Sunday 17 December 2017

Con Houlihan: Busy building the road to ruin

In a country of short distances and a small population, motorways are out of place and are draining the very lifeblood out of many of our provincial towns and villages

It was a long time ago and thus I was all the more impressed when a letter arrived from Bolton Street College asking me to attend a special meeting there on a certain morning. It intrigued me as to what I had done to merit it but I soon found out.

There was a great assembly of very bright young people and the theme for discussion was "Is bypassing towns overdone?" Then I knew I was there because my own native town Castle Island was an obvious candidate for having a road put around it: there is an outrageous bottleneck at the Dublin Road end and because it is between two public houses it would be difficult to have it widened. There is a similar difficulty in the entrance to the Latin Quarter. This is on the road to Killarney and is frequently the subject of furious indignation by my dear friend Vincent Hogan.

On that morning long ago in Bolton Street I argued against having my town bypassed. A few weeks previously I had seen a photograph in which the only car in the street apart from two donkey carts was my brother Dermot's Skoda.

On the recent bank holiday, the queue extended up the Dublin Road for a mile and a half. The question about the bypass has long been settled. This was the ultimate proof that no proof was needed. My fear is that my native town, already in decline, will go even further down. There is a theory that a bypass encourages traffic into a town because it allows for more parking but I have seen two examples where this isn't true.

Plymouth used to be known as the Pearl of the Southwest. About 20 years ago its centre was turned into a mall. The ancient city almost died. The same thing happened in Nottingham. There, too, the middle of the city was turned into a mall. When last there, I had the whole place almost to myself. Nevertheless, despite Castle Island's probable loss, the bypass has gone ahead and has been opened. The truth is that the man was not made for the car but the car was made for the man and all over the world it is the dominant force.

Small towns all over Ireland, even those not bypassed, are already in decline. The smoking ban is a factor: girls in small towns do not like to be seen smoking in the street -- and where the girls do not go the boys do not go. Another factor is that most people nowadays have cars and they tend to shop in the bigger towns.

In the old days the typical small town shop was a combination of bar and grocer. In those shops you could buy almost anything. Indeed you would have to be careful lest you get your net entangled in a bicycle tyre hanging from the ceiling or be frightened out of your life by the sudden explosion of a very alarming clock. They were great shops. There is only one left in my town. People come to see it from many miles around. In time, that, too, will be part of the past.

You will find such shops in small towns in Wicklow where you can buy such almost forgotten delicacies as semolina or you can buy Robin Starch or Reckitt's Blue. You can even buy a pair of shoelaces, which you will find hard to do in Dublin; or you can even buy the little needles that were used for playing gramophone records long ago. Or if you are lucky you might even get a Jew's harp.


Bypasses are essential and so are roundabouts but motorways are not. They belong to such huge countries as the United States of America, where as Thomas Wolfe said "You have to conquer its cruel distances." This in his time was done mainly by train. In America today, you can travel for hours and hours and hours without passing through a town. This is equally true of Germany, where you can travel for the great part of a day with forests on all sides of you and only the occasional stop for fuel or a bite and a sup.

Motorways are completely out of place in Ireland and in time we will see that heavy traffic will be so taxed by the EU that it will not be feasible.

The motorways enable people to get more quickly from place to place but you wonder if this is a virtue. What the country needs is not bigger roads but safer roads. More and more freight will be diverted onto the railway.


One day long ago, I met a young American couple who were on their first visit to Ireland and they invited me to accompany them as they drove towards Killarney. They were surprised and delighted at the intimacy of the country: there were houses every hundred yards or so and you could hardly go for 20 minutes without coming to a hamlet or a village. This is the kind of Ireland that we are setting out to destroy.

Whenever travelling from Kerry to Dublin, I feel cheated by not passing through Portlaoise. Maybe that is being sentimental but I think that I am being practical. There are advantages that we do not cherish until they are gone. We are creating an Ireland that is cold and impersonal. You can see this more plainly in the proliferation of fir trees and pine trees.

They are taking over whole stretches of the country and they are destroying a landscape that was once inhabited by peasants and small farmers. And for bad measure, the wood from those trees is inferior because they are natives of Scandinavia and they grow too quickly in our southern climate. Thus we are abusing our landscape for no material profit.

The cutting down of hedges is another bad practice. It is needed near turns of the road to give better visibility. Otherwise it creates a bare landscape and is inimical to our flora and fauna. We will see all those things but when it is too late. I repeat that we have this crazy idea that because something is modern, it is better.

Fogra: Best wishes and congratulations go to Ian O'Riordan on his bold book Miles To Run. It is ready to go down the slipway.

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