The Worst Irish Joke Of All
A guide to Dingle Disneyland
Dingle, Co. Kerry 17th March 1991
There is a chunk of rock here in a corner of a small field, it is marked with a cross within what looks like a torc and it is all that is left of The Church of The King of The World’s Son.
St. Brendan left from here in his skin boat to sail to America, pushing out between the jutting horns of black cliffs into the Atlantic swell. Some of the greatest pieces of Irish vernacular prose were made here and you can hardly walk a spit without treading on a saint’s grave or the walls of a Celtic fort or church.It is one of the few Gaeltacht areas where the first language of many of the people is Irish and where scholars and Irish speakers from the outside world come to learn and refresh their language.It is a land of the rarest of beauties, a land of soaring skies and bottle green seas, a land of hill forts, mountain ridges and rare bogland and mountain flora.
And now,it is going to be turned into a theme park, for facing out towards the Blaskett Islands, towards the Dead Man,as the locals call the island that looks for all the western world like a man on his back in the muttering sea; there, at the tip of one of the most beautiful peninsulas in the world the Irish Government through its Office of Public Works is to build an “Interpretative Centre”, eighty five metres long and served by an eleven metres wide road and a coach and car park for six coaches and a hundred cars. And all in the name of mass tourism.The interpretative centre will deal with the history and prehistory of the area and in particular the story of The Blaskett Islands a group of islands just off the coast of Kerry where Tomas O’ Criomhthain wrote “The Islandman” and Peig Sayers “An Old Woman’s Reflections”.It is typical of developments that are taking place all over the world as part of what is now known as “The Heritage Industry”. We no longer have Yorkshire’s North Riding or Dorset or Howarth, we have Herriot Country, Hardy Country and Bronte Country and our landscape and history is robbed from us, polished up and sanitised and sold back to us in Disneyland packages.
The site chosen for the Dingle Peninsula development is Dunquin, a savagely beautiful out-thrusting, scattered with brightly painted and neatly kept and, in the main, new cottages and farms. Near to many of the modern cottages and farmhouses you will see the ruins of older buildings, sodden turf roofs sag and gape and doors swing in the wind opening on empty rooms.In many cases these were the old houses, allowed to decay when the new were built, but in far too many other cases the ruins mark the emigration of a people who over centuries of oppression and economic exploitation were forced to leave and follow in Brendan’s footsteps across the Great Pond. One of the arguments therefore, used in favour of the centre is that it will provide jobs.This is a mistruth.It will provide,some estimate, as little as four jobs, the most optimistic estimate is six. Louis Mulcahey came here 17 years ago and established a pottery centre that employs twenty local people. He is an Irish speaker and insists that his workers use Irish at work. He has committed himself and his family fully to the idea of regeneration and continuity within the Gaeltacht. He had planned to extend the pottery this year creating ten more jobs. This project has been dropped and he has no intention of expanding should the centre go ahead.
This, and many other protests, the Office Of Public Works refer to as “some rumblings”. Nobody that I spoke to in the Dingle area was for the scheme at all.To most of them it was seen at best as an eyesore, at worst as an ecological and aesthetic disaster. A typical response came from James and Peggy Flahive who run a good old fashioned bar on the harbour front at Dingle – ” ‘Twill do the place no good at all.We like the tourists coming here, we’ve met some very nice people through the years, but there’s enough coming now.In the summer you wouldn’t be able to move at all for them.And to destroy that lovely coast at Dunquin – it’s all madness.”
Local feeling in truth was mixed at the beginning but as people have begun to realise what the development really will mean, opinion has swung around. The developers have as ever played the local-jobs versus elitist-conservationists ticket to the full.But the truth is that what jobs the project does create will be few and seasonal.The net gainers will be the tour operators who will thunder their clients along the narrow road to Slea Head in their coaches and the large Hotels that can cater for the big groups of tourists.The mass tourism industry world-wide does little for local populations.The hotels and other blocks in the infra-structure are usually foreign owned, or certainly not owned by locals.It was estimated, when I was in Nepal recently, that all the major hotels and tourist lodges were owned by foreigners or the royal family.In one Kathmandu hotel,the carpets came from Finland, the air conditioning from America,the kitchen equipment from Britain and Italy, the computers from Japan, the bathrooms from Holland and the cement and steel for the fabric of the building from India.The only local input was in the cheap labour that built and serviced the hotel.The manager was an Austrian.
Architecturally the Dingle Interpretative Centre building is no great shakes and is certainly not original, although like all planning developments of its kind it is supported by a well presented proposal puffing up its aims and aspirations with reverential references to the Celtic tradition.
