The industrialization of an Irish landscape to meet UK energy needs

A landscape fossilized,

Its stone wall patterings

Repeated before our eyes

In the stone walls of Mayo
Before I turn to go

Extract from ‘Belderg’ by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

© 2013 Colin Cafferty

Belderrig harbour – a small fishing community near Glinsk

 

I’m an unabashed map junkie, have been for years, which means I have the rare ability to be entranced for hours on end by contour line patterns, dendritic river systems, obscure topographical symbols, and various other cartographic delights. When visiting my home in County Mayo in the West of Ireland two years ago, I resolved to finally forsake my position as armchair explorer in favour of actively exploring uncharted territory. My interest was piqued when I made the discovery that a considerable chunk of North Mayo was hazy at best when viewed as a satellite image on Google Maps. It appeared as if an imaginary line had been drawn straight through Belderrig (also spelt ‘Belderg’) with all points directly west shrouded in an inexplicable fog. That was when I discovered a newfound interest in the local landscape.

Belderrig is a small coastal community in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) where life revolves around a small harbour and the other bastions of rural Irish living – a pub, a shop, a church and a school. Back in the 1930s, the local schoolmaster, Patrick Caulfield, came across a large number of unusual stones in a regular formation and depth whilst cutting turf in a nearby bog. Years later, his son, the archaeologist Professor Seamus Caulfield, discovered evidence of an extensive Stone Age field system complete with dwellings and tombs several miles further to the east. This became known as ‘Céide Fields’ – the oldest known field system in the world with a history of more than five and a half thousand years. These ancient structures have been preserved in the bogland from a time that pre-dates the Pyramids of Egypt. Who knows what other cultural treasures lie hidden beneath the veneer of bog? But radical changes are gathering apace that could leave an indelible mark on this ancient landscape.

© Colin Cafferty 2012

Ancient farming landscape at Ceide Fields Visitors Centre in North Mayo

 

A journey of self-discovery

Last year, I embarked on a personal project to explore the visual impact of wind-farms on landscape in the UK through photography. I chose this topic not just because it happens to be a contentious one for many Britons but also because it was an issue I had to resolve in my own head once and for all. I travelled to East Anglia and Cumbria to document wind turbines, near to but outside of, sensitive landscapes such as the Norfolk Broads and the Lake District National Park. It’s a personal journey that has taken on an entirely new dimension since I decided to dig into my own metaphorical back yard in the West of Ireland. I resolved to take the plunge and confront my demons once and for all. I would find out whether a committed environmentalist and renewable energy enthusiast could simultaneously hide a closet NIMBY somewhere deep inside. Incidentally, I should point out that I’ve been living in London for the past nine years but you can see my point.

As so often is the case, energy and other natural resources are unfortunately mined in the most remote, unspoilt and sensitive of landscapes around the globe. With fewer people to object and largely out of sight of the media’s prying eyes, those few hardy (usually portrayed as stubborn) souls who make a stand are often left whispering in the wind. To my eyes, County Mayo is ‘frontier country’ on an Irish scale – similar to America’s Wild West in colonial times or Australia’s present day Outback. Most locals would probably laugh at me when I say this but I imagine they would also grudgingly accept that it has at least a modicum of truth.

Lying almost 300km to the west of Ireland’s capital is a landscape rich in gas, peat, wind, wave and biomass. The back-breaking work of harvesting peat by hand using the traditional slean or turf-spade (and by machine more recently) has been the mainstay of local communities to survive the long winter down through the centuries. In recent times, the discovery of the Corrib gas field just fifty miles offshore has attracted the energy giant Shell which is due to open its controversial gas processing facility and pipeline in 2014. But neither of these fossil fuel resources can hold a candle to the potential of renewable energy in the county. Mayo is recognized to have the best wind and wave resource of just about anywhere in Europe. The wind- and wave-battered Atlantic coast pounds the landscape for most of the year. And now planners on the County Council are pounding their fists on the boardroom table demanding a slice of the action, and all of the investment that goes along with it.

