News - What's so Special about Aran?

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In making decisions about our own little patches of the Earth's surface and how we are to live on it, we have to bear in mind a wider background. The Earth's population has doubled in the lifetime of most of us here today. Every one of us wants more in the way of material goods and such immaterial ones as mobility and choice. Humanity is exerting an immense, unparalleled, pressure on the resources of the earth, including lebensraum, living-space. But these resources are limited; what we take, other forms of life lose. Hundreds and thousands of plant and animal species are going out of existence because there is no space, no peace, no nature for them to flourish in; we are presiding over and responsible for one of the most rapid mass extinctions in the whole geological history of the planet.

Coming a little closer to home, in Ireland the landscape is changing more rapidly than ever before. Roads, housing estates, forestry, turf extraction, quarrying, are eating up the natural biological surface of the land day by day. And what is left is losing its naturalness. The hilltops have masts on them, the wide spaces of the bogs are rimmed by lines of pylons, the bays are dotted with fish cages. All these things are there to fulfil our demands; we are all implicated. But we should be aware of the cost. In a word, the world is getting smaller and smaller. Each place is becoming more and more like every other place. History is being bulldozed out of the way. Even the most familiar birds - thrushes, skylarks - and the common butterflies, are being poisoned out of existence. Our youngsters probably think that wildlife is a TV show. Technology flourishes and exerts its fascination; the rest of life is becoming less and less interesting and beautiful.

I feel we are reaching the crisis of this stage of humanity's life cycle, and that perhaps in another generation a more intelligent technology and more caring attitudes to the rest of creation will assert themselves. So what we have to do at this juncture is to hold on to what we still have, and fight to protect it from destruction. This particularly applies to places that are unusual for one reason or another. The key to rural development is to preserve the best aspects of the rural environment, the features that make it attractive and lovely to live in as compared to the urban environment. If the countryside becomes just a poor imitation of suburbia, people wil leave it for the real thing. But I also believe it is a duty, a moral obligation, for people who have the privilege of living in, say, a beautiful old city or a lovely countryside, to conserve and enhance it for the good of the whole of humanity.

Focusing in on the Aran Islands, what we have here is one of the strangest and most interesting places in the world. One is often tempted to use the word 'unique' of things that are merely unusual; but in this case I have no hesitation in saying that Aran is unique. This is a singular place; humanity and nature working on each other for centuries have brought forth a landscape which is not paralleled anywhere else in the world. I'll quickly summarise what the factors are that make Aran so special.

First, the basis of it all, the rock. As you know, it's limestone, which originated as layer upon layer of sediments at the bottom of an ocean, and then was lifted up like a huge plateau by movements of the Earth's crust some 270 million years ago, and since then has been carved by erosion into the shapes we inhabit today. One of the most powerful forces to carve out these islands and separate them from the mainland was the glaciers of the Ice Age: ice-sheets half a mile thick grinding across from the north, stripping away loose rock and soil. Vegetation would have returned after that, but then came the first settlers, farming people who cleared the thin woodlands with fire and the stone axe. By the time the great cashels, from Dún Formna to Dún Eoghanachta, were being built, the islands must have housed a substantial and prosperous community. It was soon to be christianised and indeed later became famous throughout Medieval Europe for its monasteries and its saints. Then came the age of exploitation, of the landlords, the struggle to pay the rent, the huge population growth of the eighteenth century and the endless subdivision of the land, the building of fifteen hundred miles of stone walls separating fourteen thousand little fields, an astonishing communal creation, a vast monument to the labour of generations. And because modern developments have been limited so far on the islands, traces of all these stages lie all around us today. In most other areas the past has been swept aside or buried, here it is the background to everyday life.

So I can justify the word 'unique'. There are other limestone areas, but not many of them have been stripped and polished by glaciers as Aran has. This sort of limestone terrain with its underground drainage system of caves and fissures is called a karst, after a region of Croatia where it occurs; there are other areas of karst in Europe, but few on the edge of the ocean - and it is the combination of a soft Atlantic climate with a limestone karst terrain that gives Aran its spectacular richness in unusual wildflowers. There are many prehistoric monuments in Ireland, but they are not part and parcel of a field system still in use, as they are here. There are other broad and level terrains open to the sky and the winds of the ocean, but they have not been so minutely divided up by agriculture as Aran has. Other regions of little fields and boreens, such as south Connemara, are very pretty, but they do not have the uninterrupted sweeping skylines of Aran. This combination of grandeur of scale in the natural and fineness of detail in the human contribution, is literally unique.

