Rural dwellers the world over are, in my experience, frequently resourceful, independent, and well able to manage the challenges that living in remote rural areas can bring.
(Of course, if you live in one of these “remote rural areas”, it’s obviously the centre of your universe, and probably only seems remote to the casual visitor.)
Routine setbacks that are part of rural living are usually accepted with resignation and creativity.
It is an accepted fact that whatever you are doing, be it work-related or social, the rural dweller will be travelling distances city dwellers might find hard to believe.
Nevertheless, there are some things that even the most resolute culchie can’t do much about, beyond registering their objections. The closure of Garda stations, the growing threat to small schools, cutbacks to the ambulance service, and the looming spectre of hefty septic tank charges, are just a few of these issues.
I’m not promoting the formation of a Grumpy Old Rural Residents movement. However, something that happened in my neck of the woods recently had me thinking about just how easy it is for small communities to be marginalised and even sidelined by the authorities.
We had heard some weeks back that a section of the N71 which runs north-south from Bantry to Kenmare, was to be the subject of considerable upheaval for several weeks. The road was to be virtually remade, and such extensive work would result in unavoidable delays.
Since we all know that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, I’m sure most people did the sensible thing and factored in an extra 15 minutes or so into their journeys along this section of the road. The massive equipment – diggers, rollers and tarmac spreaders — moved in, and the quality of work that was being skilfully done by crews working in all weathers aroused much admiration from everyone.
Then, the operation moved to Glengarriff village, with a road closure from that well-known landmark, the Blue Loo, north as far as my westbound turn-off for the Glen and Nature Reserve.
I wrongly assumed it would not affect those of us who live in the Glen, and I was confident that some sort of provision would have been made.
After all, our alternative north south route from Glengarriff to Kenmare is via Castletownbere and Eyeries — an 82 km detour which would take you about two hours and 15 minutes, according to the AA, about the same time it takes me to get to Cork City.
This couldn’t apply to the residents of the Glen, could it? On the first day that the road was closed, the signs stated quite clearly, “Road Closed — Local Access Only”.
So I headed off for my weekly visit to CoAction in Castletownbere, not unduly worried. But when I got to the N71, I was flagged down by one of the road crew, who told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t pass. Local access was, it seemed, a distant ideal.
Was he actually insisting I go left instead of right, that I’d have to drive to Kenmare, travel from there to Eyeries and on to Castletownbere? Surely not. I tried explaining that l lived in the Glen and that yesterday’s sign had promised local access. What did he suggest I do? But he was unrelenting. The only route they would endorse was the 82km epic.
I did a U-turn and headed back the way I had come — to the Bog Road, a lovely, meandering and scenic back road that takes you eventually onto the Glengarriff-Castletownbere road. But it has few turning places, is very narrow, and is full of blind bends. It’s a road I take when I’m in no particular hurry, just for the joy of it, safe in the knowledge that I’ll meet at best, one of two cars, locals who know the road and who are well used to reversing.
Over our eight days of road closures, it became obvious that many other local residents had been forced to take this road too. Time, and the cost of fuel, obviously did not allow them the luxury of an 82 km detour. This extra traffic meant that drivers on the Bog Road sometimes had to reverse for considerable distances, made even more difficult if there were other cars behind them. The verges were soft from so much rain, but drivers had to manage as best they could.
On one particularly fraught day, when there were two cars behind me, the driver of a car with Belgian licence plates was heading toward me at a particularly nasty bend. He wound his window down, and with an air of desperation, asked me where Glengarriff was, and how could he get there.
How he had got up into the Glen in the first place remains a mystery. Had he simply charged the barricades, or come down from the High Road just after the tunnels on the Kenmare road? Maybe there were more like him, confused tourists who had been driving for miles, re-routed down unfamiliar roads, which seemed to get increasingly narrower. Perhaps, years from now, archaeologists will unearth the skeletal remains of those who simply didn’t make it.
This difficult situation was made even worse by the fact that, in the Glen, there wasn’t one sign to let us know the latest state of play, or much else either. Either you found a neighbour who knew what was going on, or you drove the three or four miles down to the barricades to find out for yourself. Eventually, a handwritten cardboard sign appeared, tied to a telegraph pole near my gate, obviously not written by the National Roads Authority (NRA). It said, “Detour for Glengarriff, right, then first left.”
At the risk of repeating myself, the work that’s being done on the N71 is impressive and very welcome, But it is surely disingenuous to expect that any small community could take an 82 km detour on a regular basis.
The NRA examined — and rejected — the Bog Road as an official alternative route, because it is obviously not fit for purpose. But it must have been obvious that local people were going to use it.
It would surely have been possible to organise matters a little better. Stickers perhaps for the cars of local residents, issued by the gardaí? Smaller machinery so that the Kenmare road could have been divided, and a contra-flow cars controlled by traffic lights? And perhaps, most significant of all, signs in the Glen which would have kept residents and disoriented tourists better informed.
Spokesperson for the NRA Sean O’Neill expressed his regret at the difficulties local residents had experienced, but pointed out that they could only recommend routes which were safe.
The fact that there were no signs posted in the Glen, was, he said a matter of concern and he would be looked into.
Local TD Noel Harrington said he was shocked at the length and duration of the diversion, and appalled by the lack of consultation. He intends to investigate.
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