Paying lip service to landscape concerns

County Mayo was the first of the twenty six counties in the country to draft its own comprehensive Renewable Energy Strategy (RES). It has a forward-looking County Manager and an ambition to finally put Mayo on the map – to lift that veil of mist I mentioned before and put the wind to work, so to speak. The 88-page RES document includes a collection of interesting maps at the back (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?), one of which zones the land into Tier 1 (preferred wind farm sites) and Tier 2 (locations open for consideration). A separate 222-page Strategic Environmental Assessment report attempts to explain the rationale behind zoning the land in this way from an environmental perspective. From a landscape perspective, the county is broken down into sixteen different landscape types and then grouped into six Landscape Protection Policy Areas. But landscape is just one of many competing measures, such as biodiversity, water and cultural heritage, which are used to assess five alternative scenarios for future renewable energy development.

In summary, the report concludes that, “County Mayo’s eastern landscapes (Policy Area 4) are the most robust in the County and are least sensitive to change. All other landscapes are highly sensitive to change.” Unfortunately in terms of wind resource, the east of the county has far less potential than the north and west and so you would imagine a clash is on the cards. Not so though. The SEA report concludes that Scenario 4 is the most environmentally sustainable of the five scenarios for renewable energy development although they admit that “there is the potential for conflict with environmental protection objectives in respect of……cultural heritage and landscape.” The report goes on to say that Scenario 4 is “the best as it would take into consideration all types of landscapes identified in the Landscape Appraisal for County Mayo”. This indicates to the reader that the County Council mustn’t view a distinction between their own landscape policy areas after all if their over-riding concern is to consider all landscape types and imply they somehow have equal status. And so it would appear that although the Council has come up with a comprehensive strategy and rigorous set of indicators and policy areas, it is not prepared to apply its own methodology to objectively assess landscape concerns. What we get is an illusion of compromise and tacit support for the industrial-scale development of a largely untouched rural landscape to suit the ends of the policy-makers.

Why does it matter that we protect our landscape?

The Irish sense of identity is intricately bound with our landscape, our language, our literature and our long history of struggle. Take any one of these away and we are all the less Irish for it. Having said that, I did a pretty good job of not just ignoring, but actively shunning the rural tranquility of my home county as I was growing up. But those days passed over as I matured and gained some renewed perspective from afar. We need to recognize that landscapes change and evolve; typically over centuries and millennia when it comes to natural processes, or days and years with the tools of human endeavour. Another pressing concern is the effect that man-made climate change is having on landscape – eroding coastlines due to sea-level rise, flooding agricultural land, and in the case of Mayo, triggering bogslides (similar to landslides but it is the bog that slips downhill).

© 2013 Colin Cafferty

A vast blanket bog landscape near Belderrig in County Mayo

 

The great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, visited Belderrig and wrote the opening lines to this poem as a thank-you letter to Patrick Caulfield in 1975. This prehistoric landscape continues to inspire poets, writers and artists although it is largely unknown to the outside world. The reputation that Ireland enjoys abroad precedes itself and is at least partly based upon the romantic notion that many foreigners (especially Americans of Irish heritage) have of our landscape, culture and traditions. What if I were to say to you that it is exceedingly rare in today’s Ireland to come across a landscape that doesn’t carry a significant man-made footprint? White-washed houses are a particularly dominant feature dotting the rural countryside and drawing the eye in from afar. But out west, there still lies a handful of wide open landscapes that have remained unchanged for millennia – mostly because the land was too poor, too hilly, and too wet to graft a living from. We should protect these last remaining pockets of our natural heritage, not for romantic or sentimental reasons but because once they are lost to development, there’s very little chance of turning back the clock. Our resilience to the harsh elements, our stubbornness in the face of adversity, our pressing need to have the craic and tell tall stories in the local pub – all of these qualities and much more come from a sense of identity that is shaped by the very same elements that have moulded the landscape over millennia.

