Damien Enright: Reclaiming of railways for walking began in the 1980s

With land for walking and cycling routes in Kerry now being bought by compulsory purchase order, it’s a shame that the efforts of the first developers of abandoned Irish railway routes aren’t recognised.

The Mayo and Waterford greenways, which opened in 2010 and 2017, respectively, are cited as the ‘forerunners’ of the movement.

In fact, Shannon Development initiated the idea in the late 1980s, but abandoned it in the face of formidable objections from a farmer-led lobby.

Liam O’Mahony, a Newcastle West native, and a few like-minded friends, formed the Great Southern Trail Action Group and, after a strenuous campaign lasting over a decade, the first 4km stretch of the inchoate Great Southern Trail, now 39km, was officially opened by Tom Finn, of CIÉ, in 2004.

Cleared of briars, overgrowth, and dumped debris, the abandoned tracks made natural walkways, often scenic, for the track-layers had taken the more undeveloped routes. For the last 30 years, Liam and friends have worked tirelessly to open the tracks from Newcastle West ever onward. Along with his teaching career, it has become his life’s work.

I was with Liam one dark evening, in winter 2002, when he was confronted by an angry farmer. We were making an episode of Beaten Paths, a programme exploring walking access, which David Bickey and I were filming for RTÉ.

The groundbreakers regularly met such confrontations. In addition, they spent evenings on paperwork and weekends with chainsaws and billhooks. On a regular basis, they approached ‘difficult’ landowners to attempt to persuade or cajole them to hand back the abandoned tracks for public amenity.

The iron rails had long since been removed and the space left in the care of the nation. In time, vegetation has grown over the gravel — and why shouldn’t farmers with adjoining fields avail of unused land to graze or pen their livestock? But, Liam tells me, it was not small-holders, but well-connected large farmers, who proved most difficult. Some still actively block progress on the Listowel-to-Tralee stretch of the trail.

Many farmers saw the sense of the project and the added value that walkers might bring to remote areas; some helped Liam’s workforce in clearing the track. Others refused to vacate.

For me, the proven economic success of the greenways vindicates my personal efforts to restore rights-of-way and establish undisputed walking routes.

For years, I wrote regularly of the need for public access rights to our landscape, published pocket books on walks in west Cork, and made TV programmes about walking.

The real credit goes to the pioneers, like Liam O’Mahony, who had the vision and dedication to create the greenways, and those trailblazers who opened off-the-beaten-track routes on the Sheep’s Head, the Kerry Way, and Galtymore, despite landowners’ obstruction.

I believe that, now, with the proven economic success of the greenways, it is important to set the record straight as to where, and when, the first clearing of abandoned railway tracks for extended walkaways was initiated, and by whom.

The creation of these long-distance routes marks a historic moment in the archives of the state, a beacon of a new enlightenment, and new valuation of an indigenous asset. Our exceptional landscape is crisscrossed by arteries of nature, so that we ourselves, and our visitors can enjoy our island’s clean air, unpolluted by industry, and our temperate climate, unassailed by extremes.

Other railway greenways in other regions were inspired and encouraged by the lead that Liam and his companions signposted. It is only right that the land to which we are heirs should be enjoyed, not only by those who farm it, but by those who walk it. A railway line dissected my father’s family farm.

I am sorry for the Kerry farmers who have lost strips of land which may be vital to their holdings. 

But, in most cases, they are not vital. The sliver occupied by the railway line didn’t stop their forefathers farming the land.

Meanwhile, would politicians like Shane Ross, and radio commentators, like Mary Wilson, please stop referring to the Mayo Greenway as if it were the inspiration for all others?

I was amazed to see a newspaper article, headlined ‘The Story behind Ireland’s Greenways’, citing Mayo’s Great Western Greenway as having a domino effect that led to the creation of a plethora of others. Despite the authoritative title, the writer clearly hadn’t researched the facts, and had given credit where credit was due.


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