The “design concept is both a symbol and an abstraction of the Homeric/Blaskett connection.”
The Homeric/Blaskett connection, in case you are confused,is based on the writings of one George Thompson ( The Prehistoric Aegean 1949 ) who saw in the speech and the story-telling of the islanders an echo of the Homeric style.From there a major quantum leap of thought takes place that sees Celtic spirals, labyrinths and minotaurs as all being somehow related.In best school of architecture prose it then goes on to tell us that one of the rooms will be devoted to the tragedies associated with the sea.”The slate floor will have the names of lost fishermen inscribed into them.”(sic)
Roughly the length of six bungalows, flat roofed and totally alien to any of the the vernacular architecture of West Kerry, the main building will be a time tunnel pointing out to the Blasketts which the visitor will walk along looking at photographs, charts and artifacts until eventually coming to the great window that points out towards the Dead Man.There will be an audio visual theatre ,toilets and a cafe. The Cardiff Dock Scheme already has a similar theme telescope that you walk along to a huge window that also points out at the water, presumably with a sign saying “This is the Water” in case a Sun reader needs it interpreting. Perhaps in Cardiff Docks such a folly is acceptable,here in one of the worlds sublime landscape areas it is nothing more than six bungalows and a massive car park.
Though the Office of Public Works claim it will be screened from all but the closest view that is in fact not true.Having walked there only this week I can assure you,it will be highly visible from the hills above.The site will cover forty seven acres of a treeless valley close to the seas edge, the development will be aggressively ugly, an arrogant pustule on a fragile and lovely shore.There is a disused creamery building back up in the village that would be better used for something like this, if it has to be built at all.
I deeply deplore the exploitive Disneyland attitude towards cultures and landscapes that this project represents.In the books I’ve written on walking in Britain and trekking in India and Nepal I’ve tried to make a distinction between “soft” or “green” tourism and “mass” or “hard” tourism.Green tourism walks,cycles or treks and leaves things very much as they were,stays in the homes of the local people in bed and breakfast accommodation, village lodges or small hotels,thus contributing directly to the local economy.Hard tourism exploits and destroys and drags everything down to the lowest common denominator.It offers instant gratification, whipping people round the land in air-conditioned coaches sealed off from anything real, and like anything instant, it is a child of whim and fashion. As the Spanish have already discovered, the mass tourist industry is notoriously fickle and their own destroyed coast line is now a sad concrete monument to the touro-dollar.Things easy got are little thought of and the junk food mentality applied to precious areas of the world cheapens and ultimately destroys them.Let me tell you a true story.
Some years ago I was in Dublin in the library of Trinity College. queuing to look at the book of Kells with my children. We waited in line shuffling forward slowly to see what is perhaps the greatest illuminated manuscript in the Christian world.Behind us was a group of thirty or so Burberry-clad Americans , recently debouched from a tour bus.Some ten places ahead of us in the queue was one of their group, a maveric who had sprinted ahead of the guide.He glanced at the book for ten seconds and on his way out passed the group.
“What is it Jim?” one of them called to him.
“Oh it’s just some old book.” he said and scuttled off to buy his plastic shamrock , his lucky leprechaun mug and genuine blackthorn shillelagh.
Is that what the Irish Government want? Coachload after coachload of weary and vista-bloated tourists queuing up to walk down a time tunnel calling out – “What is it Jim?” to be told – “Oh it’s just some old island.”?
I may be old fashioned or stupid or both but I’ve always felt that if you want to interpret alandscape you buy a map or a guide or book and ramble and dander and gander and meet people and talk to them and sit and take things in at your own pace.Can’t people read anymore? Does everything have to be done at the level of the average Sun reader?Why do planners and developers insult our intelligence so?
One of the problems of course is endemic in the very process that supports planners and developers who feel that they have to be seen to be doing something to justify their existence and are constantly looking around for schemes like this. Interpretative centres are ideal since they attract Euro-money [ in this case there is a hurry to spend it since it has to be used before 1992] and are constructed on clear sites that don’t tax the architect or planners imagination anything like as much as the re-development of run down areas.One of the quotes from a meeting of the planning officers and the architect involved in the Dunquin scheme that took place on the 17th January 1991 speaks volumes
“This project was accelerated due to the availability of European Community Structural Funds and the deadline for spending same is the summer of 1992 in this case, acording to Mr Fadden” (O.P.W. Administrator).
The report then goes on
“Mr O Connor said that when the O.P.W. had completed its proposals the project scheme spent a long day (my italics) at the Foundation A.G.M in November.”
