Compared with many other countries, we are lucky that Ireland has a small population with large and varied expanses of pristine upland and wilderness areas. For decades, however, we made little enough use of this, conceding the lion’s share of outdoor tourism to places such as Tuscany, Scotland, the English Lake District, and Spain.
Now Ireland’s richly varied upland and wilderness areas have come into their own, proving a virtual lifesaver for many during the pandemic.
A paradigm shift in behaviour means people have now taken to recreating and exercising outdoors in much greater numbers. In future, we are likely to see a reduction in demand for hugely expensive indoor attractions such as Titanic Belfast and the Guinness Storehouse. As an example, Titanic Belfast required an investment of over £100m, while this year’s reopening of St Declan’s Way pilgrim path which links Ardmore with Cashel, merely cost a value-for-money €230,000.
It is now almost certain we will witness more demand for greenways, blueways, and pilgrim paths which also come with the advantage that — unlike interpretive centres — they tend to entice repeat users. The pandemic can, if we now make the right investment, prove a blessing in disguise for hard-hit rural Ireland as outdoor attractions can be created on a highly cost-effective basis.
This can only happen, however, with sufficient infrastructure. To begin with, we don’t have enough car parking spaces, toilet facilities, and signage to allow Irish people and overseas visitors get the benefits of outdoor recreation. Several times, last summer, I have witnessed agricultural machinery unable to access land because of cars overflowing from inadequate car parks.
There is also an increasing problem of erosion. Most of the Irish uplands are covered by blanket bog, which, under heavy footfall, breaks down and becomes soft and mucky. Walkers are forced to go right or left to get around it and without specific intervention, the farmer soon finds that rough grazing land has been transformed into a great mucky scar on the hillside.
The final problem for landowners is the application of negligence law, which has effectively transferred the cost of personal insurance from recreationists to landowners.
As things stand, not only do landowners surrender privacy for no monetary gain and leave themselves open to the small number of irresponsible individuals who leave gates open, damage fences, and allow dogs to worry livestock, they also expose themselves to the possibility of litigation. Objectively speaking, it is difficult to successfully sue a landowner in Ireland, but there can be no guarantee and the time has certainly come to remove this burden from the shoulders of landowners.
Until recently, conventional wisdom held that the uplands were a bit like the northern lights or the colours of a New England autumn — they came as a gift of nature and required no incremental investment. Now, we are realising that when it comes to outdoor recreation, there is no such thing as a free lunch. From Lugnaquilla to Carrauntoohil and Galtymore to Errigal, the Irish uplands are groaning under the strain of the ever-increasing footfall and landowners are being greatly pressurised.
The time has come to remove this burden by investing in the marvellous recreational resource that is our uplands.
First, we need to fund an adequate infrastructure of car parks, toilet facilities, and signage at the principal trailheads to facilitate recreationists and remove inconvenience for local people.
For our busiest mountain routes, we must take the pressure off the landscape by building consolidated paths from vernacular stone that seamlessly merges into the landscape. This model of access has been used across the UK and is now being successfully implemented on Croagh Patrick.
Finally, a long-promised, indemnity scheme that would protect farmers who allow recreational use of the uplands must be implemented immediately. Occupier’s liability should cease being a backdoor where landowners are obliged to carry the risk for misfortunes befalling recreational users of the uplands. As responsible hillwalkers, we have a duty to provide for our own insurance cover.
• Discover more about the major new development of the pilgrim path on the St Declan's Way website and see the Sport Ireland website for more details about the route, including gradings and facilities.
• John G O'Dwyer is a mountain leader and author. His latest book, here on currachbooks.com., is available