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Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland
Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland

Our Price:39.00
Authors: Brendan McGrath
Affiliation: Consultant planner in the West of Ireland
Publication Year: Hardback September 2013
Pages: 248
Size: 234 x 156mm

ISBN: 9781909005716


Ireland stands out as a country which has landscapes that are admired the world over and a society that is ill at ease with the places it inhabits. We tend to assume that when we look at a hill or a valley or a row of houses, our neighbours see much the same as we do, but this is often not the case.

Public debates about landscape in Ireland may hold a promise of an easily won consensus but this rarely happens. There have been numerous bitter landscape disputes in recent decades, leading one visiting anthropologist to describe the Irish countryside as 'a perennial site of struggle'.

This book, which is written by a professional planner, is an account of that era of change and conflict, covering not just the conflicts that make the headlines but also the day-to-day tensions within the Irish planning system. At the outset the book outlines the country's outstanding landscape heritage. Changes to that heritage are then explored from different perspectives, with landscape viewed as commodity and symbol and as an expression of beauty. Three especially contentious types of development are described in detail; wind farms, rural housing and the designation of countryside for public recreation and enjoyment. To aid the analysis the recent stories of a handful of places are told in some detail. These are the Burren in Clare, Erris in Mayo, Woodstock in Kilkenny, the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork and Howth in Dublin.

Average Rating: Average Rating: 5 of 5 5 of 5 Total Reviews: 6 Write a review »

  2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
5 of 5 Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland May 6, 2015
Reviewer: Catherine Nash, Geographical Reviews from UK  
This is a timely and important book that should generate much debate and prompt significant shifts in understanding, policy, and practice with regard to landscape conservation in Ireland. Written from the perspective of a planning professional who has engaged practically and reflectively with the transformation of Irish landscapes over the last decades, this book aims at a wide audience, identifies the effects and underlying causes of a relative lack of a collective vision of natural landscapes as shared national heritage deserving of protection in Ireland, and advocates a new model of landscape planning, management, and conservation. This is not to suggest that there are not people, working individually and in groups, who care deeply about specific places or more widely about natural landscapes in Ireland. Brendan McGarth makes this clear from the many examples of local activism in conflict with local developments in this book. Instead, this is a diagnosis of a more prevalent attitude based on the evidence of his own professional experience and knowledge, on the clear empirical evidence of the comparative absence of the sorts of state and civic commitment to landscape conservation practice and policy found in other European countries, and on his reading of the effects of the particular pattern of Irish nation building and state formation on attitudes to land, landownership, and landscape.

Though it is not articulated explicitly as such, a thought-provoking account of a postcolonial landscape problematic in Ireland runs through this book, underpinning what might appear to be contradictory strands in what people value about and what people do to landscape in Ireland. It helps make sense of the apparent contradictions of the deep, symbolic weight of rural landscapes in Irish national identity, but the degree to which, as social surveys testify, natural landscapes are not recognised as a form of national heritage in contrast to archaeological artefacts, literature, or music for example, and thus worthy of protection. It underlies the deeply negative associations of the houses and landscapes of colonial landownership, yet the appeal of the "big house" for the new economic elite, and the widespread aspiration to live in a newly built "one-off" house in the country that all too often displays an insensitivity to the effects of this dispersed settlement on the locality including ecological and aesthetic effects - the loss of old dry-stone field walls with road improvements and bungalow fences for example - and more widely in terms of the contribution of car dependency and commuting to climate change.

