Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A dual carriageway through Seamus Heaney’s landscape; or whatever you say, say nothing

Our greatest poet’s dead, so let’s run a dual carriageway through his childhood landscape.  Apart from a motivated group of local people hardly anyone’s making a fuss.  Either in Ulster or over here. 

A flyover is planned within 100m of Seamus Heaney’s childhood home at Mossbawn. 

One of the UK’s most precious poetry landscapes is about to be destroyed.  It also happens to contain pristine wetland which is a whooper swan site.  The 4-lane A6 road, carrying 22,000 cars a day, will pass through the Lough Beg area within yards of an Area of Special Scientific Interest protected by the Wetlands Convention and the EU Habitats Directive. 

A local environmentalist called Chris Murphy is taking the Northern Ireland Department of Infrastructure to court, seeking a judicial review. There’s a BBC piece here on the background.  The hearing happened last week; it had to be moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate supporters.  The case has to be solely about whether the project is being taken forward according to Article 6 (3) of the Habitats Directive.  Heaney’s legacy isn’t part of it.

Murphy says they have a strong case because the Infrastructure Dept has made errors and there are good alternative routes for the road.  Here’s the link to a crowdfunder for the court action.    Some way down the page is a scan of a letter Heaney sent to Peter Hain (then secretary of state for NI) in 2005, asking him to get involved:

I have known and loved this area since childhood and have written about it – or rather out of it – often. It is one of the few undisturbed bits of wetland in mid-Ulster, a direct link to the environment our mesolithic ancestors knew in the Bann Valley and a precious “lung” in the countryside.  Any motorway desecrates, but some desecrate more than others.

This is a crowdfunder that could have gone viral – but it’s only reached £840, with 29 backers, though Murphy says pledges have been made offline too. 

The only NGO to oppose the plans is Friends of the Earth whose Northern Ireland director, James Orr, has been in the NI press highlighting that trees on the route are already being cut down and hedgerows taken out.  “Highly irregular”, he says; the Dept for Infrastructure should be waiting for the outcome of the court case.  

Others have kept their heads down.  I’ve been told that the local atmosphere is somewhat toxic.  The RSPB, for example, has a cryptic statement on its website as if the author was biting his/her lip not to say more.  According to the BBC the land across which this road would run has already been bought and compensation agreed.

I emailed Home Place, the new Heaney centre in mid Ulster, who could only find this to say:

Mid Ulster District Council supports the development of the strategic road network in the Mid Ulster area. The Council also recognises that with any major road infrastructure project it is important that the environmental impacts are fully considered.  Addressing adverse impacts, and putting measures in place to mitigate against them, will be particularly important for the A6 road scheme.

It seems that Home Place is happy to foster an artificial, virtual Heaneyscape while the real one is destroyed.  But it turns out that Home Place was funded, very generously, by Mid Ulster District Council, who will also cover the considerable running costs. 

There don’t seem to be celebrity supporters either.  When you think of Heaney’s national and international connections, Irish, American, Nobel Prize and many others, that seems remarkable.  One exception is naturalist and writer Mark Cocker who visited the area last autumn and heard about it all.  He is supporting the campaign and wrote briefly about it in the Guardian

A few weeks ago I emailed various people who I thought would have an interest in this because of Heaney associations or general poetry interests, asking them if they’d donate to the crowdfunder and/or share the news and lobby.  I got a few responses including from the Poetry Society. 

Similarly hardly anyone responded when I posted about this on social media.. not that I’m a social media queen but if I’d posted something quirky, or a poetry story closer to home, the response would have been much better.  

Is it that Northern Ireland might as well be on another planet for most people in the rest of the UK and elsewhere? 

Or perhaps they think the situation is lost already and it’s better to turn their backs.  We’re all exhausted with all the other causes we must support in 2017.  Or they’d like some heavyweight endorsement of the cause, to be sure it’s worthwhile; fair enough.  Mark Cocker’s support after his visit should suffice. 

Perhaps fatigue and resignation are setting in when it comes to destruction of the countryside.  It just happens and happens and happens and happens and happens. 

I find the whole thing perplexing. 

There’s a hashtag #stopHeaneyroad but only one tweet so far.

By the way, I don’t know what the timetable is beyond last week’s court hearing, e.g. how long the judge will take to decide or whether an appeal is possible if the decision is No.  

If a judicial review is allowed, I hope attitudes will change.  I hope I'm not the only person to have a Heaneyscape in my head, or wherever it is that poetry takes root.