The trouble with chardonnay conservationists, and other books


ANOTHER LIFEWHEN ITS first, majestic edition appeared, 14 years ago, I described it as an atlas with attitude – this from its weighty protest against the vandalising of the Irish countryside, already well in progress. Digesting the subsequent horrors of the Tiger years, the second edition of the Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape(Cork University Press, €59) verges at times on apoplexy. It rails against “sclerotic engineer-run” local authorities, the failures of “chardonnay conservationists” and planners who “presided over an appalling collapse of landscape quality”. But Prof Kevin Whelan, Ireland’s most acute and passionate rural historian, does more than let off steam.

His essay at the heart of the new edition urges a long-overdue reorganisation of public life, swelling upwards from parish and townland. He also offers a vision for rural landscape and society, led by rediscovering “Deep Ireland”. Philosophically, this “represents seasonal, ritual, communal time rather than biographical individual time”.

More simply it exhorts “renewed respect for the local, the vernacular, the traditional and the distinctive”, not least the spirit that moves within the GAA and the local Tidy Towns committee. As a geographer with a strong economic awareness, Whelan delves into options that make much timely sense, among them more powerful marketing of artisan food to Europe from a “clean, green” Ireland embodied in the image of the traditional family farm.

Our landscape, he says, has been surprisingly forgiving of recent excesses, and as we now have enough new buildings for the next generation the challenge is to “restore and reuse”. But the drive towards a living, characterful landscape, with room for both nature and a human right to roam, will have to find its spark locally – “dragooning, compulsion and adversarial relations with local communities simply do not work.”

All of which eminently fits this great book for the bedside table (plus supportive beanbag) of our new President, whose aspirations to the ideal and those of Whelan are clearly in close accord.

With renewal of at least a third of its content, fresh regional case studies from new young geographers, and even more abundant and revelatory maps and photographs, it is also a definitive synthesis of the countryside, its habitats and its history that belongs in every Irish home and school. The first edition, also edited by Whelan, with the geographer Prof Fred Aalen and the cartographer Dr Mathew Stour, sold more than 21,000 copies. The second edition deserves to do quite as well.

On a far more intimate scale, several new Irish books celebrate the landscape and its people. Co Donegal has inspired two of them. In That Unearthly Valley(New Island, €14.99) the novelist Patrick McGinley recalls his upbringing in Glencolumbkille in the 1940s and 1950s, a glen now largely tamed, if not blitzed, by bungalows and gardens, but then as far back of beyond as most would want to live.

Despite a somewhat twee title and the jacket’s nudge of a match with To School Through the Fields, this is a perceptive, upmarket memoir, rich in exact recall and with ambition to social history.

Along with the era of thatch, slean and pishrogues comes a sharply judged portrait of Fr James McDyer, who had arrived as a dynamic young curate in 1951. Egoist and mythmaker he may, indeed, have been, but his restless efforts for the valley did bring about material progress. However, prods McGinley, as a “dangerously handsome” priest in a haze of Old Spice aftershave, “possibly the role that gave him most satisfaction was that of ladies’ man.”

Also from Donegal comes Space for Natureby Liz Sheppard, whose local newspaper columns on the natural world have delighted readers since the 1980s. She weaves her observations with the story of the family farm at Carnowen, where meadow, new trees and waterways have been beautifully shaped for wildlife. Her naturalist husband, Ralph, took the photographs. It costs €14, including postage, from

In Michael Fewer’s Ireland(Ashfield Press, €25), the island’s most practised walker and guidebook author gathers up the many ways he has been and the wildlife and people he has met. From Dingle, up the west and back around to Waterford the author is, as always, the best of informative company, with seductive illustration at every turn.

In Sand Works(Real Ireland, €9.95), the photographer Liam Blake grabs stunning images from the tide’s edge at Brittas Bay, Magherabeg and Magheramore, Co Wicklow. His 45 abstract patterns, seized from the work of wind and wave, are endlessly evocative and matched to inventive haiku by Tony Curtis. A lovely stocking extra for the aesthete in your life.

Eye on nature

On holiday recently in the Rhine city of Rüdesheim I took the chairlift to the vantage point over the town. On the way back down I passed, on his way back up, a buzzard perched majestically on the cable. Lazy sod, I thought.

Eoin C Bairéad, Dublin 6W

Every morning when I feed our chickens the crows and pigeons gather on the nearby trees. A few minutes later they are enjoying the hen’s feast. Any solution for these ambushes?

Liam Canning, Glencolumbkille, Co Donegal

Try feeding them in an enclosed area covered with net wire, or get a commercial feeder.

I noticed a greenfinch looking very puffed up and slow to fly. Next morning I found him dead, and later a dead sparrow. Both birds looked healthy.

Eileen Warke, Naas, Co Kildare

Last year greenfinches and other birds were dying because a parasite blocked the bird’s throat, killing them by starvation. Clean all bird baths and feeders and move them to another part of your garden.

Reports keep coming of unseasonable bloomings: geraniums, hydrangeas, gladioli and pansies in Donegal; a wild garlic flower in Howth; strawberries flowering again in Mayo.

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