Diarmaid Ferriter: Blue Flags and cheese plants do not sit well together

An Taisce appeal over Glanbia plant challenges development-first mindset

Eulogising the Irish coastline has served many functions over the decades: to entice visitors from abroad, to evoke sentimental longings for the homeland from Irish emigres and to celebrate a rural, unspoiled hinterland.

Eulogising the Irish coastline has served many functions over the decades: to entice visitors from abroad, to evoke sentimental longings for the homeland from Irish emigres and to celebrate a rural, unspoiled hinterland.

 

Reacquaintance with our natural environment, or proper discovery of it for the first time, has surely been a positive feature of the Covid pandemic. Through necessity, many have embraced the richness of our landscape and sea swimming has become something of a Covid-induced physical and mental therapy. We are lucky that such immersion is an option for so many. The good news this week that a record number of 93 Irish beaches have attained Blue Flag status underlines not only our good fortune, but also the imperativeness of keeping the water pristine.

One of the world’s best-known eco-labels, the Blue Flag is operated in Ireland by An Taisce for the Foundation for Environmental Education, and beaches and marinas that achieve the award are required to meet criteria relating to water quality, information provision, environmental education, safety and beach management. Bathing water at beaches must comply with the “Excellent” standard in line with the 2006 EU bathing water directive.

Eulogising the Irish coastline has served many functions over the decades: to entice visitors from abroad, to evoke sentimental longings for the homeland from Irish emigres and to celebrate a rural, unspoiled hinterland, which for many nationalists was an intrinsic part of a distinct identity, especially when posited against industrial Britain. When he delivered the first live radio broadcast to Irish emigrants in the USA in 1931, president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State WT Cosgrave made glowing references to the Irish landscape, its mountains and hills, “the murmur of the streams”, “the outlines of the thousands of little fields in the mountain glens” and the “enchanting coastline”.

‘Simple and picturesque’

This was partly a continuation of images conjured by his late colleague Michael Collins, who had rhetorically celebrated the western seaboard: “Today, it is only in those places that any native beauty and grace in Irish life survive. And these are the poorest parts of our country! Their cottages are also little changed. They remain simple and picturesque. It is only in such places that one gets a glimpse of what Ireland may become again.” Not to be outdone, Éamon de Valera in 1943 famously spoke of the Ireland he and fellow cultural nationalists had dreamt of: “a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry”.

Irish natural resources were seen as sources of jobs or food

It is easy, of course, to deride such cloying sentimentality and many contemporaries did precisely that, acidly asserting that you cannot eat the landscape. Liam O’Flaherty, a native of the Aran islands (“I was born on a storm swept rock”) was quick to upbraid distorted notions of life in Connacht in his 1929 Tourist’s Guide to Ireland.

Irish State builders were, however, slow to legislate to protect the landscape and when the measures of progress and modernisation were redefined from the 1950s, it was economic imperatives that prevailed. Irish natural resources were seen as sources of jobs or food, while vindicating private property rights was bound up with the sense of righting the historic wrongs of colonisation and land-grabbing. When physical planning legislation was eventually introduced in 1963, most farm buildings were exempt from planning regulations; nor did those regulations apply to changes in land use for agricultural purposes.

‘Contemporary vulgarisation’

One of the legacies of the 1940s that endured, however, was An Taisce, in effect Ireland’s National Trust, which was established in 1948. At its establishment, its first president, naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, suggested Ireland “has not been much in danger of spoilation . . . all Ireland is in a sense a great national park already”. But as Ireland developed, preserving and protecting that natural environment generated little political interest.

In 1976, a minister dismissed as “cranks” those who objected to a proposed pharmaceutical firm in Tipperary

Fifty years ago, minister for lands Seán Flanagan expressed disquiet about “the continued delay in adopting a coherent policy in regard to conservation, particularly conservation of the environment”. In 1975, Michael D Higgins of the Labour Party maintained growing interest in the environment did not spring from “any new feelings of responsibility for life in all its forms than from the simple realisation that contemporary vulgarisation can no longer be masked. The concern of those with economic power is how to acquire an environmentally aware image on the cheap – an ecologically acceptable face.” Polluters were treated leniently and, in 1976, a government minister dismissed as “cranks” those who objected to a proposed pharmaceutical company in Tipperary.

The recent decision of An Taisce to appeal a High Court decision upholding planning permission for the proposed Glanbia cheese factory in Kilkenny, citing concerns about water quality and carbon emissions, has been castigated by numerous politicians, a reminder of the endurance of historic mindsets that need to be challenged. The notion of economic development or post-pandemic economic recovery having to outweigh all else seems particularly hollow now, given the climate crisis, the fragility of our natural environment and the inestimable value of what we have managed to keep clean.

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