A long day! to come up with a scheme that will destroy part of the coastline for ever and have who knows what impact on the local culture and ecology! The local community have asked for money to build a theatre in Dingle that will serve local schools and cultural groups.Plays in Irish would be performed there as well as serving as a venue for local and visiting musicians and theatre groups.Such a centre would be a real contribution to the Gaeltacht, one that would enhance and dignify Irish culture instead of fossilising and demeaning it, encouraging the tradition to live instead of turning it into a peepshow.
I’ve spent a great part of the last three years travelling in India,Nepal, the U.S.A. and Europe.I’ve seen the impact of mass tourism on many countries and it’s not nice.Cultures are demeaned and repackaged for the gawpers and souvenir hunters and ultimately the local peoples lose respect for their own language and culture, grasping in almost every case at the Coca-Colanisation that is offered in its stead.There is a village called Tatopani on the trek in to Annapurna Base camp, somebody has portered a television and video cassette player all the wat from Kathmandu through the jungles and up the trail to the village.A water powered generator provides the juice for the machines and western trekkers sit, their faces lit by the flickering screen watching Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood while naked saddhus on their way to the holy shrines at Muktinath trail past the lodge door.
If there is any place at all for “Interpretative Centres” then it is within the already existing developments of towns and villages and not in areas that are in reality not Irish Heritage Sites, not European Sites but World Heritage Sites.Planning permission for such developments is not needed since the Office of Public Works is exempt from such restrictions and centres are also planned for the Burren – the biggest Area of limestone pavement in Europe, for the stunningly beautiful Wicklow Hills on a site where each year the stags meet to fight at the commencement of the rutting season, for County Meath at Newgrange Burial Chamber and for Kinsale. Plans to build one on the monastic settlement of Skellig Michael, a fierce fang of rock thrusting out of the Atlantic off the coast of Kerry, have I am told been dropped, though there are still murmurings about building a Skelligs Interpretative Centre on the coast, funnelling people out towards the islands.
The label of elitist is thrown at any of us who dare to raise our heads above the parapet and hint that we should leave things be and that mass tourism will destroy the very thing that people come to see.But it’s a cheap jibe.
When I’m no longer able to climb Brandon Mountain or Pen y Ghent then don’t build me a chair lift, when my legs won’t take me over the Shingo La then don’t build me a heli pad,leave the wild places be; and when I’m so ga-ga that I can’t look at a map or read a book then don’t build me an interpretive centre.
When the Grand Canyon National Park was created a developer, worried that nobody had so far built anything commercial down in the canyon, asked Roosevelt what should be done about it. He just turned quietly and said –
“Leave it alone you’ll never improve on it.”
Opposition in Ireland has been slow in coming and very often people who stood up and criticised the projects have been verbally abused and [ in the Burren in particular] physically threatened. A hold has been put on some of the projects for financial reasons but according to reports the OPW is as firmly committed to building the centres as ever, and once finance has been arranged plan to go ahead with all of them.
I intended this piece to be measured and reasonable, the sort of stuff you read in submissions to sub-committees of sub-committees. But I’m sad and I’m angry. The spivs and the developers will, if we let them, cover Paradise with concrete and charge us a pound a head to see it.
“This way for your lucky plastic harps, trips on the fun cloud this way, get your stick of Paradise Rock here.” What right have the planners and developers to take our culture and history from us and sell it back to us turned into a Blackpool side show? Blackpool is fine in its own way, but leave it where it is, don’t import it to all the beautiful corners of the world and please don’t tell me when I’m having “fun”.
I love Ireland with a fierce and protective love and I’ve always hated all Paddywhackery of the leprechaun, Blarney Stone and shillelagh kind. My mother’s family came from Ireland, largely from Tipperary and Dublin, I was educated by Irish teachers in the main until I was eighteen and have returned here regularly, cycling and walking, filming and making radio programmes for nearly thirty years.It is, I believe, one of the last civilized places in the world, the last place in these islands with such a wealth of music and dance, such a living body of storytellers and poets, such a tradition of hospitality and such a wonderful unspoilt landscape.I’ve devoted a great deal of my life to trying to disabuse people of the racist lies inherent in the Irish joke. Isn’t it ironic that in the year that Dublin is named Cultural capital of Europe the the Irish Government, by these ignorant and ill- conceived developments, looks as though it is about to prove Bernard Manning right. Why not go the whole hog and have the people of Dingle dress up as Darby O’ Gill and the Little People, Cuchulain, the Tain, Queen Maeve, the Banshee and Peig Sayers. I’m sure there’s Euro-Money or Disney Money in it.
To the Office of Public works and all their gombeens and tricksy men I say “mallacht an fhile ar tu!”0.