An idyll threatened by the children of the Celtic Tiger

'Much of our Irish coastline has been ruined by ill-conceived and ugly buildings'


This is positively the last letter of summer. In a few days we head for the ferry and the long Calvary of the M4 back to London. Now that we are into the last days, the familiar melancholy returns. The end of August always summons up remembered journeys back to school as the year hobbled to a close. When we were young, we prayed for rain at the end of summer. Returning to the city in the teeth of a gale never seemed as grim as having to make the journey on a hot, cloudless day.

This is positively the last letter of summer. In a few days we head for the ferry and the long Calvary of the M4 back to London. Now that we are into the last days, the familiar melancholy returns. The end of August always summons up remembered journeys back to school as the year hobbled to a close. When we were young, we prayed for rain at the end of summer. Returning to the city in the teeth of a gale never seemed as grim as having to make the journey on a hot, cloudless day.

Luckily it has been blowing force seven all morning, the wind coming hard off the sea, in Philip Larkin's words, "bent on bringing summer down". The sea is two minutes' walk from my front door and in heavy weather it sends waves crashing over the storm wall at regular intervals, drenching unsuspecting passers-by.

Dougal, who lives in the white house overlooking the boat cove, is not happy with the weather. The luckless hound had his fur chopped by a neighbour's child last week. It was a messy job; Dougal has been turned into a punk dog who shivers in the wind. There is talk of sending him to the city to be pampered in a salon, though being a rough country dog there is no certainty he'll appreciate the trouble or expense.

I went for a walk along the beach earlier. It is blanketed in seaweed, as if an entire forest of kelp had been uprooted and cast onto the shore. The autumn storms throw up all manner of driftwood. Drowned dogfish, fishing nets and ropes, wooden boxes, bottles, boots, everything cast overboard by the crews of trawlers far out to sea. In the war years, when German U-boats haunted the offshore waters, the villagers became familiar with the sight of bodies being washed ashore. The U-boats didn't have it all their own way. On the floor of the seabed a few miles out lies the wreck of a U-boat sunk by Royal Navy explosive charges. Forty men died on that submarine and it wasn't until the early 1980s that the exact site was pinpointed and a memorial service held.

One of the pleasures of this time of year is the relative emptiness of Ardmore. The village is emptying of its summer citizens. And so it's possible to spend hours walking and picking blackberries near the cliffs at Dysert without encountering more than a handful of souls. The harvest is complete with bails of hay arrayed across the fields and I would give anything to winter here, to turn my back on the city and that other life. A few weeks back I wrote about the dangers posed by untrammelled development in rural Ireland. Ardmore it seemed was to be no exception with plans to build hundreds of houses in scenic areas of the village. One of the developers was said to have proclaimed aloud that he wanted to "wake up Ardmore". How silly. The beauty of the place is that it is precisely at the stage of wakefulness nature intended; that is to say, it may appear to be half asleep, but a lively heart beats away underneath.

Much of our Irish coastline has been destroyed by ill conceived and ugly development. Anybody who has driven from Galway along the Connemara coast will understand what I am talking about. The combination of grandiloquent intention undermined by bad taste has ruined countless areas of natural beauty. Not far from here, the town of Youghal (once home of Sir Walter Raleigh and the poet Spenser) has been defaced by several hideous apartment complexes. They were built under a generous tax-avoidance scheme sponsored by the government to encourage the construction industry. Investors were allowed to purchase flats and write off the cost against their tax bills. Naturally, there was massive oversupply and many of the flats now sit empty. There is one notorious complex in the area which doesn't even have a water supply and whose ugliness is more appalling than the worst excesses of Soviet architecture. In 20 years this will be described as a scandal. Just now, however, the most you will get from the development lobby is a shrug of the shoulders and a sly smile.

Those who argue against the "all trotters to the trough" development rush are given short shrift by the developers and their political pals. "You can't stand in the way of progress," it is said. If anything, the country seems drunk with its new-found prosperity. I notice that the right-wing press in Britain has been de-bunking the runaway success of our Celtic Tiger economy. Earlier this week, The Daily Telegraph printed a jeremiad on the dangers of the boom turning to a "bust". However, they are pointing their guns in the wrong direction.

The damage is being done now and it is happening at much deeper level than economics. There is a giddy selfishness in the air, a carelessness about the rights of others. Let me give you a small example. The other night in the village, a gang of teenagers (not local kids but visitors) went on a minor rampage, ripping the badges and insignia from parked cars. I know this because mine was one of the cars damaged. It shocked people here because it is the first time anyone can remember an act of wanton vandalism (as distinct from the vandalism of mindless development, that is).

The kids who did this were not poor or underprivileged. They were children of the "Tiger", raised in an environment of unprecedented prosperity, with unlimited educational opportunities and the certainty of well-paid employment when they leave school or university. They attacked the cars out of boredom, I'm sure, and because the values of community have begun to lose their meaning in a society where greed is so prevalent.

However, I am glad to report one small victory in the development battle. A fortnight ago the country's planning board upheld a local objection to a proposal to build an estate of houses near the cliffs here. Had the proposal gone ahead it would have spoiled an area of great natural beauty. The ruling was seen by many as a test of the planning board's intentions for Ardmore. The news has greatly cheered those who believe the small villages of Ireland need to be protected, but it is only one small victory after an eternity of defeats. As far as I can see none of these houses is being built for the benefit of the average local family. They are holiday homes whose price range is far beyond the aspirations of the people who live here all year round.

Anyway, enough seriousness. There is a more immediate item on the local agenda. The Celtic Knights are coming to Ardmore. For the first time in local history, a group of male strippers is to descend on the area. The Knights will be dancing and disrobing at the pub in Kielys Cross tonight. However, given these cold autumn winds and the shivering example of Dougal the denuded dog, they may live to regret their rustic foray. None the less, an army of farmer's wives is expected to attend.

In the old days this kind of prancing would have been damned from the pulpit and the strippers shown the road. But in Tigerish Ireland we feel mature enough to chuckle. Poor De Valera envisioned an Ireland where "comely maidens" and "strapping lads" danced at the crossroads of a summer's evening. I am not sure the Celtic Knights, who promise a "100 per cent" performance, were quite what he had in mind. A terrible beauty is indeed born.

* The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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