Ireland day 0130. Saturday 05 February 2022- Open
This morning I was faced with a dilemma. Should I do the fun thing, or should I do the right thing?
Let me explain what I mean by “fun” and “right”. Well, the “fun” thing was an exciting-sounding walk around the local summit of Djouce (a mountain, not a person), with a jolly group from the Dublin Walking Club. Set against this, the “right” thing was to go to the five-hour AGM of the “Keep Ireland Open” campaign group, in a hotel in Dublin.
After quite a lot of soul searching, I decided to do the “right” thing. The reasons being firstly that I have been bemoaning the lack of public access to Ireland’s countryside, so I felt I needed to put up or shut up – and this meeting was probably my best (and maybe only) opportunity to put up. The other being that I thought Djouce would always be there, so I could make my own visit at some point in the future.
I have to say that in normal circumstances, the prospect of being stuck in a room with people I didn’t know listening to five hours of debate about subjects I didn’t understand would not fill me with eager anticipation. But a bit to my own surprise, I thought the meeting was absolutely excellent, and really interesting. My thanks to the Dublin Walking Club for letting me know that the event was on, and then to Keep Ireland Open for inviting me.
On hearing the meeting reports about the travails of campaigners trying to deal with access issues right across Ireland from Donegal to Wicklow, I realised that the situation here is actually even worse than I thought. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland has some of the worst public countryside access rights in Europe. The CROW [Countryside and Rights of Way] Act 2000 in England and Wales and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 [ which created the Right to Roam] are seen as gold standards in legislation, whereas here in Ireland, no such legislation exists and frustrated hillwalkers can only gaze in envy across the Irish Sea.
Most of the paths that walkers use in Ireland are “Permissive”, which means that landowners could withdraw access at any time. The popular path up Croagh Patrick for example, passes over six landowners’ properties, and any one of them, at any time, for any reason, could withdraw access and close the path, and there would be very little that anyone could do about it.
I wouldn’t pretend to be able to diagnose the problem here in Ireland, much less propose solutions. But I think there’s a lot of history involved, and a large dose of culture too. I’ve noticed that walking in the country isn’t really such a big “thing” here as it is in the UK. So that means that there isn’t a huge demand from the public in general to access the countryside for recreation. You might say it’s chicken and egg – if there’s no supply then nobody even thinks about creating the demand – and there’s an element of truth in that. But the brush off I got from the Irish Ramblers Club when I applied to join (along the lines of “sorry – our membership is full and you can’t join the waiting list“) made me realise that there just isn’t the same widespread attachment to countryside as there is in the UK. Funny how such different attitudes can evolve even when they are only separated by a few kilometers of sea.
Just as there seem to be cultural issues about public interest in the countryside, there is a vastly different (and probably politically-charged) attitude to land ownership here too. Landowners tend to see their land as almost integral to who they are, a part of their birthright, and certainly not something to be shared with anyone else. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong – it’s just different to what I am used to.
Then layered on top of these cultural and ownership issues are legislative difficulties and public liability problems. I think landowners, with some justification, can’t see any merit at all in allowing members of the public to trample over their land. Quite aside from the risks to crops and livestock, access needs to be maintained and if it isn’t, expensive lawsuits could follow. Maybe more enlightened landowners might some time see the commercial benefits in allowing access – as often happens alongside long distance paths in the UK where cafes, pubs and B&Bs seem to spring up, maintained by the steady supply of willing customers walking right by. But there doesn’t really seem to be any widespread desire to go down this route.
Unbelievably, I learned that people living in the countryside often actually have less access to open spaces for walking than people living in cites. In the country, in many parts you can’t go into the hills or fields or even, quite often, the coast. So if you want to go for a walk, you have to hike down a public road, dodging the traffic. At least city dwellers have access to public parks. It made me realise that with the big open beaches and coast path, here in Malahide we are actually very fortunate.
The KIO organisation has successfully led a number of campaigns to re-open paths that have been closed by landowners for various reasons. But such successes as there have been were hard-won, almost always after costly legal battles, and only after many years. Disputes sometimes have to be resolved in the Supreme Court and in one case, even at the European Court of Human Rights. But it’s all ad hoc, and winning one case doesn’t seem to create a precedent for winning any others. There has been no pivotal moment like the Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932 which began to set the tone for the newer legislative frameworks which subsequently emerged in the UK.
So I admired the dogged determination of the committee – and I did wonder if the public pressure for external recreation might increase post-pandemic. But it’s an uphill struggle. You might well be asking at this point – well – did I feel inclined to join the campaign? The answer is that I was caught in another dilemma. On the one hand, I love walking in the countryside and wish i could do it more easily here in Ireland. But on the other, the English have a long and not always happy history of wading into Irish internal affairs and I’m not sure that my presence would necessarily be helpful. Plus the fact that I’ve only just stepped down after four years on the National committee of a UK based walking association and I could foresee considerable domestic disharmony if I signed up to join another one. So for the time being, with a slightly guilty conscience I admit, I decided against it.
So that was all a bit mentally exhausting and as a reward I decided to head off and try and find a small independent Dublin bookseller I’d heard about – called “Books Upstairs”, because I wanted to get hold of a copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. I alluded to this yesterday, as I have decided that if I am ever going to read this epic work of literature, then now, when I am living in Dublin and on the centenary of its publication – must be the time.
I duly managed to find the shop – it was only five minutes walk across the river from the hotel – and it’s delightful. A really “proper” bookshop, with nothing pretentious about it at all. Heaps of books on tables and stairs, and propped up on the floor. They sell both new and second hand books and after a long discussion with the lady on the desk, selected a second hand copy of Joyce’s book – which was actually the only one they had that included explanatory notes. It’s such a difficult read, I am told that unless you have some form of notes to guide you through what is happening, you will be completely lost.
Well – what a day. And did I make the right choice this morning? Well yes, certainly in terms of learning so much and meeting a whole load of interesting new people. And also I did somewhat smugly note that the weather outside during the meeting was distinctly dreich – one of the worst days we’ve had since coming to Ireland, in fact – so I was quite glad that I had left the exploration of Djouce to another – and hopefully drier- day.
Today’s photos (click to enlarge)