An Irishman's Diary
We are now immersed in tribunals which daily cause newspaper editors to relegate chainsaw massacres to the sports pages and despatch rural outbreaks of cannibalism to the cookery columns. Logically, this discovery of corruption and fraud should be causing a vast cleansing process of the body politic, and a reform of the entire Irish planning process (to the sound of breaking bones from the Serengeti that is Flood and Moriarty, as the peckish jackals of the Bar and the newsroom devour the fallen beasts of yesterday). A quiet and kindly symmetry should accordingly have fallen over the councils of Ireland. Planners and councillors everywhere would sit down with concerned communities, would listen to their worries, and would adjust development projects so that they have a manageable relationship with what already exists.
But that is not the case. Since I broached the subject of plans to turn Ballymore Eustace into Bally Moreliketallaght, residents of small communities across Ireland have been in touch, in despair at how they can halt the destruction of hamlet, village and market town by developers. The ordinary processes of democracy either do not work or have been subverted. When county managers and officials try to stick to the county plan (as they famously did in Fingal) they are outvoted by local councillors. When local councillors rally to the defence of a community, they are ignored by county officials who plead this development plan or that government edict. It almost seems to be a question of heads the developers are laughing all the way to the bank, or tails, oops, there go the developers again, this time on their way to the bank.
There are a number of obvious questions here. One is the amount of land that is rezoned at any one time on the outskirts of an existing community; with economic growth almost unparalleled in Europe this century, land zoned is land built on. To zone a large amount of land next to a small rural community is rather like that small community saying yes to sexual intercourse. The outcome is the same.
The issue, alas, is not just the numbers: across Ireland, more so now even than in the 1980s, there is a plague of unsympathetic house-building, as if a mad surgeon had stolen in during the night and excised the vulgarity-detector from the popular imagination. This is perplexing among a people who, over the centuries, built both carefully and to precepts which stood the test of time. Yet now, apparently, those precepts have been excised, and in their place have been transplanted the ostentatious standards of a California suburb. Across the country one can seen developmental eruptions where land has been rezoned; 10, 20, 30 bungalows, each set in half an acre, higgledy-piggledy, with extravagant windows and spectacular arches, overlooked by each other on all sides, and all painted in a medley of warring pastels.
One of many communities experiencing mounting despair at its imminent future is Athenry, which until two years ago had a population of about 1,600 people. Since 1997, a further 200 houses have been added; and next week, Galway County Council will vote on a proposal to rezone 350 acres for housing, at maybe 10 houses per acre. Suddenly Athenry will have an additional 3,500 houses, with a population increase of - what? - 10,000 people? More?
Athenry is an easy place to worry about, because it's the only walled town in Ireland or Britain whose still-intact walls are still clearly visible to the approaching visitor. The walls define the town from afar, and Athenry has a particularly vital history which is reflected in its townscape. A Dominican friary was built there in 1261; a Franciscan friary followed in 1464. Athenry was sacked and deserted and then rebuilt; sacked, deserted and rebuilt; But by the 17th century it had actually become a rather eminent place, even possessing its own university.
Its special character was recognised more recently by the EU, which gave it a grant towards the £350,000 heritage and arts centre which has been sited in the middle of the collegiate ruins of the old town. Now there's no way that a small community such as Athenry's could survive the arrival of 10,000 people; no way that a town like Athenry could maintain its special mural qualities when those will be concealed by the construction of 3,500 houses.
There is a particular poignancy about the ruinously suburban development which might be visited on Athenry, for the song which shares its name with the town is fast becoming an unofficial national anthem. It is, of course, a rousing ballad about dispossession, eviction, exile and an aching nostalgia for a stolen land; and, when sung by a crowd (which manages to remember the words, that is: not quite the case yet with rugby supporters), unfailingly sets the pulse racing.
The new Athenry, if it comes about, might be said to stand for the new Ireland, where there is little or no regard for the fragility of architecture, history or community, and where dispossession is self-inflicted; and those singing our new anthem might properly conclude it with the rousing declaration: "It's suburban round the fields of Athenry."