Earlier this month the walking community in Ireland was greatly alarmed to learn that a woman, who slipped and cut her knee on a boardwalk when walking The Wicklow Way, was awarded €40,000 damages against the National Parks & Wildlife Service who had installed it, writes Damien Enright

The court found the NPWS failed to maintain the boardwalk.

The woman’s knee required seven stitches. She asserted that she could no longer run half-marathons or climb hills. She is 59.

I consulted Roger Garland of Keep Ireland Open for his opinion. He was surprised that the woman, an experienced walker, hadn’t noticed the boardwalk was damaged. The woman said, however, she obeyed the laws of the mountain and was directed by signs to use the boardwalk. There was no finding of contributory negligence.

A NPWS spokesperson could not tell me if an appeal would be made against the award.

The award sets back the small and hard-won gains in countryside access that walkers in Ireland have achieved in the last two decades. As we know, our state is unique in the degree to which it allows landowners to bar access to land which was not only traditionally crossed in the past, but often includes paths footworn by recent generations.

The property boom in the Celtic Tiger years resulted in land avarice. Barren lands previously of no interest to their owners suddenly became fenced in like nuclear firing ranges. Some landowners demanded tolls for passage, and physically threatened walkers.

Wild and unfounded rumours were seeded amongst rural communities about farmers having to sell their homes and holdings to meet compensation claims by walkers who strayed onto their acres and hurt themselves, or rogues who deliberately entered their land to make spurious claims.

Who could blame farmers for protecting themselves against these blackguards, real or imagined? But then came the Occupiers Liability Act, protecting landowners from claims by trespassers, and the dismissal, with costs, of a claim by a Donegal woman for an injury judged to have been caused by her own negligence.

Last week, I went to the Old Head of Kinsale, where the barring of public access was opposed, but lost, 20 years ago. I went to see the annual gathering of the sea birds for nesting.

As I stood squinting through binoculars on a cliff edge outside the gate (only golf club members can enter), fulmars floated past my right ear on rigid wings, slowing for a second to turn their heads to look at me. I could have reached out to touch them, but a slip would have meant joining them in the air.

On cliffs and stacks far below me, mating pairs of gull-like kittiwakes billed and preened on tiny ledges. Above them, on slopes of rock debris, black and white razorbills and guillemots stood upright as penguins, socialising and moving about like monkey-suited guests at a celebrity wedding.

Shortly, pairs would begin to stake out spaces on which to lay their precious, pear-shaped egg with its heavy fat end and pointed short one, ‘constructed’ so that, if disturbed by a careless neighbour, it would spin, not roll, and not fall off the ledge.

No nest is made, but each egg is subtly different so that the parents will recognise it, and each chick has a different cry, so that the parents, winging in with pre-digested hot dinners will pick out its mewling cry from the cacophony of the cliff face.

Next month, the raucous caucus of the colony will be in full swing as the adults frantically service their offspring, the small, cruciform guillemots, their short wings whirring like wound-up toys as they speed low over the water, then rise perpendicularly to their hatchlings on the scree 200ft above.

Dainty kittiwakes, pearly-backed with jet black wingtips, crisscross the air, alight on ledges no bigger than a human hand, fill open gapes, pink and waiting, and then off again, sliding sideways into the air like Gerald Manley Hopkins’ windhover, plunging to the surface where rafts of guillemot and razorbill duck and dive, marking where small fish are shoaling: one can see the schools black beneath the sea.

Go to the Old Head, I would urge my readers, or to Mizen, or to any of the cliff-nest metropolises along our wild coasts this May or June — go before all the eggs are hatched and the chicks reared, go with care and personal responsibility, and if you fall off the cliff, do not sue.

In Ireland, we can still enjoy wildlife sights of awesome activity and great beauty. Long may access prevail!


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