Another Life: The Wild Atlantic Way? It’s just one view of our landscape

There is a broader, deeper concern for the settings we live in than their money-making potential. Just look at Catalonia’s example to see what’s possible

The wavy white lines of the Wild Atlantic Way proliferate on new road signs all around us – signs that light up in car headlights with such explosive brilliance that the road ahead is quite obscured.

Dazzled, and cursing such misplaced technology, one reflects that the people the signs are meant for – tourists in the better-lit seasons – are unlikely to be following the Atlantic roads at night, at least to our “spur” (more a tendril) off the main route from Donegal to Cork.

We dread the coming traffic of SUVs and motorhomes and the odd errant charabanc attempting to reach the “discovery point” at the foot of Mweelrea, the highest mountain in Connacht. The very narrow road that ends there at the “white strand” (hitherto the Silver Strand, far nicer) has a final, revelatory twist about which, I fear, the need will be felt, in due course, to “do something”.

Such cavils apart I salute the idea of the Wild Atlantic Way and applaud its execution. This is documented, with spectacular photographs, here. It tells of sorting out the route, the local consultation and feedback to refine it and the fascinating themes from coastal life and history.


Defining the Way, however, as the report makes clear, “does not provide a framework for development management or land use planning” along the way. Looking after the views will be left to the councillors and planners.

The Wild Atlantic Way was created by consultants as a brand and a marketing strategy, a culmination of the scenic view of landscape that has prevailed in thoughts about planning for the past 50 years.

With its clear potential for jobs and profit it has had more immediate rural appeal than, say, Europe’s drive to protect natural habitats. Fortunately for wildlife, fine scenery and biodiversity often coincide.

There is, however, a broader and deeper concern for landscape – the settings in which everyone lives, whether in town or country. It is the approach urged in Ireland since the mid 1990s by the Heritage Council, the Irish Landscape Institute and the Landscape Alliance of Terry O'Regan, of Cork. This approach inspired the multinational European Landscape Convention, happily signed and ratified by Ireland in 2002.

Now, at last, there is a draft National Landscape Strategy for Ireland 2014-24 waiting on final completion by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

It doesn't make especially vivid reading, built as it has to be on principles, objectives and actions abstracted to cover a daunting range of interests. Their scope inspired the introduction signed by the last minister, Jimmy Deenihan. "Our landscape," it says, "supports a myriad of cultural, political, ecological, physical, geological, psychological, historical, social and economic processes imbued with meanings and associations. It is a dynamic, multi-functional, multi-dimensional space hosting many forms of life. "

It goes on to embrace landscape’s inspiration of literature, poetry, song and the visual arts, customs, stories, beliefs, mythologies and histories, not to mention “dinnseanchas, or place-lore”. All this, of course, is quite true, and explains the problems of a strategy intended to steer both development of urban housing estates and protection of the Wild Atlantic Way.

A national programme of “landscape character assessment” has been around in draft guidelines since 2000, and it is still a basic intention. So is public participation in landscape goals and design as prescribed in the European Landscape Convention. The most enthusiastic and widely consulted model for this has been developed in Catalonia, the radically self-organised northeastern region of Spain.

First to sign up to the convention, it has a central “landscape observatory” using telephone surveys, doorstep interviews, opinion polls, forum groups, an interactive website and even hour-long chats in farmers’ kitchens to get maximum public participation in the process.

From the feedback I have been charmed to learn that "the aesthetic value of the landscape" is often associated with colours (yellow-leaved birch trees in the autumn in the Pla de Boavi, the colour of the sea in Cap de Creus, the wealth of colours in the Montseny and in the markets of Barcelona), with smells (spring in the Pastures de l'Alt Pirineu, fruit trees in the Horta de Pinyana), with sounds (the peace of the Pyrenees, birdsong in the fluvial landscape of the Segre) or with meteorological phenomena (the sunsets and tramuntana wind of the Plana de l'Empordá, the mist of Lleida, the snow of the Pyrenees).

Catalonia has its holy pilgrimage mountain, Montserrat, and some engaging mythology of place – the minairons are "tiny mythical figures which live inside a needle case and make mountain screes by piling up all the stones of an area in one place." Little people, indeed. Browse on it here.