The struggle to negotiate the tension between personal aspirations and the ethics of consumption (of all kinds) is of course not unique to the Irish context. But this book explores a particularly striking combination: the potency of the ideal of a detached home in the countryside fuelled by the poor quality of suburban house design and government disinterest in promoting the regeneration of older city and town housing stock rather than new property development, and the largely implicit but sometime more openly expressed political and cultural antipathy to the idea of landscape protection and planning. This, McGrath argues, drawing effectively on other analysts - geographers, historians, cultural commentators - is not just a tension between the appeals of tradition and modernity, past and future, that runs through advanced consumerism and has had a particular intensity in Ireland given the speed of economic change in the late twentieth century. As he convincingly argues, it reflects the profound significance of a historical narrative of colonial appropriation of land, native dispossession and displacement and the struggle for land reform before independence, and the significance of rural life and landownership in Irish nation building. Comments from politicians and property developers that McGarth weaves through his discussion testify to the degree to which this underpins the strength of feeling that emerges when the symbolic right to build a house in the countryside is challenged by planning or landscape conservation concerns. When one of the largest property developers of the Celtic Tiger period, quoted by McGarth, states that, "It is time the Irish went through the front gate" (p.128) in relation to the housing estate he built in the grounds of an early Georgian mansion, his reference to an idea of anticolonial repossession is clear.

As McGrath shows vividly through his accounts of specific cases and wider knowledge and experience, this anticolonial legacy shapes reactions to any challenge to the "rights" to build a home in the country as a native, ancient tradition as asserted by the Irish Rural Dwellers Association, deep antipathy to the restoration of homes and parklands associated with the Protestant gentry, and the pejorative labelling of those pursuing landscape conservation concerns as colonial relicts, as in the words of one politician who described conservationist as a "consortium of belted earls and their ladies and left-wing intellectuals" (p. 82). This was in 1971 and of its time, but despite much social change since, a postcolonial condition still underlies the lack of support for the model of designated national parks because, McGrath argues, "the national park label is a handicap to any conservation initiative because it implies a slavish imitation of English culture" (p. 196). This is a theme throughout this book that both engages with ideas of landscape and beauty more broadly to frame its focus on themes of landscape change and conflict, and the challenge of developing more equitable and effective landscape conservation approaches.

But equally attentive to these cultural and historical dimensions and the policy and legislative context, McGrath astutely combines this postcolonial diagnosis with an insightful attention to issues of governance: - both the centralised and top-down nature of governance that fuels local resistance to outside intervention especially given a relatively undeveloped civic culture, and the culture of clientelism in which politicians bend rules or intervene in planning decisions for their favored constituents. This has led to a difficult impasse, he argues, in which the planning work of local authorities is undermined by the local power of landowners and developers, supported through informal and official state support for property development, and state interventions, and made even more difficult by the way in which European Union initiatives regarding landscape conservation are "regarded with suspicion at best and at worst as an unwarranted intrusion into the lives of individuals and of local communities" (p. 201). The nature and practice of planning in Ireland, he shows, is caught between conflicting priorities, and shaped by lack of central government conviction and commitment to landscape conservation and local
resistance to external regulation.

However, in keeping with this book's depth and rigor, there is no simple turn to an idea of a grassroots and place-based conservation movement that can break this impasse. Informed by his own experience of the deep conflicts over development that can divide local communities, McGarth advocates a model of landscape protection that replaces a piecemeal, top-down, short-term approach with one that combines social, economic, and conservation objectives, and that is run for and by local people. It replaces an emphasis on protection with restoration and rehabilitation, is integrated into a long-term and geographically comprehensive strategy, and is orientated to local, national, and international concerns. This paradigm is being put into practice in exceptional cases in Ireland as he demonstrates; they are exceptions, but important exemplars for what he argues might be possible more widely.

