Removal of signs shows we are going wrong way


The removal of the iconic Ballyvaughan signposts points to three different kinds of official stupidity

I SPEND a lot of time in the village of Ballyvaughan in the Burren, Co Clare. It has many wonderful aspects and one of them is the slightly crazy signpost that confronts you at the T-junction.

Like the rocks on the nearby seashore, it has accumulated an exotic accretion of barnacles and seaweed, in this case about 20 signs. They point in a conventional way towards other places: Lisdoonvarna, Corofin, Killimer, Fanore, though until fairly recently there were two signs for Lisdoonvarna, one pointing left and the other right. But local businesses and attractions – BBs, Monk’s Pub, the Tea and Garden Rooms, Aillwee Cave – gradually added their own markers. The result was a kind of organic art installation, a riot of letters, colours and angles.

The signs didn’t just point to particular places, however. They also indicated a certain kind of place, an Ireland that is a little bit different, a little bit more richly textured, where place itself is a multi-layered concept. It is not a piece of Paddywhackery or of self-conscious performance for tourists. It’s a real, functional thing that happens to tell you something about the way Irish people think of where they are.

In a sense, the sign is the visual equivalent of stopping to ask someone for directions. An Irish person won’t say: “Carry on to your left on the N67 national route for 21 kilometres.” They will say: “Go on up there past so-and-so’s pub and follow along the bend where the BB is and keep going till you see a church . . . ”

The Ballyvaughan signpost is this kind of conversation stuck on to a pole to form a prickly porcupine of possibilities. This is why people from all over the world like the signpost. Its image is one of the best-known visual representations of a busy, vibrant, slightly eccentric Ireland. Search for “Ballyvaughan signpost” on Google Images or Flickr and you’ll get thousands of results.

But the National Roads Authority thinks differently. It has now come along and removed all the signs except the standard directional ones. It has done this without asking anyone. The lovely sign for the Tea and Garden Rooms on the coast road, with some beautiful old Irish lettering, has been on the post 29 years, without taking anyone’s eye out. But the NRA simply came along and – apparently – dumped it.

There are now no pointers at all to the businesses along the coast road to Black Head, one of the most beautiful stretches of Ireland. This may be a small thing in itself, but it points to three different kinds of official stupidity, each of which has had a disastrous effect. The first is the stupidity of not understanding the importance of place. Place isn’t an abstract concept. On the contrary, it’s where all the big things come together – economics and society, the past and the present, the idea of what is distinctive with the idea of a shared space. And one of the things we screwed up so mightily in the boom years was this sense of place. Putting 300 suburban houses on the edge of an old village of 200 houses, leaving the whole thing as a ghost estate, is what happens when a sense of place is lost.

For the NRA, the Ballyvaughan sign isn’t an aspect of a particular place, it’s an affront to the proper sense of placelessness. They see the village as an obstacle to be driven through in the most efficient manner possible. As an NRA spokesman explained: “The purpose of signing on the road network is to promote safety and efficiency by providing for the orderly movement of traffic”. The sin committed by the signpost is that it exceeds its proper purpose of being exactly like every other signpost.

The second form of stupidity at work here is about democracy. Again, we’ve paid a terrible price in Ireland for having a dysfunctional democracy that doesn’t do accountability. One of the key responses to the crisis should therefore be a rebuilding of local democracy from the bottom up, giving people a sense of ownership of, and responsibility for, the things that happen in their communities. The only consultation the NRA has had in this case with local people was to tell them, in essence, that they could like it or lump it.

The third kind of stupidity at work here is again one that has been ruinous for Ireland: the lack of joined-up thinking. For while the NRA has been taking down the signs, another arm of State, Tourism Ireland, has been using the old signpost as an iconic image of Ireland, with the catchline “and this is what our Irish friends planned for us before lunch”.

Presumably the NRA discusses these things with the tourism authorities to precisely the same extent it consults local communities.

If we’re to get out of the mess we’re in, we have to grasp the folly of these top-down, bureaucratic, narrow-minded ways. Otherwise, the only direction we’re going is towards oblivion.

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