An all-or-nothing approach to development

If we accept that development of any type necessitates changes to the landscape and that there is also a pressing need to pursue our renewable energy ambitions, then it just become a question of what development in which landscape, and to what extent. Mayo is recognized as having one of the best wind and wave resources in all of Europe. Yet, it lies far from the population centres that can draw down this power. In fact, according to the developers of the Mayo Atlantic Renewable Energy Export (MAREX) project, Mayo has such an abundance of raw power that sufficient demand does not exist on the entire island of Ireland. Together with an undeveloped electricity grid, this has become the basis of a proposal to develop the single largest energy infrastructure project ever undertaken in Ireland.

Organic Power intends to develop a massive 2GW (2,000MW) of wind power in North Mayo by 2018 if it can secure planning permission. That means sinking 450 wind turbines into the boggy landscape, constructing a 1.5GW hydro energy storage hub and laying down a 500-kilometre HVDC cable across the country and under the Irish Sea to feed into the much larger UK market. This project can only succeed at scale – there are all kinds of price pressures that dictate it’s all or nothing approach. Landscape is only a consideration in terms of whether the project can meet the lenient policy set by the County Council that is  open to interpretation and whether it can appease An Bord Pleanala (the Irish planning board) who are already under significant pressure to wave through what has been termed a ‘strategic infrastructure project’ for the country.

Not all landscapes are equal

Whilst the MAREX project continues to gather pace, a far more modest 23MW wind farm proposed by Killala Community Wind Farm Ltd less than 20 miles to the east of Belderrig has been unable to get off the ground for years due to visual impact concerns. This is in spite of the fact that the development would be owned by the local community and that it is located in the least sensitive landscape to development (Policy Area 4 – Landscape Appraisal of County Mayo).

MAREX is not the only wind farm mega-project in Ireland proposed to export wind energy to the UK. Element Power has an even more ambitious £8 billion ‘Greenwire’ proposal to develop 700 wind turbines and generate 3GW of electricity in The Bog of Allen – far removed from the west coast. Bord na Mona, the semi-state body responsible for the mechanized harvesting of peat, has left behind a wide-scale legacy of cutaway bog in the Midlands. Milled, harrowed, ridged and harvested by specialized machinery, the peat is then transported on specially constructed narrow-gauge railways for burning at one of only three remaining peat power stations – Edenderry, Lough Ree and West Offaly. This landscape may share a common resource with that of North Mayo but therein end any similarities. The Bog of Allen is largely an industrial landscape that has been, and continues to be, stripped of peat on a large scale. It has long been sacrificed in the name of development.

The wind may not blow as frequently or as strongly in the Midlands compared to the West but this is a landscape that is far better suited to large-scale development in terms of environmental impact and visual amenity. However, that is not to say that there isn’t room for any wind farm development in North Mayo. Bord na Mona and ESB (the semi-state power utility) received planning permission for a 112-turbine wind farm (originally 180 turbines) back in 2003 on cutaway bog at Oweninny, next to the former Bellacorrick peat-burning power station. In fact, Ireland’s first wind farm was constructed on the same bogland in 1992 and its twenty one turbines are turning in the wind to this day. The Oweninny development is more appropriate for the county than the MAREX project on several fronts. This area is cutaway bog, a scarred landscape as such, similar to but much smaller in scope than the Midlands. Wind turbines already exist in the vicinity and although the proposed development is sizeable, it’s still only a quarter of the MAREX project in terms of turbine numbers. And last but not least, this power is for Irish consumers, Ireland’s energy security and contributes to Ireland’s climate change targets.

Industrialization of a landscape

If the Organic Power project were to proceed alongside this development, the rural landscape of North Mayo would need to somehow absorb almost 600 wind turbines. This would represent the most significant industrialization of a rural landscape in Ireland due to the cumulative impact of such a massive undertaking. It would also be  the single largest onshore wind farm project anywhere in the world. North Mayo is home to one of the last significant tracts of blanket bog found anywhere in Europe. If we are to scale up our renewable energy ambitions by planting an equivalent number of wind turbines in the country, then we should do so on flat land already ‘strip-mined’ such as that found on the Bog of Allen. But there is a larger, more fundamental question here. Should the UK outsource it’s renewable energy needs to another country just because a Conservative government has no desire to rile its voter base in rural England? And where do carbon emissions and climate change targets fit in with all of this? It should be remembered that any power exported to the UK will not go towards Ireland’s 2020 targets to source 40% of electricity from renewable sources under the EU 2009 Renewable Energy Directive.

