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Rural Planning, Duhallow, Ireland

 

It's all about putting people in their place

 

Alastair McIntosh

 

 

Published in the Irish Examiner, Cork, 21 June 2002, based on a presentation that same day for the Rural Planning Symposium for Duhallow.

 

 

Usually I come from Scotland to Ireland to learn. You see, I grew up on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I like to remember that, in the distant past, the Irish Sea was a superhighway that united Celtic peoples.

 

Much of my work has been with land reform. In this, I’ve found people like Michael Davitt to be inspirational.

 

Scotland now has a growing list of communities that have thrown off the scourge of landlordism. There’s even a Land Reform Bill passing through the Edinburgh parliament.

 

In short, Ireland has taught Scotland lots. But this time she’s been asking for something back!

 

After speaking in Dublin’s Convergence Festival recently, I was approached by Brendan O’Keeffe of IRD Duhallow. “Can you come over to our conference on 21st June?” he asked. “It’s billed as A Rural Planning Symposium for Duhallow. Come and talk about community.”

 

So, here’s a wee preview.

 

If you leave Scotland and fly across the Irish Sea, you immediately observe that you’ve come to a country with a different history.

 

In Britain, the countryside has been sanitised of its people since the Enclosures and Highland Clearances. Left behind is a landscape in which, too often, “everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone”.

 

Thanks to landlords and the planning systems their class constructed, rural life tends to be the preserve of the rich and their servants. The poor more often live up an urban high-rise with a TV as their only window on nature.

 

In contrast, Ireland’s countryside is alive with human settlement. It’s a cultural landscape where people and nature have evolved together into communities of place.

 

Place matters in Celtic identity. It’s a very powerful thing that goes right to the soul. It enters our bones and even the smell of who we are.

 

Genesis 27 has the poetry to name what the sterilised modern world misses. “See,” said the aged and blind Isaac, reaching out, as he thought, to confirm the identity of his son Esau. “The smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed.”

 

Ireland’s great scholar, Daniel Corkery, similarly saw that place creates poetry and belonging. “Is maith an t-ancoire an t-iarta,” he said. “The hearth is a good anchor.”

 

Even the vexed problem of incomers can be reconciled by the power of place. No less an arch-colonist than Edmund Spenser lamented of Ireland back in 1589: “I heard that any English there should bee worse then the Irish: Lord, how quickely doth that countrey alter mens natures!”

 

But in those days people were far less mobile. You couldn’t buy corn from America or chicken from Thailand. You had to stand the ground on which you stood. And that way it could work its magic. It could heal and sustain the culture.

 

Today, if we want to keep a grip on culture as well as conserve the environment, we must plan, consciously, to maximise what the experts call “linkages and multipliers” with our local place.

 

However, when I read the public consultation paper for Ireland’s National Spatial Strategy, I didn’t see too much of that awareness. The strategy claims to be “about people and places,” but no-where does it mention co-operation upon which community is built. Rather, it emphasises “the enhancement of national competitiveness”.

 

Maintaining the cultural heritage is actually listed last in the Strategy’s guiding vision. One is reminded, again, of Daniel Corkery’s prophetic words in his 1924 masterpiece, The Hidden Ireland: “And how soon we became aware that what the writers in English omitted concerned the mind and the soul – the hidden world!”

 

The National Spatial Strategy contains admirable proposals for shifting population growth away from Dublin. But in so doing, planners might be wary of emptying the countryside in favour of regional urban centres.

 

It is vital that people can, if they wish to, continue living with the land even if not directly from it. Planning policy should favour locals wanting to maintain their roots.

 

But how can that be achieved without ripping up more and more of the countryside? How can it be done without trophy mansions on every hilltop?

 

Well, one approach would be to encourage “clachans”, as we traditionally called them in Scotland. A clachan is a small cluster of homes: close enough for friendship but out of earshot of each other’s rows!

 

Nestled sensitively into the landscape and designed for sustainable ecological living, clachan-style development could honour Ireland’s rural beauty. They could meld agriculture with residential plots and native woodland to harmonise them in.

 

The planners who came up with the National Spatial Strategy consultation must have the wisdom to move such an agenda forward. Ireland does not have to swing violently from poverty to Mammon. It could choose the middle way of dignified sufficiency.

 

That was de Valera’s vision in 1943. He foresaw a nation that “valued material wealth only as the basis of right living”. One where true wealth resided in “things of the spirit”.

 

 

 

 

Alastair McIntosh is a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology. He will also be speaking about his book, Soil and Soul (Aurum Press), at the Mallow Garden Festival tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

 

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8 July 2002

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