At its best, this book pays close attention to the specificity of the context under discussion, vividly reinforcing the argument with telling cases and effective photography. It slips a bit from this attentiveness in the brief recourse to more universalising models of landscape appreciation based on spurious speculative evolutionary accounts of early women's and men's approaches to landscape - both unnecessary to the argument of the book and problematic for the models of femininity and masculinity they naturalise. But there are other more suggestive and progressive asides that are worth noting: there is McGrath's challenge to the idea of the cultural authority, depth of belonging, and authenticity of landscape appraisal of the locally rooted. "Connectedness with the surface reality of a place can touch us deeply," (p.113) he writes, arguing against a simple denigration of the nonlocal's relation to place in contrast with those deemed to be indigenous. The trauma of landscape change - a tree felled, a lane widened, old stone steps to a cove concreted over - he argues is not only felt by those long resident. Despite the familiar idea of the once rich intimacy of local knowledge now lost with modernity that is evoked in the book in part through the figure of Seamus Heaney, McGarth's own local homemaking, and his turn to the work of Tim Robinson, point to other models of local belonging: achieved rather than inherited. These are vital in relation to old and new questions of local and national inclusion and for the model of collective commitment to landscape heritage he espouses. Accompanying the anticolonial rejection of landscape conversation as an alien affectation, is the implicit idea that those deemed to also be "alien" arrivals, whether in the distant or recent past, have no natural rights to belong in a place or to love its landscape. McGarth draws on arguments about a deeply collective lack of Irish belonging in the landscape as a product of shared historical trauma, and there are problems with this figuring of a collective psychic wound. However, divisive ideas of differently distributed degrees of belonging in Ireland are both more easily identified and more vital to address. This book suggests ways to pursue entangled questions of shared belonging and shared care for landscape.

This is one effect of the reflexive autobiographical strand that is another highlight of this book. Its brief autobiographical passages suggest a sense of a deep and sustained engagement with the issues, not just professionally, but personally.There is a sense, too, in the book that the author wants to understand rather than just criticise the actions of those who individually or officially replace those dry-stone walls with standardised concrete post fencing or much worse. McGrath eschews a didactic tone, or more acerbic critique, in favour of enlisting more public engagement through his thoughtful approach, convincing diagnosis of the problems, and proposal for a possible way forward. I hope that this book will be widely read and prompt the shifts in approaches that the author advocates, to both repay his efforts and for the sake of landscape in Ireland.

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  2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
5 of 5 Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland July 17, 2014
Reviewer: Chris Paris Geographical Research from Australia  
This lovely book is passionately written by an experienced planner living in the west of Ireland.It is well written, deeply informed by the author's personal experiences and beautifully illustrated with high-quality colour photographs,mainly by the author. Having myself lived and worked in Ireland since the early 1990s, I was struck in many ways that the author's analysis and commentary correspond to my own. I have visited many of the places illustrated here and can testify personally to the accuracy of his analysis, especially regarding the rapidity of change since the early 1990s. Our point of departure, perhaps, is his clear preference for a different relationship between Irish society and landscapes and my more accepting perspective on these diverse and at times fraught relationships.

Although most of the author's experience has been in the Republic of Ireland, his generalisations apply equally to Northern Ireland, and he draws numerous examples from that jurisdiction.My own experience corresponds with his view that attitudes to land, landscape, individual rights and property are virtually identical both north and south, setting aside rather different perspectives on national allegiance and interpretation of colonialism (or 'settlement' as it is often termed by unionists in Ulster).

A minor weakness from a scholarly perspective is the limited review and critique of the literature on Irish landscapes, especially the Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, also by Cork University Press (Aalen et al.), with a substantially revised second edition published in 2010. But the book here reviewed is not primarily written for an academic audience, though it will be of interest to university students and their teachers in a wide range of disciplines, including geography, planning and architecture. Its primary audience is the wider readership interested in landscapes and their place within human societies, especially planners and others involved in landscape and heritage management, both within Ireland and internationally.

The book starts with an ironic example of a recent example relating to landscape 'protection'in the Burren, County Clare, illustrated in figures 1.1 and 1.2. An official sign welcomes visitors to this 'protected landscape', but immediately behind that sign is an ugly assortment of other signs - largely unauthorised - advertising various local features and amenities.McGrath suggests that the 'contrast between the public message and what was happening around the signs is just one illustration of the unsatisfactory relationship that exists between contemporary Irish society and the place that it inhabits'.

The author explores many such contrasts throughout the book, including the theme of official recognition of a need for conservation and its routine non-implementation in practice, and how individual property rights and commodity forms seem always to trump notions of public goods or cultural heritage.

