A step forward for the opening up of the countryside in Éire?3rd November 2007
Access to the countryside in my native Éire has always remained a grey area, tolerated in a lot of cases even if it is not strictly legal. It is also a matter that has also been complicated by history. For one thing, it hasn’t bequeath us a network of public footpaths and bridleways like that which criss-crosses England and Wales. In that respect, the Irish situation is somewhat akin to Scotland’s, though that country does have known rights of way even if they are not marked on any OS map and so take some finding. Of course, Scotland has imported some Scandinavian enlightenment with its access legislation as well, while it places an emphasis on those out enjoying their rights also knowing their responsibilities.
Continuing the Scotland versus Ireland theme, there is also the matter of how land is owned to be considered. A feudal land ownership system still pervades in parts of Scotland but was all but banished from Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. Scotland suffered the Clearances while the Irish resisted any such attempts at a free for approach that might have ended up there. The result of the former is that we see vast tracts of Scottish land sparsely populated and owned by a small number of people with the people who actually farm the land renting it. Land agitation in the Ireland resulted in several land acts that resulted in loans being given to Irish farmers to buy their own land. This has meant that holdings in Ireland hardly ever top a few hundred acres and a 40 acre farm far from an uncommon situation; the questionable economic viability of the latter is perhaps why EU subsidies are so important to Irish farming families. That has meant that the Irish countryside is more peopled than its Scottish equivalent and the fight for the right to own land has made for an emotional attachment to it that only now may be slackening.
Putting the lack of traditional rights of way and a strong emotional attachment both to the idea of owning land and handing on to the next generation should they be interested in farming, a waning pattern given the rise of the Celtic Tiger and the opportunities that it has presented, it is amazing that there is any off road walking on offer at all. Indeed, the Waymarked Ways, Ireland’s long distance walking trail network, sadly goes over a lot of tarmac and that’s a pity, even if the roads are quiet affairs.
Thankfully, the opportunities remain and Walking World Ireland does have some good ideas for routes that I must explore some time; this was also borne out by Andy Howell’s outings along the coast and among the mountains of West Cork (excursions that put me to shame…). However, the said magazine also reports tussles arising from the whole land access issue and that’s why a recent item on the RTÉ News website was an encouraging sign. The idea of an expanded network of paths for off road walking can only be a good and it also good that there is now a willingness at government level to fund can only be a good thing. Let’s hope that it comes to pass and worries about spurious insurance claims and bad walker behaviour will come to nothing. We all owe it to the proposal to make it a success and then ensure that it is the start of something greater.
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