Admittedly, the wind does not blow quite as strongly or as predictably in the Midlands compared to in Mayo. But that does not mean it is any less appropriate to develop. Let’s take it as a given that we cannot scale up renewable energy sufficiently unless it makes sound economic sense. Conventional accounting does not take into account the true value of land – only it’s development potential. If we were to price ecosystem services such as storing carbon, flood control, providing habitat and then add in the value of landscape in terms of tourism, recreation, health, education, history, culture, and spiritual needs, we would come up with a far different end figure. Suddenly it would become very expensive indeed to build a 450-turbine wind farm on the boglands of North Mayo.

Maps cannot chart the soul of a landscape

Back to those unusual stones that Patrick Caulfield found all those years ago at Belderrig barely one and a half miles from Glinsk mountaintop – location for the proposed MAREX hydro energy storage facility. Evidence for prehistoric tillage in the region was uncovered in the form of the first plough-marks – the earliest proven use of a plough anywhere in Europe. Or as Heaney far more eloquently put it –

To lift the lid of the peat

And find this pupil dreaming

Of neolithic wheat!
© 2013 Colin Cafferty

Rugged coastline near Glinsk on an unusually calm July day

 

A second wave of occupation occurred in the Bronze Age in order to mine the rich vein of copper ore in the cliff face one mile to the north-west. This would be right next to the proposed reservoir and pumped hydro storage at Glinsk. The land around here hasn’t changed much in all those intervening years. What other buried treasures potentially lie beneath the ancient peat?

I believe in the need to scale up renewable energy more than ever – in part as a force to protect sensitive landscapes by helping to reduce carbon emissions and the resulting physical impacts of man-made climate change. I am as committed as ever to the siting of wind farms in the most appropriate landscapes. But we must not relent to the pressure to push wind farms into ever more remote and sensitive landscapes so that they too are branded by the Hand of Man. By implication, wind farms and human settlement will somehow need to co-exist in greater harmony. Local communities can be engaged and a respectful distance for noise and shadow flicker can be achieved.

I don’t get the chance to visit North Mayo as much as I’d like these days. It’s not quite in my back yard anymore but I still feel a strong tug westward as I sit typing in London. I’m still a committed renewable energy enthusiast and environmentalist. Whether I’m a NIMBY or not, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The landscape of North Mayo remains as mysterious as it ever was to me. Buried treasures under the ancient peat. A bleak, boggy, beautiful wilderness. Perhaps it was never meant to be mapped out in detail or spied on from afar by some satellite orbiting the earth? It can only be known by taking a lungful of sharp salty Atlantic air, feeling the spring of heather and the squelch of bog underfoot, and above all, gazing upon the clouds scuttling across the vastness of an untouched landscape lost in time.

Colin Cafferty is a documentary photographer and blogger on sustainability, energy and environmental issues who is currently based in London. He grew up in North Mayo and regularly visits the area. This story is part of a series that explore energy and landscape in the resource rich county of Mayo. Next article to feature – an in-depth interview with Organic Power.

Ireland’s ambitions to become a world leader in wave energy

“We’re fond of saying in the sector that we’re 90% under water…only 10% of Ireland’s territory is land. I’ve worked it out as 40 or 50 acres for every man, woman and child in Ireland”. I’ve accidentally stumbled upon one of James Ryan’s favourite topics as we travel in his car on the remote Mullet Peninsula along Ireland’s far western coast.  “What are we doing with it? Absolutely zilch. Two percent of our economy is based on the sea and that takes into account marine transport, which is the bulk of it really,” he adds in mild exasperation. But changes are afoot. Ryan is Managing Director of Aquavision Ltd, a local company that provides services in marine project development. He also represents the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), a semi-state body promoting the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures across the country.

Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site

We’re on our way to visit the closest point on land to the proposed Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site (AMETS) off the coast of Annagh Head, where the waves regularly reach 15 to 16 metres in height further offshore. Earlier in his office at Aras Inis Gluaire in Belmullet, he pointed out the test sites indicated by post-it notes on a large map of the area. “In the 100-metre depth zone, we have one site that is about 6 or 7 miles out to sea and then we have an intermediate test site at the 50-metre depth. We’re now also looking at the possibility of a near shore test site”. AMETS is the most ambitious initiative to date to position Ireland as a heavyweight contender for the development of marine energy globally. The purpose of this 10MW facility is to provide a full-scale open ocean test and demonstration facilities for private companies that are developing wave energy conversion technology. This will allow Ireland to challenge Scotland’s European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) based in the Orkney Islands on the basis that the Irish site is the most energy intensive of all. The walls of his office are lined with illustrations of various wave energy convertors with names like ‘Wave Bob’ and ‘Pelamis’ and ‘Aquamarine’, the owners of which are eagerly waiting to test the survivability and reliability of their technologies in the harsh Atlantic conditions. “At the moment we already have a quarter-scale test site in Galway Bay…we also have tank testing facilities down in UCC [University College Cork],” he explains. But AMETS is a potential game-changer for Ireland. According to a recent study by the SEAI, the Irish ocean energy industry could support 17,000 to 52,000 jobs and contribute €4-10 billion to the economy by 2030.

Visual impact

We finally arrive at the western tip of Annagh Head and take a short stroll to a rocky promontory where sheep are grazing nearby. The sea conditions are unusually flat on this July day and so there’s no dramatic footage of breaking waves to support SEAI claims of the best wave resource in all of Europe. Ryan singles out a buoy situated within the intermediate test site zone. I trained my camera lens at maximum focal length (200mm) to enlarge the structure that can only just be seen with the naked eye. “That buoy is 6 metres high”, he tells me. It becomes clear to me from looking at the illustrations of wave energy convertors in his office and the distance I could now observe, that visual impact was unlikely to be a pressing concern. Despite the absence of any dwellings in the vicinity, a local farmer still happened to seek us out on our brief stopover. The conversation was amicable but it was clear that local people want to know what’s going on in their patch and can understandably be mistrustful of outsiders (even those of us who come from the county).

Engaging communities

“We were aware from what had happened with the Corrib gas project [a controversial processing plant and pipeline under construction by Shell nearby] that there may have been another way of doing things at the early stages. So we were determined that noone was going to be surprised by any of our developments, they were going to know well in advance. As one fella said to me, ‘Jesus you’ve been talking about this for a very long time. Would you ever just go ahead and build the shagging things?’” The SEAI submitted its foreshore lease application and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government in December 2011, which was followed by an 8-week public consultation. Now they are playing the waiting game until the Minister decides whether to provide the green light. Ryan is somewhat critical of government bureaucracy and “inertia in the regulatory side of things”.  One of the reasons that Scotland is so far ahead of Ireland in developing marine energy to date is that, “they have developed the concept of the one-stop-shop where the developer just goes to particular government office in Scotland…and a decision is provided within 6 or 12 months of application”.

Changing policy

But the Managing Director of Aquavision admits that things are now changing in Ireland. “I actually hosted Enda Kenny here before he became Taoiseach [Prime Minister of Ireland] and he was genuinely, completed energized, pardon the pun, by the concept [of wave energy]. It’s difficult in these times where you’re cutting back investment in hospitals, in public health…and yet we’re going to invest €20 million in a project that isn’t going to bring any real return for 10-15 years”. Herein lies the crux of the problem with the development of marine renewable energy; venture capitalists and traditional investors typically expect a payback within 5 years. Ryan believes that there is a real need for intervention at State level in order to take on risk that private entities are unwilling to, especially over the longer term. In his own words, “The way there’s State involvement in the Space programme, it should be the same with regards to marine energy”.

