloe, amidst a landscape as rural as any in Ireland. Throughout my life I have been inspired by the wild places of my region and beyond. Nature, history, archaeology and culture are important to me as they are, of course, to many others. Personally, I have never experienced difficulties of access to the landscapes I seek to explore, but I am acutely aware that for others, such a privilege is not theirs. I know that each day throughout modern Ireland, a new atmosphere around private ownership has led to unprecedented hostilities. What’s at stake of course are complex issues, tied in with history, sociology, economics, disappointment, poor vision, alienation, and, sadly, greed.

Today and every day, unwitting tourists who have been misled into believing that they are welcome “to explore Ireland’s landscape”, are attacked by decidedly unwelcoming landowners. During the summer, two elderly widows from Orkney were outrageously abused as they strolled the Dingle Way in Corca Dhuibhne. Such incidents happen every week of the year throughout the country. Low-level attacks occur regularly against visitors who have ventured unknowingly onto private land, while the organs of state involved in heritage or tourism, and everyone else it seems, couldn’t give a damn.

However, it’s not only foreigners or hill walkers who face attack and hostility. It includes people who perhaps never walked up a mountain in their lives and who can hardly be classified as tourists in their own parishes. It includes locals who perhaps for years walked to the tower at Ceann Sibeal, picked blackberries down an old bothairín somewhere, or fished along a river bank. They now feel imprisoned, by the “Keep Out” signs of landowners.

Comhairle na Tuaithe, (set up by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív in 2004) has, in my opinion, failed to deliver a worthwhile resolution to this issue.

Overall, Mr Ó Cuív’s appointed group was a rather pathetic effort really where the key farming body involved flexed its muscles, threatening to leave the forum if things weren’t going their own way, if legislation was even mentioned as a way forward. This talking shop was of course just a smoke screen, giving cover to a government too spineless to govern with consideration for the wider good in environment or heritage issues, especially when this meant facing down the powerful farming lobbies, particularly a year out from an election.

When under pressure, dangerous precedents are likely to emerge, where some payments will be granted for access to certain walks that are just a fragment of our overall heritage.

The notion of the nation of Ireland compensating landowners for access to the nation’s heritage becomes particularly absurd when we consider what we might be charged for. What I would like to know is: if we pay a farmer for having the Kerry Way run through his land, do we pay his neighbour for the holy well on his patch? Do we pay the owners of each of the forty five thousand ring-forts on the Irish landscape? Or those in Beara whose cows scratch their bums off stone circles? Or the owners of the bogs that overlay ancient field systems? Do we remunerate the Old Head golf course for allowing old ladies to walk their dogs along the cliffs to the lighthouse? And how much might we pay the owners of Mount Brandon before making a pilgrimage to the sacred peak? What about the owners of Corrán Tuathail in order to stand on the highest point in Ireland? Should naturalists be required to pay so they can carry out field work? Who might artists pay to sketch birds on the slobs of the Shannon? Or what about school groups wanting to study glaciology at Molls Gap? Or to look at rock art in Glencar, photograph Greater Butterworths at Bealach Oisin, rock climb in the Gap of Dunloe or watch whales off Bray Head — Over 95% of Ireland is privately owned. As a landowner myself, I feel deep attachment to my land as my forefathers did before me. I am also aware however, than on these privately owned sections of Ireland, lies 95% of my country’s rich natural and cultural heritage. And today, over eighty years after independence, citizens and guests alike can interact with that heritage solely at the discretion of the landowner.

As a mountaineer, I read various speciality journals from around the world and for over a decade, I followed the debate that raged in Britain before their Countryside and Right of Way Act (CROW) was enacted in 2000. It was a vigorous debate that ultimately legislated for responsible public access to Britain’s landscape while protecting private ownership. This approach contrasts sharply of course with ours. Here we hoped that a ministerial-appointed group with limited representation might deal with our access issue within two years! In Ireland, not only have we not even begun the debate, we talk about it as just a “hill walker and tourist issue”. If things remain as they are, farmers needn’t worry about the foreign walkers any more. Except for the odd stray, that crowd will have long since fled, warned off by walking and fishing magazines carrying covers proclaiming; Irlandais Fermé.

That strange species known as hill walkers haven’t really gone away you know. But they didn’t hang around knocking on our door for too long.

Nowadays, they’re strolling around countrysides throughout the world where vibrant, rural communities want and welcome them, such as France, where gates leading into alpine cow pastures carry friendly signs saying “Bonjour”, and remind walkers to close gates carefully, and even suggest that visitors try local cheeses and other products while in the area! All that is a sad, far cry from the sturdy, laminated Fan Amach! signs that dot our countryside. I could guide you to 50 of these at locations around Kerry today or any day.

1 comment:

James Walsh said...

Hasn't Dev Óg sorted all that out with his plans for rambling routes around the country?