No freedom to roam the Irish countryside


Another Life: My shadow looms a long way ahead of me these mornings, and even a low-sized dog can flourish a notable tail on the road. We walk abroad about 11, for this is when the sun clears the mountain to dissolve its own cold, blue bowl of shade, writes Michael Viney.

The low, fierce beam makes much of fences on the hillside, raising a dense stubble of posts and wire. It deepens the strokes of the Land Commission's striping, and searches between the modern ditches, a mere century old, for earthworks and stoneworks of earlier days. There are sculptured quilts of grassed-over lazy beds that belong in a landscape museum, and broken banks and walls that make no sense without "the old people" who struggled here before the Famine.

The boulders that framed their cabins still make rocky shapes in the rushes. In this light, too, I can trace the raised ditches of the original road, higher on the ridge, and branching rights-of-way by which cattle were driven to the hill. These broad communal paths are now rain-worn, rocky and redundant.

My own way to the hill, should I be up to it, needs only a couple of friendly fences: a known figure, even far off and scattering the sheep. As a local, of sorts, and an oddball, I have a certain licence to roam. But as someone born and reared in England, I do miss the ancient order of that rural landscape, its rights-of-way embedded and secure.

Access to its uplands, however, was sometimes harder won, notably in the Battle of Kinder Scout in Yorkshire (now part of the great moorland trail of the Pennine Way). In the 1930s this was closed off by grouse-moor landowners and big-city water boards, an exclusion challenged by a mass trespass of walkers, many of them cloth-capped workers from the mills. There was some violence and jailings, but also a gradual recognition of the right to roam.

A few years ago, this sort of purpose moved members of Keep Ireland Open to challenge the long-notorious fence that effectively seals off the strand (and, allegedly, a right-of-way) at the foot of Mweelrea Mountain. As a Sunday-afternoon entertainment, the confrontation attracted friends of the farmer from miles around. They lined up their tractors and expressed a vocal solidarity, let us say, with the right to rebuff strangers from one's land. Kinder Scout it was not, but a symbolic flashpoint in the withdrawal of goodwill towards recreational users of the western countryside.

While England and Wales prepare to open up another 1.5 million hectares to public access (this in addition to extensive open areas outside the UK national parks), Ireland persists in what Fintan O'Toole has called "perhaps the most negative and mean-minded regime for walkers in Europe". This is in his introduction to David Herman's brave new booklet, Access to the Irish Countryside. Over the years, Herman has written several of the best guidebooks to Ireland's mountains. He has now given it up, demoralised by angry letters from landowners demanding deletion of walks that cross their land - nearly all of them over rough grazing country - and by the inaction and appeasement of local and government agencies (not to mention, as he sees it, the Mountaineering Council of Ireland). "There is no pretence at having freedom to roam in this jurisdiction," he writes, "and only a sorry pretence at having rights of way." He makes a thorough and fairly even-handed case for freedom to roam over Ireland's marginal rough grazing (where walkers tend to pick the same routes, creating their own paths along ridges), and for rights of way over other terrain.

Freedom to roam would need national legislation, and county councils are empowered to create and maintain signposted rights of way under the Planning Acts.

The access problem, recognised by Bord Fáilte as a "critical issue \ to be solved post haste" was this year passed to Eamon O Cuiv, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. He set up a committee of interested parties, most of whom, says Herman, have agreed that landowners should be paid merely for access - "but the Minister, who would be paying (it certainly won't be Europe) says no."

David Herman has run out of hope of reassurance and persuasion: what's needed, he concludes, is "less carrot and a touch of the stick". An increasing share of the burden of grants to farmers will fall on the Irish taxpayer, he points out, and refusal to allow reasonable access to open land could seem good grounds for withholding them. His booklet has the look of social history in the making.

Access to the Irish Countryside is published by Shanksmare Publications, 41 Meadow Grove, Dublin 16, at 2.50