I was intrigued by McGrath's chapter on 'beauty' in the Irish landscape, especially his reference to the 'savanna hypothesis', which apparently postulates that because humans evolved in African savanna environments, they associate wide open spaces with both food and security.This hypothesis, he suggests, may help to explain the development of English landscape parks as well as the Irish penchant for clearing all trees wherever physically possible. He also shows elsewhere how strong resentment of colonialism still colours attitudes towards former colonial legacies, especially demesnes and parklands, and approvingly cites O'Toole's (1994) suggestion that Ireland 'had become a post-modern society in which landscape is viewed only as a commodity'(199).

The landscape impacts of rapid economic and population growth, especially on urban form, and the extraordinary spread of one-off housing in the countryside are analysed comprehensively.There is a recurring contrast between external and professional views of change, which typically lament rapid degradation of landscapes and environment, and residents who welcome economic growth and development. This is explored nicely in the chapter on landscape and rural housing, where McGrath discusses the Irish Rural Dwellers Association (IRDA) lobbying strongly in favour of one-off development in the countryside, citing high degrees of residential satisfaction, supported by Senator Martin Mansergh's assertion that this is precisely what people want. Official policies and planning strategies advocate more consolidation of existing settlements and regulation of development, but such policies are routinely ignored - barely worth the paper that they are written on. Thus, one-off rural housing, 'more than any other aspect of the changing nature of the rural landscape,illustrates the gulf that exists between planning theory and practice in Ireland and the absence of a working consensus on the issue'(177).

The bursting of the Celtic Tiger's housing bubble, moreover, has left a legacy that even the IRDA never wanted: many thousands of unfinished,unoccupied, often seriously deteriorating dwellings scattered across the countryside in otherwise attractive areas. McGrath argues that the Irish landscape 'envisioned as a place of farms and farmsteads, exemplifies a "paper landscape",a place that only exists in a John Hinde postcard or between the covers of some official planning documents'. The 'blind eye' turned to one-off housing is paralleled by the development of 'paper parks', whereby areas are designated as national parks or given other protection that, with a few notable exceptions, is routinely ignored in practice. The book's concluding chapter is well balanced and thoughtful but pessimistic, though the author appears to accept that this pessimism reflects his own views rather more than those of Irish society more generally.

This is a lively, intelligent book. The author has a distinctive perspective that he makes abundantly clear, and he brings a diversity of experience, evidence and illustrations to explore his topic. It is well worth a place in any library and should be essential reading for any students of the continuing story of changing relationships between landscape and society in contemporary Ireland. The price is extremely modest given the high quality of the book and the excellence of its illustrations.

O'Toole, F., 1994: Black Hole, Green Card: The Disappearance of Ireland. New Ireland Books, Dublin.

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  2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
5 of 5 Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland July 10, 2014
Reviewer: Brendan Murtagh, Housing Studies from Ireland  
There have been a number of largely retrospective accounts of the role of property,planning and credit in the near collapse of the Irish economy. The toxic mix of deregulated finance, loose planning control and freewheeling politics combined to produce one of the deepest crises in the state's comparatively short history. Brendan McGrath's book,Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland, goes deeper and locates the crises of over-speculation in a complex and contradictory set of relationships between the Irish,land and landscape.

The central aim of the book is to examine 'the unsatisfactory relationship that exists between contemporary Irish society and the places that it inhabits' (p. 2) and it organises the evidence in an opening set of chapters dealing with: culture, nature, change and conflict. Using these lenses, McGrath explores the nature and meaning of the Irish landscape, how it has emerged over various crises and agricultural restructuring, and the emotional significance of land ownership in Irish history. Land is problematized, not least due to competing forces that seek to commodify it for housing development, heritage, tourism and energy. In particular, he traces examples of golf resorts and how they variously bypassed or ignored local objections, planning zonings and the pristine quality of iconic coastal landscapes. The highly distinctive nature of the Irish natural environment is examined, especially raised and blanket bogs, and the book sets out how their ecosphere has been compromised by over-development and pollution. Nearly one-half of Ireland's endangered birds and one-quarter of endangered plants are peatland species yet 'such statistics cut no ice with Irish politicians and decision-makers and there has been a marked reluctance to preserve the bogs' (pp. 43-44). McGrath reserves his sharpest criticism for single houses in the countryside and the lobby groups, politicians and planners who have enabled suburban sprawl, sporadic housing and ribbon development. He rightly queries how this largely car-based population will age, depend on fossil fuels, remain healthy and access state services in the longer term. The externalities associated with these spatial patterns are not individualised but are borne by wider Irish society who may grow increasingly wary of the lifestyle preferences of those seeking an imagined notion of the rural good life.

