The hardy monks used to winter in Ballinskelligs. They’d come in from the Rock as the weather turned nasty at the darkest time of year. And then, when the Skellig could no longer be inhabited at all, they moved lock, stock and barrel into Ballinskelligs and established an abbey.
The monks were no fools. They knew when they had stumbled across Paradise. These days, the South Kerry hamlet of Ballinskelligs attracts the multitudes in the summer rather than the monks in the winter. It’s an area blessed by nature. McCarthy’s ancient castle is at the tip of the elliptical-shaped beach.
The sandy rim of Ballinskelligs Bay loops around to Waterville village and onto the dark slopes of Coomakista. You could be in Vietnam, or a hidden island in the South Seas. When the sun shines on the bay you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to be this side of Hawaii.
Unfortunately, you can’t eat the scenery. In recent decades, the Iveragh peninsula, in which Ballinskelligs nestles, has suffered depopulation, lack of investment, flight from the land, all the symptoms of the decline of rural Ireland.
Some decline is inevitable. But throughout the country communities are mobilising, innovating, resisting. However, recent travails in Iveragh highlight another aspect to rural decline and raises serious questions about whether or not planning law is fit for purpose in today’s world.
The only hotel in Ballinskelligs, Cable O’Leary’s, sits high above the beach. It’s in poor nick, having been around in one form or another for the guts of a century.
A local family, the O’Sullivans, who made good in construction in New York, bought the hotel a few years ago. Big plans. Expand, go up a single storey to three. Throw in a gym. Build it and they will come year-round. Where better to spend a winter break?
A meeting attended by around 500 people last week heard that those plans are now in shreds. An Bord Pleanála has refused permission, following an appeal in which two objections persisted. One of the objectors is believed to a well-to-do person who has retired to the area. Another is from an address in Kenmare, about 65km away.
There is huge local anger that a plan to pump life into the area, provide jobs and brighten the future, can be killed by two individuals acting in their own self-interest.
A letter read out at the meeting from the developer Kevin O’Sullivan stated that he shared the anger of all the other locals. He feels he now has no choice but to close the existing hotel as it is no longer viable and in danger of falling into disrepair.
Most of the 300 or so owners of holiday homes in the area, including TD Alan Kelly, are in favour of the development. But the wishes of the vast majority are redundant in this instance.
Ironically, some of the nearby holiday home developments were decried as entirely inappropriate by conservation bodies when built during the boom.
About a mile or so from Ballinskellings, near Reenroe beach, stands the skeletal concrete frame of another hotel, built in the 1970s, and abandoned within a few years. This represented a local man’s ill-timed vision; a leisure and hotel complex for a wealthy country before the country became wealthy. Over a decade ago, a plan emerged by a large company to redevelop the building.
That foundered on one objection, from a man living in Canada who owned a holiday home nearby. The shell is still there, a decrepit monument to one man’s folly and another’s insistence that his needs were greater than those of the local community.
In nearby Caherciveen, there was a small boost earlier this year when it was announced that Aldi was coming to town to create 20 jobs. The peninsula is without any German or British multiple outlet.
In the last few weeks, apparently on the last day for lodging objections, Kerry County Council received one. The objection was submitted by a planning consultant on behalf of a client. At the very least, this threatened delay to yet another attempt to inject life into a rural outpost. On Thursday, with local anger piping, and the inevitability of the objector’s identity being unmasked, the objection was withdrawn.
Many on the peninsula have invested hope in the greenway. If you build this they will come in their multitudes. The Greenway is proposed to run along an old railway line from Glenbeigh down to Caherciveen and onto Renard Point, from where the ferry departs for Valentia Island. The 32km cycleway, including viaducts, tunnels and spectacular scenery, has massive potential.
The chairman of the local development group, Frank Curran, told the Irish Examiner last year that the project would be a game-changer for the area.
“We could have hundreds of thousands coming into the area every year and 70 or 80 jobs created directly,” he said.
It would a huge boost for B&Bs as well, and this is not plucking figures out of the sky. We’ve seen that in the likes of Waterford where the greenway is a big success. The great thing is that it is sustainable, eco-friendly and not weather dependent. It could really make a serious difference.
Of the fifty or so landowners along the route, around a dozen are objecting. The project has already been delayed by at least four years. Informed opinion has it that maybe half the objectors are open to compromise. That leaves less than half a dozen who claim to be making a stand on principle.
Collectively, a handful of individuals are managing to frustrate, delay or kill off projects in an area that is struggling desperately to stay alive. On the face of it, all of these objections are entirely based on the self-interest of the individuals.
The planning laws in this State are nominally based on the “common good”, as defined in the landmark 1963 Planning Act. Where lies the common good in the projects outlined in this column?
Arguably, the common good was not served in rural areas such as South Kerry in the last 50 years through the proliferation of one-off housing. In many of these instances, exceptions became the rule, as local politicians pandered to farmers and landowners.
If the common good had been served, towns like Caherciveen wouldn’t have been hollowed out and would now be in a better position to tackle decline. But we are where we are. In planning terms, there must now be a requirement for rural decline and economic imperative to receive far greater concern than heretofore.
This does not have to lead to compromise in terms of broad planning principles. But if more than lip service is to be given to tackling rural decline, it is an issue that demands immediate and serious attention.