A Fish Factory in Heaven

There is a cave system in New Mexico that contains deep within its heart the most beautiful limestone formations that have been discovered so far in the world. There is flowstone and stalactites, cave pearls and columns, vast chambers and minute grottoes. The system runs for miles and more, it is thought, has yet to be discovered. The air from the outside world moves through these caves in mysterious ways so that the stone in some places has been spun and sculpted and moulded into delicate formations some as fine almost as hair, others, folded and fluted like the petals of flowers. And because of the mineral content of the underground water that has caused all of this, the colours of the formations are so bright and so varied that they beggar any attempt at description. Imagine if you can a stone tulip, a pale burgundy colour and so fine that the light from a torch will shine through it. Imagine curtains of honey coloured flowstone twelve feet in length hanging from the lip of a pool and straws of pure white stone hanging from the roof of a chamber so fine that your breath will move them and clustered so thickly that to walk amongst them would be to shatter and destroy them. Then imagine that there is a great iron door at the entry to this system and that it is bolted and locked and that admission is granted only to a few.
What a wonderful tourist attraction that cave would be. Can’t you see it? Walkways and coach parks and burger stands and toilets and an interpretative centre. This is a democratic world what right has anybody to stop Wilf and Daisy from Walsall or Kurt and Anna from Cologne seeing one of the great wonders of the world? The answer is that if the cave system were developed it would be destroyed and the very reason for going there would be lost. The earliest explorers of the system discovered very early on that their breath and body warmth alone was causing changes to the formations, that mud brought in on their boots to pure white chambers was fouling the pristine stone and would not be washed off. Instead the iron oxides in the mud dyed the stone and the limestone snow field was sullied and its purity destroyed. The cave is only visited now by speliologists pushing further into the system and geologists researching and photographing the caves. I have never been there I have seen the pictures and that’s enough and that’s the way it should be.
Of course the local tourist development agencies and private developers gnashed their teeth and jumped up and down at the thought of all those millions of lost dollars but there is nothing they can do, the cave is closed.

Near the village of Killnaboy, in the Karst Burren region of County Clare in Ireland, a network of narrow country lanes leads you up into a high land of shimmering white limestone pavements and stone walls. It is a land that one of Cromwell’s officers described as having ‘not enough wood to hang a man, not enough earth to bury a man nor enough water to drown a man’. If you stand close to the centre of this area and look around you it is as though the world has been turned to stone. It flows away in all directions, a few bushes and thorns somehow clutching to the rock, bright flowers shining in the clefts and slits. In certain lights, those wet sunny blustery lights of early Spring and late Autumn in particular, it can seem as though the stone is moving, a sea flowing around you. In the heart of this land lies Mullaghmore a limestone mountain, it’s bedding planes jutted up at the angle they were tilted at when this land buckled and moved millennia ago. Under Mullaghmore plants that are normally only found in the Arctic grow alongside sub-tropical plants. It is the only place in the world where this happens. For the Burren is not a barren place it is truly a rock garden, a garden in the rock. The scars and slashes in the stone hold rank grass and scrub and cattle can be grazed here all the year round, for the stone acts like a giant battery soaking up the warmth of the sun and holding it so that the plants that grow in its folds and scars can flourish beyond the normal growing season.
But Man has found his place here too. From the first wanderers in this land who followed the retreating ice as the glaciers melted, to the farmers who live and work the land today, Man has built and tended and pulled down and moved on. Burial chambers, ring forts, booleys, slab tombs, early Celtic churches, shepherds shelters, cottages and farms, all built from the bones of the land. There are holy wells and churches, burial grounds and standing stones. This has been a place for hermits, for men and women who came to seek their gods away from the rush of the world, a place for contemplation, for the soul to drink in the silence of the stone, a place of great spirituality.
And now the Irish Office of Public Works wants to build an Interpretative Centre there with a shop, a car park, a coach park, toilets and audio visual theatre. They will build it in the style in which they have built the centre at Dún Chaoin, in the Dingle peninsula. It will be massive, it will have thick solid wood doors and there will be bright brass and tiles and lots of glass for the spirit of the place will be nothing if not monumental. But it will be a monument not to the soul or the spirit but to the kind of mind that sees a land only as something to be exploited and developed. The centre will urbanise a whole area, the tiny roads will be choked with coaches and the peace of this most beautiful and special place, special not just to Clare or Ireland but to the world, will be gone. It will provide fewer jobs than a hairdressers shop and will destroy for ever the soul of that part of Ireland. For, of course, once the centre has been built there will be clamour for wider and better roads to get the coach loads of tourists into the place, just as there is in the Dingle peninsula at the present where they are screaming out for an end to that ‘ horrid little road from Tralee to Dingle, which impairs access to our treasures.’ (Seosaimh ó Conchuir Letter to the Irish Times 14/09/94).
