Saved for the whistle

 

Theaggott Estate, 40-odd acres of heath and wetlands hugging the Limerick city boundary at Ballinacurra, has had many a scrape with modernity. Back in the late 1960s, the general idea was to send the Southern Ring Road motoring through its centre; in the 1970s, there were plans for a spanking new estate of three-bedroom semi-Ds. But the Baggott for years stood firm against the rush of the new: then, last summer, it seemed as if the game might finally be up. With the media in a flap about the housing crisis, the Department of the Environment announced that land was to be serviced in Limerick to allow the building of 3,450 new homes, with the Baggott Estate earmarked as just the spot for 168 of them. For those who had long been charmed by the area, the announcement had the sombre tone of a death knell. But in a neat reversal of the usual trend - the one in which the tag-team of Mammon and demand trample the natural resource - the furious opposition of locals, combined with some deftly applied political pressure, saw the building plan booted out of City Hall.

And to safeguard the estate's greenbelt future, its zoning has just been switched from residential to open space.

Today, if you walk by the Ballynaclough river that borders the Baggott, you'll see men in wellingtons at work. But rather than surveyors preparing a build, they're ecologists weighing up the possibility of establishing the estate as an urban wildlife sanctuary under an innovative new EU programme.

Dick Tobin, senior executive planner at Limerick Corporation, says the City Council was vehement in its insistence that the Baggott should be kept green, and that the EU scheme couldn't have been more timely. "What we're looking at now are natural heritage areas around the city," he says. "We're in the process of designating specific areas for conservation and the Baggott Estate is one of those."

The ecological study is expected to be presented to Duchas, a subsidiary of the Office of Public Works which is overseeing the scheme, early next month. In microcosm, the Baggott might ultimately serve as a useful case study for preserving the little pockets of countryside that survive in and around our urban areas. It is an archetypal "green lung", the presence of which environmentalists and planners insist is vital in keeping the cities at least some way smog-free. But with growing urban economies, and the subsequent pressures of space, areas such as the Baggott Estate have been increasingly under threat. And when you wander around the area, you can understand the developers' thinking. It's an incongruous kind of place to find at the busy verge of a 1990s boom town, somehow out of its time. Though 30 years ago the area was entirely countryside, now the Baggott is hemmed in on three sides - by the Crescent Shopping Centre with its sprawling car park and 12-screen cineplex; by the 1970s-built Ballinacurra Gardens estate (where I grew up), and by the main Ballinacurra road, on which the workers from the docklands offices and the high-tech plants at Plassey inch tortuously home each teatime. Over the Baggott Estate, there is a spaghetti of cables, sifting data for the telecom networks.

Many areas such as this were swallowed in the rush to development in the 1960s and 1970s. When a company called Portland Estates bought the Baggott in the early 1970s, it looked as if its fate was sealed. Eventually, though, planning permission was refused and the Corporation took over the estate with a Compulsory Purchase Order.

It was a tricky enough transaction, however, and ultimately the resulting case wound up in the Supreme Court. When the case was heard in May, 1980, Justice C.J. O'Higgins made some interesting comments about the difficulty of many cases involving green spaces and the hoary old statutes of the property laws. He noted that "clarity of language is remarkably absent" from this area of the law, the statutes apparently having been drafted to suit "an elite cognescenti". Moodily surveying the courtroom, he warned those present they were "embarking on an arduous journey into the obscure".

What often gets lost in the legal murk is the range of social functions greenbelt areas perform. The Baggott, for example, includes three sports pitches, used by the Ballinacurra Gaels GAA club (in whose colours your correspondent once paraded) and the Summerville Rovers and Priory United soccer teams. Limerick city councillor Pat Kennedy, who rounded up some 600 signatures for a Save the Baggott campaign last summer, believes the sporting element is the estate's main benefit.

There are other social aspects, with many local residents walking through the estate every day. Among them is Willie Walpole, who has been roaming the Baggott for most of his 85 years. "I spent my youth on the place, really," he says. "And I'm very glad that it's being kept on. It's a great thing to see the kids out there kicking a ball in the summer evenings and the parents shouting them on. I still walk out by the creek myself and a lot of people around here do the same."

The history of the Baggott Estate is sketchy but colourful. Back in the medieval mists, it was part of Ballinacurra Weston, a tract of land on the southside of Limerick handed over to a Captain Weston after the Cromwellian invasion in the 1650s. Some time around the middle of the 19th century, it was taken over by the eponymous Baggott. It is believed he was a humble enough farm worker from the Mungret area who had emigrated to Buenes Aires and somehow snagged a fortune. On his return to Limerick, he bought the estate and built its centrepiece, a rambling, Victorian house called Fort Green.

The house was announced by a formal and decidedly grand wooded avenue, which survives today and holds a range of tree preservation orders. There were hulking, ironcast gates topped by golden eagles, there were stables and paddocks and a windbreak of oak and ash trees.

After Baggott had moved on, the house was let to a succession of tenants. Willie Walpole remembers "a tan-and-hide man" called McCarthy living there and later a butcher called Barry. There was a Captain Gloucester at some stage too.

By the 1970s, when I was enjoying my scabby-need urchin adventures around the Baggot, Fort Green had been left derelict and was merely a venue for adolescent canoodling. Karl Johnson, the well-known sportswriter who was its last tenant, remembers it differently. "My parents had rented it from around 1938," he recalls, "and after they had passed away, my wife and I lived there from around 1960 to 1962. There was absolutely nothing around the Baggott when I was a kid. You'd walk down to the creek and it was just open countryside. There were cranes and foxes. I remember we kept pigs here during the war and grew fruit in the orchard out back."

Interestingly enough, in Angela's Ashes, the young and hungry Frank McCourt "skins" an orchard out in this neck of the woods. It might well have been the Johnsons.

"That was always an occupational hazard," Johnson says.

Fort Green had a kind of old-time grandeur, with its hilltop setting on the estate lending it a kind of magic. "It was an extraordinary place and it had an indelible effect on me," Johnson says. "I've never forgotten it and it still surfaces in my thoughts. Living there seems to have impinged on my consciousness to a quite astonishing degree."

Not all the family was as taken with the house. "My mother used to call it an unlucky house. I had a brother who died there of TB - these were the days before Noel Browne - and my father died there too. If you heard noises outside at night, she'd go on about the banshee but it was probably just a vixen in heat."

Years after leaving the house, on a return visit to Limerick, Johnson was driving through Ballinacurra one night. "I just thought `what the heck', and I turned up through the woods. It was all derelict by then and it was very dark and still and kind of eerie. I remember standing around by the old house and thinking, `if there's anyone out there . . .' "

Fort Green is gone now, but thanks to people-power in Ballinacurra and some forward thinking in Brussels, it now looks as if the Baggott Estate will survive. At least for the time being, its ghosts can continue to happily roam.