Another Life: Notions of landscape liable to produce divergent opinions

The Wild Atlantic Way offers soothing views of an infinite horizon, while driving very slowly and never checking the mirror

‘Where the River Shannon Flows’ was a best-seller in 1940. Illustration: Michael Viney

‘Where the River Shannon Flows’ was a best-seller in 1940. Illustration: Michael Viney


The new logo on our road signs had me puzzled for days. Wavy white lines on blue – what was that about? Narrow, wiggly, bumpy roads? Fair enough. Good surfing? Not that way, into the mountains. Eventually it dawned – we’re now part of the Wild Atlantic Way.

That must be why they’ve mended all the potholes and why the grassy-spined boreen down to the strand, clearly just wide enough for one careful driver, has a big, new speed limit of 50km/h.

So now, summoned for a check-up at our distant centre of excellence, it is wisest to leave before breakfast to beat the camper vans into Doolough Pass and, come August, best to stock up with a month’s supply of everything and close the gate behind us, grateful for the summer mufflement of trees.

It was the Romantics, said Bertrand Russell (in his History of Western Philosophy) who shaped the wild taste in scenery – a revolt of passion and individualism against a world of stultifying peace and quiet. Up to Rousseau, he argued, the admired rural landscape was “a scene of fertility, with rich pastures and lowing kine”. But then dramatic and untamed scenery took over the poets and novelists and “almost everybody nowadays” – this from Russell in 1945 – “prefers Niagara and the Grand Canyon to lush meadows and waving corn”.

Since Russell, a warming world has seen great changes. Spectacular chasms and rushing torrents are no longer the passionate metaphors of literature, but physical threats of things to come. Meanwhile, the Wild Atlantic Way offers soothing views of an infinite horizon, while driving very slowly and never checking the mirror.

But what of the island’s interior, still mostly under human command? Just published, and largely ignored by the media is the Government’s Draft National Landscape Strategy. It comes a decade after signing the European Landscape Convention and 20 years of native agitation and advice, most cogently from from the Heritage Council and, on the sidelines, from Terry O’Regan, the crusading landscape architect from Cork.

A speaker at one of his landscape conferences in the 1990s offered a tempting but cynical thesis: “Basically, landscape planning means that those of good taste, or hopefully of good taste, tell those of bad taste or none what they may or may not do.” But the European convention was heavy on subsidiarity – taking decisions at the most local level possible. Along with pulling together all the government and sectoral interests in the landscape, much of the Irish effort has gone into cultivating trust among “stakeholders” defending their local views, trees and hedges.

The passing years have brought good successes in local management of landscape, land use and heritage, as in the Wicklow uplands, the Burren, Bere Island, the Great Western Greenway and many locally-negotiated walking trails. But rows over wind farms and pylons continue to warrant a fully developed landscape policy.

We seem little nearer to deciding how landscape should be described – at least in terms that bureaucracy feels it can use. It is 14 years since local authorities were charged with preparing landscape character assessments – factual appraisals, to eschew any notions of beauty or other aesthetic ranking. Many counties, indeed, did their best (Co Meath’s is one worth reading online) but developing “a national landscape character assessment” is still a heartfelt wish listed in the strategy document.

Meanwhile, a new book recalls the Irish landscapes of the mid-20th century, as conjured then in the up-beat prose and lyrical narratives of an industrious travel writer from Belfast. Romancing Ireland (Lilliput, €25) is a biography of Richard Hayward (1892-1964), whose nine books about the island’s counties and regions introduced a largely unknown Ireland to the British and, indeed, to the still-unsettled Irish.

One of them, Where the River Shannon Flows, still in demand on eBay today, was a best-seller on its appearance in 1940, “with critics seeing it,” as Paul Clements writes, “offering escapism from the war”. He quotes an enthusiastic Maurice Walsh in this newspaper: “Hayward folds you in friendly tentacles and carries you along.”

The Irish landscapes of his time held untidy but intensely busy mixed farms, still revolving around horses and served by dusty roads and drab, one-street country towns with too many pubs. Hayward recruited its storytellers and sought out the ruins and monuments of the countryside, then stranded in fields without benefit of OPW care or public provenance. He had a cameraman or illustrator in tow – among them Belfast’s Raymond Piper – and much knowledge gleaned from enthusiastic travels with field clubs and “antiquaries”.

Hayward was also gifted – if sometimes overflamboyantly – as pioneering film-maker, actor, singer and broadcaster. Paul Clements, himself an accomplished travel writer, has made a vivid story of the man and his time. Among the tensions of the young Free State and “The Emergency” he contributed, says Clements, “a cosy and unthreatening narrative to the construction of an Irish cultural world”. EYE ON NATURE YOUR NOTES AND QUERIES While fishing on Lough Corrib on July 6th we noticed eight white birds wading in the distant rough and assumed that they were little egrets. But when they flew past we saw that the trailing legs were coloured red or pink, not black like the little egret.

– Niall O’Donoghue, Knocknacarra, Galway. They were southern cattle egrets, in breeding leg colour, that have been migrating here in recent years. They were seen in Donegal and Wexford last year and in Down and Wexford this year.

This fly, about the size of a bumblebee, flew into my kitchen [photo enclosed]. It was black with a band of peach on its back and a black band on its wings.

– Winnie Keogh,Rathfarnham

It was a pellucid hoverfly, Volucella pellucens. It is found all over Ireland since 1970 and flies from June to September.

I wondered if this dragonfly was a black-tailed skimmer, Orthetrum cancellatum. He had a blue abdomen with a black tip, and was quartering his territory at Lough Lene, Co Westmeath [photo enclosed].

– Susan Flynn, Ballybrack, Co Dublin Yes it was a male black-tailed skimmer.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo. Please include a postal address

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