The book contains a number of fascinating insights into how decisions about development and especially single houses in the countryside are transmitted via the planning system, local politicians and pressure groups, principally the Irish Rural Dwellers Association. McGrath forensically builds a critique of the local political system and in particular, the embedded clientism that has eroded civic morality, notions of environmental justice and a collective sense of responsibility for the environment. Local government is weak and under-resourced, is 'conspicuously blind to the heritage of place'(p. 82) and almost wilfully anti-planning in its culture and practices. The planning system itself appears impotent in the face of parochial politics, private property rights (strong in the Irish mindscape) and weak environmental regulation.

Chapter 6 on Property and Commodity gets to the heart of the debate and especially the supremacy attached to property rights, which persistently trump ideas around the common good and the custodianship of place for future generations. McGrath has a healthy distain for the romanticised, imagined and distorted notions of old rural Ireland, which he presents as a thinly viewed cover for over-speculation and endless commodification. The potency of the Irish rural idyll is powerful even if it has degraded environments such as the Burren, undermined the tourist economy and ultimately produced 'landscapes of shame' (p. 122). Increasingly, the rural is raided as a resource for wind farming and a range of energy interests that have set off new tensions within and between the environmental movement and other stakeholders. Contestation and the need to identify who the landscape is for remain central to debates on the future of Irish planning and environmental protection.However, the book also offers some hope. McGrath evaluates successful campaigns to protect high-quality environments, such as Howth Head near Dublin, from a major housing scheme. In this case, there is a stronger environmental movement and greater public awareness about the ethics of conservation over profit. There are also articulate voices that have developed sound practices to protect the distinctiveness and quality of the Irish landscape and new alliances between communities, professionals and concerned planners, which have all strengthened the environment as an issue in political, policy and public debates.

The research is based on highly personalised experiences of planning in the Irish countryside. Whilst it draws on wider research and evidence, the opportunity to connect to academic debates, especially about the impact of neoliberalism on national and local planning policy, is not fully realised. The author does identify trends in globalisation and economic development but the way in which these have played out in rural Ireland is especially interesting from a theoretical perspective. This is a minor criticism in a text whose style also makes the issue accessible to a wider readership as well as researchers and students interested in land use management, tourism, heritage geography, politics and planning. The quality of the images, photographs and maps is especially impressive and adds significantly to the presentation of the arguments.

The real value of this book is that it challenges myths and assumptions and locates the current crises in landscape management in a deeper uncertainty and social ambivalence about the environment. Excessive development, especially single houses in the countryside,is not an extension of traditional settlement patterns, a deep socio-psychological response to migration nor a political reaction to a colonialist importation of urban forms. The book offers us, at times, a disturbing account of state of planning but also some hope and practices that might rescue a fundamental asset in Irish social and cultural life.

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  2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
5 of 5 Landscape and society in contemporary Ireland June 24, 2014
Reviewer: Maja Lagerqvist, Social & Cultural Geography from Sweden  
I enjoyed reading this book. It examines the relationship between Irish society and its landscape in a lively, tangible and personal way. McGrath asserts this relationship as unsatisfactory and filled with conflicts that can be read out in various changes in, and disputes over, landscapes and their values over the last decades. Different aspects of this are explored throughout the book as it aims to describe the contemporary Irish landscape and explain how and why it has changed over the last 40 years. This is done in five parts. The first introduces the background and aim of the book and the central landscape concept. McGrath presents the diversities of the concept, and highlights the problems arising from this: that what we include and value in the landscape concept varies, contextually and personally, and that landscapes can matter and be experienced in quite different ways. The take on landscape is based on the Dutch landscape architect Lorzing's understanding of landscape as four coexisting layers of interaction: the man-made, the factual, the visual and the emotional. However, the actual contribution of this approach is not that obvious as the book unfolds. Part two outlines some distinctive parts of Irish culture and nature and characterises its landscape heritage. The chapter on culture includes accounts of the magical and poetical features of landscapes, the importance of place names and the historic reshaping of woodlands. The nature chapter focuses on geological history and the ecological heritage and varying perspectives of bogs. These chapters, as well as the others, present interesting aspects of Irish landscapes, although one sometimes wonders what motivated McGraths specific selection.

