Another Life: When Dickens and Darwin meet on the Wild Atlantic Way

‘Ecological clerk of works’ is an unfamiliar job title. But the clerks look after the discovery points on Fáilte Ireland’s coastal route

Enchanted by the sudden photo opportunity, one parks in the lay-by with the tail well in and steps out, summer shod, into a black and permanent puddle. Its fringes are littered with takeaway cartons (because the bin is overflowing) and the odd sad Sunday-night condom. The view is framed by clustering B&B signs and flowering spires of Japanese knotweed. There is, perhaps, a stack of concrete blocks for a picnic table and even a few more to sit on. One drives off, one foot squelching, to try the next “discovery point” along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Such, in my warped imagination, might have been the nightmare vision of consultants who framed the Way's sSite- Mmaintenance gGuidelines for Fáilte Ireland. Their injunctions to the local authorities along the route's 2,500km (with 159 discovery points) are clearly informed by experience and example, as in some of their photographs. Meticulous, aesthetic, ecologically admirable, the guidelines introduce me also to an unfamiliar job title, the ecological clerk of works.

I like the wedding of Dickens and Darwin the title could suggest. That brands me as out of touch, obviously, as Google offers many utterly modern, expert, well-resourced consultants eager for the job. Among them, as illustration, is Aebhín Cawley, who is currently managing “ecological aspects” of Galway City Transport Project. She has an honours degree in zoology from Trinity College Dublin, a postgraduate degree in physical planning and professional qualifications that trail her name with novel acronyms. So nothing at all Dickensian there.

At the discovery points along the Wild Atlantic Way the local authority must retain an ecological clerk of works “to advise on and monitor works associated with construction, demolition, resurfacing and/or drainage”. Thus an eagle eye on the site’s natural setting and habitat conservation: no dire legacy of digger tracks, gravel piles, banks spilling over the car-park boundaries, or hedges hacked in June.

Such small points of promise can be set against the current confusions of government. Heather Humphreys, hitherto minister for Arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht, is now Minister of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht, with two juniors to help out.

Where “heritage” comes in the heap is unclear, but support for the Heritage Council did appear in the partnership programme for government. And nature should be relatively safe in the keeping of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, its corner in Humphreys’s domain well guarded by the needs of the EU habitat directives.

Fáilte Ireland, now marketing the charms of both west and east coasts, is in full appreciation of the worth of ecotourism, so those concerned for landscape and wildlife could feel marginally more hopeful. There are also many 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. A draft national landscape strategy published by the previous government is still in Humphreys’s bailiwick, but its real impetus must rest at local level.

How to use official systems in getting good things done is the stuff of a “national landscape forum” at University College Cork next Thursday and Friday ( Open to all, it is hosted by UCC’s centre for planning education and research and joined by Landscape Alliance Ireland, led by Terry O’Regan, a veteran campaigner in the cause.

Meanwhile, the invasive Japanese knotweed yields to a first spraying along Co Mayo’s coastal roadsides, and the county has also been adding notably to a vernacular literature generated in promising sections of the Wild Atlantic Way.

Michael Cusack of Westport has climbed the Reek more than 100 times, so his Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay: A Guide to the Edge of Europe is informed by lifelong footfall and curiosity. For that amazing view of the drumlin swarm of Clew Bay, he offers not only a name for every island but often a human history of occupancy stretching back before the Famine.

At Mayo's north coast the dramatic promontory of Downpatrick Head has been the playground and passion of Donal McCormick, of Lacken, for some 80 years. His book, The Road to Downpatrick, began as a memoir and local history put on paper for his grandchildren, but it suddenly found new purpose with the launch of the Wild Atlantic Way. Downpatrick, with its great sea cavern and the towering stack of Dún Briste, offers the focus for many outstanding photographs.

Both books, indeed (each at €14.95 from several online sources), show the polish of local production now matched to the rich vein of record and narrative in Ireland’s coastal communities.

For all its off-putting chatter about “products”, Fáilte Ireland can be pleased with these.

Michael Viney's Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from