(Published in thejournal.ie 19/3/12)
On the wall outside ‘The Waterways’ Keshcarrigan, Co. Leitrim a series of images with the caption ‘Boating from your back door’ survive. It features families frolicking on marinas and an overhead picture of how the estate will look. This could easily be the work of an artist lampooning the Celtic Tiger. But there is no irony intended. It is the real deal, an enduring monument to greed, folly and hubris.
Inside, houses in various stages of construction loom, some merely steel girdles, one a completed show house with decking outside which the family boat could be moored. There is no sign of the tennis courts or luxury cars that feature in the pictures.
Much of the area is covered in hardcore, hard-packed stone that does not permit plant life to grow. Here roads were to be built. Giant mounds of styrofoam and heaps of plastic bags complete a sickening picture.
Now even the caretaker’s portakabin has been abandoned with a window smashed in. Inside there is still a radio, a rotting copy of the Yellow Pages and rubber boots that look beyond repair. The Marie Celeste showed more signs of life.
We were building an Ireland resembling 1950s America, and now all that remains is a scene that reminded me of when Charlton Heston’s character in the original Planet of the Apes film encounters a crumbling Statue of Liberty. It is remarkable how quickly the Irish dream dissipated.
The ghost estates survive as a cliché that foreign news agencies use to portray the Irish excess and corruption that almost derailed the European project. They are no longer ‘the story’, but they endure nonetheless, scars on the landscape and an eyesore for communities. What tourist would appreciate the sight of these building sites?
With ‘The Waterways’ now held as security for unpaid debts by the state I decided to join a group called NAMA to Nature. Last Sunday morning we planted over one thousand trees on the site.
I am an unlikely activist and I acknowledge the importance of abiding by the law. But there are exceptions. For example I would steal a loaf of bread to stay alive and the Irish Constitution states that all rights including those to property are subject to the common good. A community can justifiably abate a nuisance.
We left early in the morning, some of us rowing across a lake in the haze of daybreak with bags of compost, spades and saplings. By 8am we were down to work, managing to find sufficient exposed soil to plant 500 alder, 100 silver birch, 100 hazel, 100 ash and 200 willow. What we did was a largely symbolic gesture, tonnes of rubble still need to be removed and the plastics need to be disposed of as a matter of urgency or they could pollute the adjoining lake.
At about 10am two members of the police, An Garda Siochana rolled into the estate in a large transit van, expecting trouble perhaps. When asked who we were and what we were doing we replied that we were private individuals planting trees on public land. The Gardai seemed confused.
Then another car entered the property. The two Gardai briefly left us and had a discussion with the driver who it transpired was the former caretaker. Perhaps he had placed the call. Upon hearing what we were doing he told them he had no problem with it. The developer had left him high and dry. I wonder how many lonely cups of tea he drank in that portakabin before deciding that enough was enough.
The Gardai were still perplexed and the exchanges became increasingly jovial. A Garda took the numbers of three of the female participants one of whom warned the Garda to refrain from any late night texting. The young man, who had the healthy glow of a Gaelic footballer, blushed slightly; the other was finding the whole affair increasingly amusing. The pretty tree-planters would make a good story for the boys back in the station.
A few phone calls were made. We agreed to leave the property if they compelled us to do so. Finally, they decided to let us carry on, expressing their personal support for our actions. The common good was recognised.
We hope that this half-finished estate can one day become a nature reserve, but much work is needed to bring it anywhere close to that point. Perhaps other scars on the landscape can be healed in the same way. When vandalism on this scale occurs the people should have a right to take proportionate measures to mitigate it.
We strongly advise anyone participating in a project such as this to exercise the utmost caution in ensuring the health and safety of themselves and those around them, and to refrain from any damage to the property therein. We also encourage everyone to respect the Gardai and seek the cooperation of the local community if they come from outside it. The objective is simple: help nature restore life by planting trees on scarred landscapes.