Future for wave power

So how far away are we from developing wave energy to the point where it can start to have a real impact on energy security and carbon emissions? Often when I’ve talked to local people in Ireland and the UK who are opposed to wind energy, the Great White Hope mentioned on many occasions is that we should be harnessing the power of the ocean instead of building wind farms. “I think wave power has a long way to go in the development of the technology. It could be the late 2030s before we see any scale in wave farms,” he relays to me soberly. “I‘ve been involved with the sector itself for the last 7 years…now most people acknowledge we’re not going to meet any targets [for wave energy] that we’ve set for 2020 or 2030.” To put this in context, the 10MW AMETS project, one of the largest of its kind anywhere, has a potential output equivalent to just two or three modern wind turbines. By implication, wind farms are clearly going to need to play a vital role in our attempts to mitigate climate change in the short to medium term (and perhaps longer).

At this point, we’ve arrived at our second destination, the point where the two 10kV marine cables come ashore at Belderra Strand to feed into the grid. Again, it’s a lovely stretch of coast, largely deserted except for a few nearby bungalows. He points to a flattish hill to indicate where the substation will be positioned. The photomontages I saw earlier in his office show a berm or ridge around the single-storied structure to minimize visual impact. “There’s not going to be pylons so they’re going to be the same sort of poles that are here already. There’s just going to be a few more of them,” he tells me referring to plans to develop the electricity grid.

Implications for Climate Change

As we drive back to his office in Belmullet, I enquire about his views on where climate change stands in the bigger scheme of things. “For me personally, it’s huge. For me, its like the astronomers have spotted an asteroid coming towards the earth and they’ve told everyone, it’s coming in 10 or 15 years time and we’re doing nothing about it. And that effectively is what climate change is. I tend to be skeptical by nature. I’ve a good training in skepticism. But climate change is happening and it’s being caused by the activities of Man.”

Ryan believes that there is a potential dividend for the community in that it adds to the profile of the region in terms of being a real player in developing renewable energy technology. “The concept we have is that if we get this facility set up, there’ll be lots of links with colleges, research facilities. If we look at what has happened in the Orkneys when they developed there. Hundreds of jobs generated from all the spin off”. Battered by wind, wave and squally showers, North Mayo is a region scarred by emigration and unemployment, not just in recent times, but across entire centuries. Now a chance exists to harness the brute force of Nature, of turning climate into an ally that will help benefit local communities and appease the effects of man-made climate change.

This is the second in a series of stories that explores energy and landscape in Mayo – a rural county in the West of Ireland where I grew up. View the first story here – Could wind replace bog as a more sustainable energy resource in Mayo?

Useful links –

SEAI ocean energy webpage

Aquavision website

AMETS foreshore lease application

Cycling the green way through rural West of Ireland

 

Cycling the Greenway between Mulranny and Achill in the West of Ireland

 

“My most difficult days would be Mondays and Tuesdays. You’ve got the litter after the weekends if the weather is fine…and sheep coming down from mountain areas if walkers leave gates open” he later adds. Such are the challenges for John O’Donnell, caretaker of the Great Western Greenway, the longest off-road cycling trail in Ireland. Largely following 42km of disused railway between Westport and Achill Sound in County Mayo, the route passes through pleasant rural countryside, devoid of the hectic crush of modern living and freely accessible to all but the most unfit. “The most enjoyable aspect of the job would be meeting people and surveying them” O’Donnell confides.  Weather aside, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding job.

Arthur J Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1887–1891 (and later Prime Minister of the UK), authorized the construction of a network of narrow gauge railways in rural Ireland at the end of the 19th century. Development of road traffic sealed the fate of the line, bringing an end to the railroad a mere 42 years later in 1937. Known by the nickname “Bloody Balfour” for his enforcement of the Perpetual Crimes Act aimed at suppressing the land rights of Irish, Balfour’s legacy has since been subverted by local landowners who gifted their modest plots of countryside for the establishment of the Great Western Greenway. O’Donnell makes a point of letting me know that the Greenway would not have happened, “only for the goodwill and the buy in with the local authority and the landowners. 80 to 90 percent of them [landowners] don’t benefit from the Greenway directly”.  Nevertheless there are wider benefits for the surrounding community with an additional forty to fifty full-time staff employed by hotels, cafes, and restaurants in the area. “You’ve got six or seven bike hire companies between Westport and Achill and they’re all employing 3-4 people,” he also adds.