Millions of punts have already been spent on the development, the builders have already dumped their cabins and cleared a way in for their machinery and put up their signs. But the site is quiet just for now because the Burren Action Group, a handful of local and national voices crying out at the folly of this development were listened to for a moment. They weren’t asking that the centre not be built, only that it should be built on the edge of a village, tucked in amongst existing buildings and made relevant to the community not to the monumental aspirations of the architects and developers of the OPW. They were ignored of course for the OPW sees itself answerable to no one, noither in Ireland, nor in the world outside. The BAG scored a small victory when they forced the OPW to apply for planning permission for the scheme which would probably have led to a public enquiry. But recently a high court judge pronounced in favour of the developers and the scheme is on again, though as of the end of August when I was there last nothing much had been done. The objectors are almost helpless now, they mortgaged their homes to fight the OPW won one battle and then had the decision overturned. It is hard to see what more they can do. And they are not powerful people, the seven plaintiffs who are fighting the OPW in the courts are Lelia Doolan head of the Irish Film Board; P.J.Curtis writer music producer and broadcaster whose family have live in the Burren for five hundred years; Finola Mc Namara, a teacher; James Howard and Patrick McCormack two farmers who live beneath Mullaghmore; Dr Emer Colleran from Galway University and Dr John O’Donaghue a catholic priest and poet who ministers in Galway. And these people and their allies and supporters have been ridiculed by some, verbally attacked and threatened by others and accused at various times of being ‘communists, homosexuals, drop-outs, blow-ins’ and most heinous of sins ‘intellectuals.’ I have fought similar battles to theirs here in England and have had punches, bomb threats and abusive anonymous letters. It hasn’t stopped me fighting but it has made me very careful about what pubs I drink in and where I do my shopping. The same thing has happened to some of the BAG. It’s the price you pay for speaking up and when I hear of things like this I’m reminded of that lovely line of Seamus Heaney’s ‘whatever you say, say nothing’. But of course we do sayn and we do speak up, and we take the consequences, though we hardly think them fair.
Irish politics often operates at the level of horse trading and sifting through the tons of verbiage and shenanigans that have surrounded the Mullaghmore project makes the Augean Stables look like a hi tech kitchen. Local political interests and the OPW’s determination to save face at whatever cost makes it almost certain that the centre will be built there under Mullaghmore. Nothing will make them even consider moving the site to Killnaboy or Corofin or one of the other villages. What is it that makes them ignore the opinion of botanists and environmentalists, writers, artists, climbers, walkers and musicians not just from Ireland but from all over the world who see this development as an ecological and spiritual disaster? It is hard to see how a country like Ireland which has produced more than its share of the worlds great art, from the beautiful work of the goldsmiths of the La Tene period, through the scribes of the great books to Synge, O Casey, Joyce and Yeats, could not only come up with such a crass idea but could embrace it as though it were somehow a symbol of the new Ireland. I don’t believe that we should lock up the land of the Burren like that cave in New Mexico, only that it be treated with more love and respect. There has been a great deal of local support for this project because it is seen as an answer to the unemployment that has driven millions of the Irish (my own people included) overseas. It will provide less than half a dozen jobs for only six months of the year and the spin off into the local economy will be minimal. The coaches that bring the tourists in will take them out again to the big hotels and the towns like Limerick and Ennis. Siting it in a local village will at least give it a local dimension and might generate some income for the village. Sticking it under Mullaghmore means people will go and look and leave. The three most often asked questions in interpretative centres are ‘Where’s the toilets? Where can I get a cup of tea?’ and ‘Where’s the way out?’
I love Ireland. My mother’s family came from Tipperary and Dublin, I was brought up in a strong Irish Catholic household and was educated until I was eighteen by Irish men and women. I have travelled, walked, played music, filmed and written in Ireland for thirty years and it breaks my heart to see its beauty being destroyed like this.
I was walking in West Kerry earlier this summer and at the end of one walk I stood looking at the great ugly green OPW concrete blockhouse that stands on that once soulful shore at Dún Chaoin and a Danish woman asked me ‘How did they let them build that fish factory on such a lovely place?’. I have no answer to that question but please God let’s hope Mullaghmore doesn’t get another fish factory.