Part three turns to two chapters on landscape change and conflicts. These two chapters expose varying perspectives and reactions to change as a way to examine how people relate to their surroundings. The first chapter provides short stories of changes in woodlands, bogs, settlements, farmland and the touristically important scenery and how these changes create strong experiences and emotions. The following chapter exemplifies contested landscapes created by conflicts between local development and conservation efforts.  This chapter, and others, illustrates power relations and the discrepancies between the policies of planning authorities and the actual outcomes from practices and decision-making by local politicians and those with resources. Furthermore, the legacy of Irelands colonial history and the ensuing suspicion towards rules and interventions from above, be it Irish government or EU, becomes clear throughout the book. Part four comprises three chapters that explore the relationship between society and its cultural and natural heritage.The first chapter explores landscape as a commodity on the basis of developments such as golf courses and housing. It highlights how the planning system, ruled by market forces,has enabled development for private gains at the expense of common good. The next chapter discusses history, memory and dreams in landscapes. This includes discussions of the strong notion of the rural idyll in Ireland as well as interesting reactions to colonial heritage where property development and other landscape changes are considered expressions of independence. The next chapter deals with the concept of beauty and the dominance of appreciation of scenic landscapes. A discussion of wilderness could possibly have offered additional understanding to this segment.The last part focuses on three specific landscape changes. The first change is the introduction of energy infrastructure such as wind farms and related conflicts. The second change is new rural settlements of dispersed one-off housing in non-traditional locations and how these put pressure on land resources and infrastructure. This Bungalow Blitz multiplied during the Celtic Tiger boom and has now resulted in a headache of many unfinished or vacant houses all over Ireland. The final chapter discusses landscape protection projects; something that rarely extends beyond the aspirational according to McGrath.

The book captures the relationships between people and their surroundings, between society and landscape. This is assisted by great illustrations, although I would not say no to more maps. It also illustrates how important cultural, social, political and economic circumstances in the past and present are in understanding this. This is captured by an array of shorter stories, where some are more coherent, telling and aligned with the overall argument than others. Furthermore, there is a strong rural focus. Changes and conflicts in urban landscapes, where the largest part of the population in contemporary Ireland live, are less discussed. This could be a reflection of the traditionally strong ruralness of Ireland or perhaps stems from the fact that the landscape concept in general seems to be more used for countrysides rather than urban areas. Nonetheless, a few words about this focus would have been relevant. finally, in order to create sustainable development and landscape conservation, McGrath highlights the need for enabling institutional structures as well as grassroots dialogues. However, as the book undoubtedly and well demonstrates, society and its landscapes are complexly entangled and also always in flux, and the word conservation thus rings a bit oddly.

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  1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
5 of 5 Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland January 31, 2014
Reviewer: Paul Murphy from Cork, Cork Republic of Ireland  
This book is well written, concise, and is both informative and beautiful.  
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so is landscape, one person's romantic vista is anothers building site.Why do we 'destroy the things we love'? These and related weighty matters are tackled by the author without resorting to righteous or emotional indignation.
One off housing has impacted practically all rural Ireland including less well known or established scenic areas. He quotes the poet Patrick  Kavanagh, in describing such areas as 'the humble scene in a backyard place, where no one important ever looked' This book has many other such wonderful poetic quotations and insights.
If, to quote Bob Dylan 'beauty walks a razor's edge'  Mr McGrath has managed to walk such a razor's  edge with style.
This book is beautiful, insightful and profound, a rare gem in a book dealing with contemporary environmental matters in Ireland.Is Brendan McGrath the Simon Schama of the Emerald Isle?

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