Unlocking the underfoot

Notes from the Western Periphery

NEGOTIATED ACCESS Walking the Tóchar Phádraig route, with the Reek in the background. Pic: John Bradley

Why we need greater freedom to roam in Mayo

John Bradley

I have fond memories of childhood summers spent in Murrisk in the 1950s. But I never gave them much thought until we had friends with young children visiting recently. With children running about in the house, causing mayhem, I gently suggested that they might prefer to go outside and play on the Croagh Patrick pilgrim path and in the stream that runs down the mountain and flows past our cottage.
Parental reaction was immediate and negative. It was as if I had suggested that children go play on the Cliffs of Moher, or go bungie jumping, or prance among hidden land mines. It was clear that the ‘outside’ was now considered a dangerous place, unsuitable for children, and only to be visited – if required – under close adult supervision.
This caused me to reflect on how, in the 1950s, the ‘outside’ was considered by parents to be safe as a playground but today is regarded as dangerous. In those halcyon days we children rose in the morning, had breakfast, vanished ‘outside’, and only returned when hunger indicated that it was mealtime.
We played around the ruins of Murrisk Abbey, where a favourite challenge was to climb up on the ramparts and circle them, balancing precariously on top of walls that must be over 30 feet high. Miraculously, we never fell off.
It troubles me to acknowledge that some of our activities were borderline vandalism. For example, we discovered part of the stream above the statue of Saint Patrick where flowing water emerges from a deep gully and is nearly level with the pilgrim path. A few hours work moving stones neatly deflected the stream onto the path, an operation that gave immense satisfaction. I draw a veil over the reaction when we returned home and the implications for the village water supply became apparent.

If freedom to roam for children in the environs of their homes has been drastically curtailed, a different freedom to roam in the wider countryside has become increasingly popular. Greater mobility means that families can explore the delights of Mayo, described so vividly by John O’Callaghan in these pages every fortnight. This was a minority interest in the 1950s. Energetic hillwalkers existed, but numbers were small. Today there are well-marked hiking routes through forests and across mountains that attract increasing numbers each year. Eco tourism has arrived.
As numbers of ramblers and hillwalkers increases and eco-tourism booms, tension has increased over access to areas of beauty and the ‘right to roam’. Neighbouring countries seem to manage these issues better than we do. In Scotland, one can roam anywhere, within reason, provided one behaves responsibly and does not intrude on the immediate environs of private dwellings, farm buildings or crops. In England and Wales, the preservation of rights of way are diligently protected by local authorities and rambler groups.
Here in Ireland, and specifically in Mayo, the situation is far from ideal. The problem is illustrated by the Brackloon Woods incident (The Mayo News, May 8, 2018). A long-established right of way into this beautiful woodland walk was blocked by a private house owner and remained blocked for years with no action by Coillte (Brackloon’s owner) or Mayo County Council. Only after strenuous efforts by the Keep Ireland Open group was Mayo County Council forced to act and restore the right of way after a ruling by An Bord Pleanála.
Such dilatory behaviour by the body responsible for enforcing planning regulations in the face of an egregious violation does not bode well for how future extensions of the right to roam will be managed by national and local authorities. Extension of access rights for ramblers needs to be balanced by the existing legal rights of property owners. I would not expect any property owner to put up with my childhood vandalism.

Not everything is as bad as Brackloon. Some years ago, we were hiking in the Black Valley in the foothills of Carrauntoohil in Kerry. The day was fine, after heavy rain. I was surprised at how close the walk came to farm buildings. I heard a shout from a nearby farmhouse and feared that we had strayed off the track and were being chased away. However, the farmer simply wanted to advise us that one of the tracks was flooded, directed us to take the dry path, and wished us well. I later found out that the Kerry Way had been negotiated back in the 1960s, giving easy, lowland access to this magic place.
Anybody who has walked Tóchar Phádraig from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick will know how amazing it is to walk through fields, cross walls through stiles, and imagine that you are on a medieval pilgrimage. This access was negotiated by the abbey with local farmers back in 1987.
The potential from extending roaming rights more widely in Mayo would be immense, for tourism and for the community. Surely compromises can be reached? Yet even a cursory glance at lack of progress in this process shows how confrontational it can become. If discussions are not to degenerate into rural-urban warfare, public authorities need to wake up and discharge their role and responsibilities in a constructive way. Or will the authorities continue to treat ramblers and hillwalkers like children?

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.