Do road shrines pose risks? Roadside memorials are encountered all over the country

 

Local authorities have sympathy with families erecting memorials to road victims but, writes Kieran Fagan, they like to be consulted

The simple black cross at the roadside , the stone tablet attached to the parapet of a narrow bridge, the headstone in the grass verge with a posy of fresh flowers lovingly placed in front, the tableau of near life-sized statues . . . as you drive the roads of Ireland you meet them all.

Is what you see a touching and heartfelt tribute to those who lost their lives in tragic accidents, a valuable reminder that on average about one person a day is killed on our roads - or an unauthorised blot on the landscape, possibly putting others at risk by distracting drivers at accident black spots?

Only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by the inscriptions on the roadside memorials:

"In loving memory of our children Luke and Helen Power who drowned here on 29 July 1993, aged 16 and 13 years" - Gorey, Co Wexford

"All the world would be like heaven if we could have you back again" - commemorating the death of Noel Moynihan, age 19, in Co Kerry car accident)

"Three friends gone to Heaven together, sadly missed by your Fathers, Mothers, Brothers, Sisters and Family" - William Lewis Reilly, Paddy O'Reilly and Paddy Kiely are commemorated in headstones on the N4 near Lucan, Dublin, where the crash occurred on November 30th, 2001

"In loving memory of Elizabeth O'Brien, John Harrington, Robin Coffey and his wife Mary, Michael Coffey and his wife Patricia, all of Ballyspillane, Killarney, who died 16th April 1995" - halfway between Farranfore and Castleisland, this memorial records six fatalities

As you travel west and south from Dublin, the incidence of roadside memorials rises. Jerry Cremin, whose website Irish Roadside Memorials (www.iol.ie/~roadside/) lists more than 570 throughout Ireland, is not surprised. "Historically we've tended to have more public shrines in the west and the south, and the accident memorials follow that pattern."

His site, though not exhaustive, is very comprehensive. It shows high incidences in Galway and Cork, and heavy concentrations on routes south and west from the capital, through Tipperary, Kildare, Laois and Kilkenny, but also on side roads.

Cremin has set himself the task of photographing the memorials, recording inscriptions and locations, including Ordnance Survey map references, and classifying them by county. "It's an Irish take on a wider phenomenon," he says.

"Roadside memorials are common in many countries - usually wooden crosses, simple and temporary. The difference here is our road accident victims are often commemorated with elaborate plaques and monuments, adorned with photos and inscriptions. I see myself as keeping the record, that's all.

"It's important to name names and places, so that the living have the comfort of knowing that their people are not forgotten. A passerby, friend or stranger, might say a prayer for the dead, as we often do in Ireland.

"Memorials warn us to take more care. And you know that as roads are improved and accident black spots eliminated, some of the memorials are less publicly placed than they used to be."

This point is echoed by Christine Flood, a senior executive officer in Wicklow Co Council's transportation and roads department. Many of the county's memorials are on stretches of the original N11 (Dublin-Wexford road) which are bypassed as the road is improved to motorway standard.

How does the council regulate the memorials? Can anyone put up a memorial anywhere? What about planning and road safety?

"In general we try to handle these memorials sympathetically," says Flood. "People write to us saying they want to commemorate a loved one. We'll specify shape and size, and suggest a suitable place.

"We need to make sure that visitors to the memorial are safe and that the site does not constitute a traffic hazard. The roads overseer and the engineer in charge check things out. We don't encourage people to put them up at random."

What if a memorial suddenly appears on the roadside? "The roads overseer will occasionally come across one being erected and have a quiet word with the family. People are grieving for loved ones and we respect that. They understand our problems too and they see we are trying to help."

The National Safety Council believes that memorials do a public service in reminding us that people can lose their lives on our roads.

"Provided they don't provide a further road hazard, we see no harm in people in commemorating their loved ones in this way," says spokesman Brian Farrell. He points to the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, which exempt roadside shrines and memorials less than 2 metres high, subject to not causing a hazard to public safety.

More than 570 memorials are recorded on the Roadside Memorials in Ireland website. Each records the day of the week on which the tragedy occurred. The visitor will soon note the high number which took place at weekends.

We asked Galway Co Council about the Oranmore memorial which has aroused some comment because of its scale, but it has not responded.