Some time back at the height of the boom, a high ranking member of one of the countries leading tourism bodies called for Ireland to build a ‘super attraction’, something like the Eden Project in the heart of the English countryside, a kind of ‘super botanical garden’ which apparently attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The idea is that this ‘super attraction’ would bring lots and lots of people into the country and help boost our tourism revenues. Maybe it would and maybe it wouldn’t, but the notion that we need super attractions, whether they be Disney fairgrounds or well meaning scientific projects, underlines the fact that we have been obsessed with new development and have paid less and less regard to our most important and oldest attraction, our landscape and our heritage. It also says a lot about modern Ireland and how we see our selves in the twenty first century and gives us an indication of where we might be headed for in the future.
Ireland was not called the Emerald Isle for nothing. It described fairly accurately the first and immediate impressions of nearly every first time visitor to these shores. They saw a green and pleasant land rooted firmly to a vibrant and friendly rural community. Many of these visitors were people who spent most of their lives living in highly developed sprawling suburban landscapes that, while comfortable and modern, lacked charm, had no sense of history and no connection to the land or people around them. They holidayed in Ireland to get away from all that, not to see it replicated here.
Are we in danger of turning rural Ireland into such a place? Could we end up with a large modern urban sprawl with no charm, no scenery and no heritage? A kind of ‘Celtic Tiger Theme Park’ super attraction? We don’t need to look too far to see that the pressures of modern Ireland as a vibrant economy weighed heavily on rural Ireland. All around the country large tracts of land were being traded for large housing or industrial developments while more and more farmers are forced to leave the land. Many small towns and villages around Ireland have been changed irrevocably due to the development of houses in and around them. This has had the effect of giving them a more urban or perhaps suburban feel. The white and yellow road markings, traffic islands and red brick pavements in our redeveloped towns and villages while making a place look tidy and fresh and possibly safer, do nothing to add to the charm and rural feel they once had. Every day it seems, another piece of rural Ireland is lost to us.
And what loss is it? A big loss actually. A loss which in future years could cost us dearly. Our landscape and our heritage is the very thing that makes us attractive in the first place. It is our very own ‘super attraction’ and it is an attraction that Disney and all of Hollywood couldn’t hold a candle to. It is unique to us, and though it was forged from the past, it is as important to our future as the air we breathe today is to our present. It is our greatest asset and with its loss we might find that the stream of visitors and holidaymakers to this country and the accompanying revenues they bring will dry up to a mere trickle, something which may have terrible consequences for us all as we forge ahead into the twenty first century.