Eire fights them on its beaches

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The Independent Online
Never mind the beach towels. What about the beaches?

The towels - and the sun loungers that they are used to privatise - have never after all been much of a feature of the West Irish coast. But quiet, unspoiled beaches are as common as the rain. And local people are up in arms at the way that the strands, traditionally open to everyone, are increasingly being appropriated by foreign holidaymakers.

Some 500 foreigners - German, French, Belgian, Dutch and British - buy holiday homes in West Cork every year. And more and more are blocking off the beaches in front of their sea views.

Says Jim O'Donnell, an Independent on Sunday reader and successful businessman in Skibbereen: "People come across from Europe with the idea that private property is God-given. They fence everything off, and think that is normal. They come here because they love Ireland - and then try to make it like home. One German company even tried to keep people off an entire island, putting notices along the shores saying landing was forbidden."

The first signs of a political reaction seem to be appearing. Aine Ni Chonaill, a teacher from Clonakilty, stood in this summer's election promising to "return Ireland to the Irish".

She lost heavily, but is nothing if not consistent. Approached by an English journalist, she snubbed him: "My discourse is with my compatriots and my government." Then, West Cork courtesy reasserting itself, she added: "But I wish you well" - and hung up.

Sadly, the Irish are ahead of foreigners in fencing off mountainsides that used to be just as open to all as the beaches.

This summer Jim O'Donnell took a friend on a walk he has been making for 30 years to the Warrior's Grave, a prehistoric monument on Cork's Mount Gabriel. To his amazement, they had to cross a series of fences erected on the once-open land. Back at the car, they found a note: "Do not trespass on the mountain again."

Two routes up Ireland's Holy Mountain, Croagh Patrick, in Mayo, have been closed off, says Keep Ireland Open, an alliance of organisations fighting the new restrictions. So has much of Achill Island and beaches at Belmullet, also in Mayo. Most of these enclosures are happening on common land, legally, when the owners of the common rights agree to divide the land up between themselves.

"Ireland is getting less accessible," says Roger Garland, a former member of the Dail, now a campaigner for Keep Ireland Open. "The intangible quality that brings tourists to the country is being lost. After all, they don't come for the sunshine and the cheap beer."

Campaigners for open access from both Britain and Ireland have just met in the Lake District to make common cause. Kate Ashbrook, chair of the Ramblers' Association, is to visit Ireland in October.

In the next few weeks the UK government is expected to publish proposals for "a right to roam". Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, has said that the principle of access is "not negotiable". In a couple of weeks, he will make the point in person by joining the Ramblers' Association on a walk on closed moorland above Hebden Bridge.

A talented potter I know in West Cork lives down a tiny, overgrown lane (locally called "a fierce boreen") so hard to find that one day in his first month there, he had to go into a pub to ask where he lived. Being Ireland, of course, everyone knew who he was, and how to get him home.