Man and land in modern Ireland

Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland

Christopher Moriarty

Our landscape, according to the results of many statistical surveys, is one of the key factors in attracting tourists to Ireland.  That is one of very fewaspects of scenery that can be quantified and it has had a considerable effect on having conservation taken seriously by Government and its agencies.  Other factors that make conservation acceptable include directives from the EU and recommendations from various international organisations. 

Other than these, appreciation of the landscape varies endlessly amongst the population. At one extreme stand those who have had an above-average awareness of our scenery from childhood and have a fierce desire to maintain it unchanged. At the other end of the spectrum are those whose environment is limited to office, home and pub. The common feature of all is that sentiment rules rather than logic or pragmatism.  The value of landscape cannot be measured in any realistic terms and that makes it extremely difficult to influence the majority of politicians and authorities whose usual yardstick for value is financial.

Feast of detail

There is possibly even less consensus on the meaning of landscape than exists on politics, religion or sport.  In 206 pages of text, generously supplied with beautiful and highly relevant illustrations, Brendan McGrath provides a feast of detail on the attitudes to landscape of the people of Ireland together with examples of successes and failures in conservation. 

The author is a planning consultant who has spent part of his professional career as a planner employed by a local authority.  The latter employment in particular exposed him to the realities of life between administrators on the one hand and members of the public with their various vested interests on the other.

Planners face two huge problems. The first is that nobody knows exactly what constitutes a landscape of value, worthy of large investments of public money to conserve. The second is that the Constitution of Ireland, for a number of historical reasons, gives a special place to the rights of those who are fortunate enough to own property.

Public interest

Although one of the relevant clauses mentions ‘public interest’ this has seldom been invoked by the courts and the property owner has usually been free to ride roughshod over the interests of his neighbours.

They are the obvious ones.  A more subtle problem lies in the inherent lack of objectivity in all matters aesthetic.  It is probably fair to say that there is a wide consensus amongst planners and other well qualified persons in Western Europe as to what is good and what is bad.  But this is a long way from unanimity. 

A current example is the controversy over the ESB offices on Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin. Designed by two of the most talented young architects of the 1960s, rather few people then or now would consider their building a thing of beauty and its impending destruction is being widely welcomed. 

The idea of replacing the façade with a pastiche based on the former private houses is welcomed by some, despised by others. Of the latter some want a new modern building, others would like full restoration of the 1960s work on the grounds that it is a good example of the tastes then prevailing. All three views are advanced by highly intelligent, articulate and fully qualified persons. But they are incompatible and only one can be chosen. 

Brendan McGrath identifies various failures to control development and regrets the fact that Ireland has very much less land set aside as National Parks or otherwise effectively controlled than have most countries of comparable wealth. 


He also identifies some of the protagonists of development in our country whose standpoints are difficult to reconcile at present.  His bringing these together serves a valuable purpose in concentrating minds on what needs to be done.  That said, the facts that we have some National Parks and that planning legislation actually exists and is frequently enforced make it evident that progress has been made and that there are grounds for believing that effective conservation of many of the best aspects of our environmental heritage is a real possibility.