So, if Aran is indeed special, it demands special consideration and sensitivity in planning. For instance, the scale and the details of the network of boreens are important. One of the most charming paths in the world must be the one that goes scrambling down the cliff from Baile an Fhormna to An Loch Mór; I hope it still exists and hasn't been 'improved' out of recognition; I hesitate to revisit a lot of little corners of the islands that I know so well, in case they are gone, like the lovely Róidín Ard leading out towards Synge's Chair in Inis Meáin, a loss which I know many islanders deeply regret.

A more important example is this. As you know, recently I've been campaigning against the proposal to site three wind turbines on the south shore of Inis Meáin. Now I hate this sort of controversy; I took it up with the greatest reluctance. But I do feel very strongly that Aran and its landscape is part of the world's heritage, and that anything which denatures it, dilutes its uniqueness, causes a loss to humanity.

The argument for wind power is of course that it is nonpolluting, doesn't contribute to global warming etc. I'm as concerned as anyone about the long-term threats to our environment from fossil fuels. But there is no use saying wind turbines are non-polluting; they are grossly visually polluting, at least in some landscapes. The three relevant features of wind turbines are:

1) the obvious one, that they are very tall and can be seen for miles, especially in an open landscape that is composed of long level horizons like this.

2) that they are always in motion, so they draw the eye and you can't get away from them.

3) that they are all more or less the same - they are industrial products, and so they tend to reduce all the different landscapes they occur in to the same sort of homogenised uniformity.

Now in the West we have a series of very delicate, very special and very fragile landscapes, which we are likely to lose rather quickly if the present rush to install windfarms persists. Some hard decisions are needed about where they should be put and where not. I'm glad to say that since the Inis Meáin project came up, a national debate on that question has begun. But it doesn't need a debate to see that Aran is the last place they should be permitted. That would be a rank exploitation of Aran's environment.

I'll end by reading a few words from the little Companion volume to my map of Aran, published three years ago. It makes a difficult demand of you, the Aran Islanders, but it also says that the rest of us, through the State, should support you in fulfilling it.

Afterwords

Step into one of Aran's fourteen thousand little fields, and you are back in the nineteenth century. Walk the Atlantic cliffs, and the ramparts of Dún Aonghasa startle by their modernity. Stroll down the boreens, and you go arm in arm with the Atlantic, for their pattern is that of the fissures caused by the forces that separated Europe from America sixty or seventy million years ago. The Aran Islanders are inescapably face-to-face with the elemental and the timelessly recurrent, from the spray of winter storms to the foam of daisies in springtime pastures.

Thus, Aran is one of civilisation's loftiest windows onto its own origins in the past and the natural world. In addition to the economic and social penalties of being marginal to material Europe, the Aran community bears the responsibility of keeping that window crystal clear for ever. Since throughout Europe we have let such windows become blurred and dingy, Aran has the right to call on the wider community, national and international, for whatever support it needs in its priestlike task. Nowadays, with so much of its surface in wreckage and filth, it is the Earth that faces us with moral demands. The spiritual merges once again with the natural, from which, disastrously, it has been separated for some centuries.

However, nobody lives on this glorious, elemental, level all the time; in Aran one is also simply exposed to the elements, that is, rained-on, fogbound, windblown, cut off. Life is tough, opportunities limited. Improvement of the economic basis is the natural and rightful expectation of the people. At the same time, like it or not, a special trust is invested in them. If islands loose their singularity, the world becomes smaller. If Aran, in offering us more and more of the comforts and facilities of the outskirts of Galway, reduces the possibility of escaping from the banalities of suburban life, we are all impoverished, in our relationship to the past, to nature, to the influence of solitude and space. There may be specific developments that in other places would be welcome and proper, and that Aran should forego. To live on Aran is a rare and demanding privilege; it is to be the inheritor of something both awkward and valuable, like a Stradivarius, or intangible, like a talent that only rewards long commitment.

In concluding this work [the maps of Aran, 1996], the last and best I can do for Aran, I thank the islanders for seconding my efforts over the years, and commend these precious islands to their good sense.

Tim Robinson
Folding Landscapes
Roundstone
Co. Galway