Man's inalienable right to walk the coastline where his ancestors strode

The preservation of rights of way is becoming a national cause, one that goes to the heart of how new Ireland defines itself
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The swallows have been busy here in Ardmore while I've been away. I spotted the nest last night, a little fort of mud and straw tucked in under the eaves of the porch. As the years progress I have become less of a swirling dervish and more like the narrator of Hardy's "Afterwards", a man who notices such things. My world is busy still, at times frantically so, but I am making more time for the essential. There is a beautiful Irish tune about the arrival of swallows: " Thugamar Fein an Samhradh Linn". We bring the summer with us. But I fear our nesters may already have flown. The first hours at a summer cottage are a strange mix. There are dead things to be swept out. A bumble bee lay on the carpet, the husks of flies trapped when we closed the door last autumn were scattered along the windowsills, dead where they had collided with the glass.

The swallows have been busy here in Ardmore while I've been away. I spotted the nest last night, a little fort of mud and straw tucked in under the eaves of the porch. As the years progress I have become less of a swirling dervish and more like the narrator of Hardy's "Afterwards", a man who notices such things. My world is busy still, at times frantically so, but I am making more time for the essential. There is a beautiful Irish tune about the arrival of swallows: " Thugamar Fein an Samhradh Linn". We bring the summer with us. But I fear our nesters may already have flown. The first hours at a summer cottage are a strange mix. There are dead things to be swept out. A bumble bee lay on the carpet, the husks of flies trapped when we closed the door last autumn were scattered along the windowsills, dead where they had collided with the glass.

I am happy to be here. I am happy too to be writing about nothing much, except what makes me feel well. John King picked me up from Cork airport yesterday afternoon. Getting on Aer Lingus EI 717 to Cork, the stewardess recognised me.

"Welcome home, Mr Keane." She'd seen me reporting from Liberia and Sierra Leone. "You need a good holiday," she said.

I agreed. The last few weeks have taken me from west to east Africa, from a war zone in Liberia to the traumatised nation of Sierra Leone, and then right across the continent to Arusha in Tanzania and memories of the genocide in Rwanda. It wasn't the easiest of excursions. Humour was on the short side. Add to that the physical effort involved in travelling from London to Brussels to Abidjan to Monrovia to Freetown to Abidjan to Accra to Nairobi to Arusha to Nairobi to London. I am tired again merely writing it.

There were some moments of great beauty: the mysterious creeks of coastal west Africa seen from the rattling interior of an old Russian plane, the endless beaches of that coast of slaves and diamond smugglers, a glance backwards near Kilimanjaro airport to see a group of Masai standing on a hillside surrounded by their cattle and goats. Nor will I easily forget the sight of the great mountain itself, snow covered and imperious, as I flew back to Nairobi.

But the sight of that Irish coastline from the plane window beat the lot. Even the clouds broke so that the drive down to Ardmore was lit with sunshine. When I was a child I made this journey by bus. I remember frequent stops. Nobody seemed to care how long it took to get to the coast. We were, after all, moving in the right direction and would definitely be there by nightfall.

By then my family had sold the little cottage built by my grandfather near Goat Island. We stayed in a succession of rented houses - McGrath's near the Curragh beach, Fountain House in the village and, lastly, the Mocklers' just across the street. My grandmother's room faced the front door. It was a strategic location. From here she could observe the nocturnal comings and goings of her grandchildren, sleeping only when the last wandering shadow had passed across the threshold.

The Mocklers were a delightful couple who moved out to a small cottage at the back when we arrived for August. Paddy Mockler was a courteous and shy man who loved the coastline. The front room was a treasure hoard. There was a painting of a ship on an Arctic convoy, models of old sailing boats, a stuffed seagull and pieces of netting and several old glass buoys. During the two world wars, German U-boats had haunted these waters, attacking Allied shipping. There are people here still who remember the Second World War and the Austrian refugees who fled the Nazi Anschluss. The village has always attracted strange and colourful outsiders. It gives them space in a way few other rural communities might.

For several seasons now I have written about the changes in the village. No community can or should be preserved in mothballs. But the latest change is deeply depressing. At Goat Island, where generations of my family have enjoyed their summers, a farmer has strung wire and gates across an ancient pathway. There are notices warning the public off. The pathway leads from the cove at Goat Island to the great expanse of Whiting Bay. Standing on the headland you see one of the finest views in Ireland, the Waterford and Cork coastlines blending into one another. In summer you can smell camomile among the grasses and hedges of the path. Not any more, if the farmer in question has his way. I am told it is part of a general pattern up and down the Irish coastline. Old paths along which people have travelled for hundreds of years are being shut off by a new breed of proprietorial farmers.

I can understand a man wanting to protect his crops from damage, but there is something mean-spirited about denying people the right to walk the coastline. I hope there is a successful legal challenge to this nonsense. Ireland lived for long enough with an imperial power telling its people where they could and could not wander. Spare us any new O'Raj that seeks to limit freedom.

Doing the cliff walk last night I saw where another landowner had ploughed the land almost the coastal edge. I remember this as a wonderful wildlife habitat. It is now a depressing smear of ploughed earth. The effect of this has been to make it extremely difficult to gain access to a beautiful rocky ledge, known as the T-flag.

Again generations have picnicked on this rock, from the landed gentry of the Victorian age to my late Uncle Mike (killed by fire in New York) whose name and those of several of his cousins are carved into the rock face. It is a wild and special place. The preservation of rights of way is quickly becoming a big national cause, one of those issues that goes to the heart of how the new Ireland chooses to define itself. Are we an open-hearted people as the tourist literature likes to proclaim, or are the new fences and blockages symptoms of a nation looking inwards once more?

According to the latest statistics, we have much to be worried about. The national tourism authority, Bord Failte, reports that the number of walking visitors has declined dramatically yet, according to the Irish Times, they still bring in about €144m each year. To a country whose economy is showing serious signs of difficulty after the boom years, this is badly needed money. Yet from our own government there isn't a squeak over the encroachments on the right to wander our coastal paths and hills. The consequence will be a haemorrhage of visitors to Scotland, Wales and England.

I cannot bear the thought that my son and his friends will spend their summers being gradually fenced out of the places that were so central to my own upbringing. Yet my own voice on these matters will inevitably be decried as that of the yearly visitor. Only when the citizens of Irish villages decide to protest will there be any hope of change. There is one piece of good news to report from Ardmore. I am told that around 300 people have signed a petition to protest the ruin of the natural habitat along part of the cliff. It is a small start, but I sense a change in the coastal breezes.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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