The trail surface itself consists of compacted gravel and follows a largely flat route between Mulranny and Achill, just one of three sections in my home county that I recently had the pleasure of visiting. The ever-changeable West of Ireland weather meant several stops along the way to swap T-shirt and shorts for anorak and pull-ups; it’s all par for the course and adds to rather than detracts from the overall experience. Leaving Mulranny, the cyclist coasts downhill through welcoming woodland and a sea of ferns before the countryside opens up to reveal an inlet of the Atlantic with bogland and mountain strung out on either side.

I happened upon Mr. O’Donnell at a well-known viewing point – the Blue Bridge – as I stopped to take in the exhilarating scenery on my return journey. “So who typically comes to the West of Ireland to cycle the Greenway?” I enquired, once pleasantries had been exchanged. “The majority of our visitors would be Irish nationals. After that, in the last year, it would be the USA and parts of Europe…mostly Germans and French…and Austrians. The UK market wouldn’t be as strong as the first year…I’ve noticed a big drop in UK visitors this year”. I was struck by the number of young families cycling along the route and said as much. “You can use the tag-alongs [a small canvas-covered trailer] if the children are quite small. Its very safe for families to cycle along as it’s 97% off road”. In fact the only section that still forces cyclists and motorists to share a main road will soon be segregated. “We have secured the funding (€360,000) and hopefully that’s going to happen in the second part of the year or early next year”, John assures me.

But it’s not just tourists who walk and cycle the trail. “There’s a lot of people using it to go to work…when the weather is favourable” he cautiously adds. “Children in the schools in Westport right through to Achill, on a Wednesday in April, May and June, they have a cycle-to-school day and a walk-to-school day”. An impressive 550 visitors a day use some or all of the Greenway on average in the high season, although this can drop to below 100 per day in the dead of winter. I relayed to Mr. O’Donnell that I had met an older man by the name of Patrick J Sweeney further back on the trail as he loaded turf into a high trailer for the long winter ahead. “Oh, that’s my father-in-law. We were talking about you at dinner!” We both shared a laugh at the small world rural living affords.

The Greenway website does not make any explicit mention of eco-tourism (nor did our conversation) but this must surely be a prime attraction and key opportunity to open up new markets. The land in the West of Ireland may be boggy, hilly and largely suited for little more than grazing sheep but the landscape has a value that deserves far greater recognition and investment by the State and local government. At a local level, plans are afoot to develop a cycle rest area and hub called the Great Western Activity Centre, if funding can be found to renovate the old railway station in Mulranny. More pressing concerns are installing toilets, water-points and shelters from the often-inclement weather. “We don’t have any funding at the moment. Based on the surveys that I’m gathering for the last two years that will strengthen the case for funding”, he says optimistically. Other counties are looking to Mayo for inspiration to redeploy their own sections of abandoned railroad. “We’re getting delegations here from various county councils in the country. We’ve recently just had West Cork; they’ve got a lot of disused railways. The biggest issue challenging any other county council to actually go ahead with this is the occupation [sic] of landownership”.

Exactly twelve months previously, I was fortunate to visit New York City and stroll along another stretch of disused railway infrastructure – The High Line. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting locations, each with their own unique sense of drama. The elevated views framed by towering skyscrapers and warehouses were now to be replaced by vast cloud-scudded skies and generous vistas confined only by the heather-covered mountains. The livestock freight train running through the Meatpacking District of busy Manhattan and the tourist express train chugging through rural West of Ireland have a shared sense of history. Both have  embraced change to find an exciting new meaning in life. Reborn, repurposed and above all relevant to a more sustainable way of living in the modern world.

View a slideshow of my recent trip here – Green infrastructure

Visit the Great Western Greenway website for route maps and more information

Mr O’Donnell would like to point out that Southwest Mayo Development provide much needed support to Mayo County Council in maintaining the Greenway through activities such as strimming and weed control.