CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Akron Irish

Akron Irish: Green Season

By Lisa O’Rourke

It was a day begging for a walk, warm and windless, with the sun shining. An overgrown single green lane stretched in front of us invitingly. The bees were buzzing, the birds were chirping and swooping, and cows were munching tranquilly in the fields on either side, a perfect country day.

As my father started down the lane, I did the unthinkable; I called him back. New to the area, my father didn’t know that he was standing on a two-lane road which was dangerously overgrown.

Hedgerows grow quickly in the summer, like everything else in nature. When they begin to overtake the road, the county council sometimes promptly sends some fellows out to trim them. On these winding country roads, it is hard to see what is coming at the best of times.

I was surprised to find this overgrowth. Irish road safety had been one of the scourges of the EU, how could this be OK?

I found out that the overgrown hedgerows were a by-product of a study done by a citizen group. Ireland, again punching above their national weight, were the first country in the world to conduct a Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss in 2022.

The work of the Assembly was to gather evidence on the state of the country’s national resources and to make recommendations to improve them. They gathered information from multiple sources, including scientists, landowners, and local authorities.

The group found many areas of concern. These included the hedgerows, in themselves and as part of loss of natural habitat for native species. The study also focused on the loss of native woodlands, protected animal species and the shocking state of water across the country.

Looking at these issues individually, let’s start with the hedgerows. They are vibrant little ecosystems of sorts, serving both as homes and land borders. They are ancient.

Hedgerows started in Ireland in Neolithic times. Many farms have nothing more than hedgerows keeping the cows in the fields. Dozens of different kinds of birds’ nest in them and other small animals live in them.

Hedgerows can be comprised of dozens of kinds of plants; hawthorn bushes, ferns, grasses, and others all blend together to make a natural fence. I honestly hadn’t given them much thought in a long time. Hedgerows are worth the sacrifice of walking judiciously in a single file down a country road. 

Akron Irish

Treeless Ireland
The loss of native woodland is one that many think harken back to England’s exploitation of Irish resources. Ireland is down to 2% of land with native woodland on it.

Plenty of people will tell you that the English chopped down trees to build their navy. Maybe some, but the Irish climate itself, with its boggy inclinations, did at least some of the damage.

Driving around the country, you will see trees. Many of them are cash-crop pine forests, which are acidic and unhealthy for the soil. It is much harder to find large areas of native trees like oak and ash. There are some beautiful forests with native trees, like Forest Park in Boyle, which are well worth a visit.

An Island Running Out of Water
Water is the most worrisome issue. The Assembly found that 50% of the national water is in poor condition. I know this one firsthand. The water around my husband’s rural farmland home has been on boil alert, off and on, for around thirteen years.

You think twice every time you go to get a drink there until you become immune to worry. Honestly, I don’t know of anyone getting sick and linking it back to water, but it’s not a pleasant thought either. These alerts are caused primarily by the presence of E. coli bacteria in the water supply.

Nitrates and phosphates are other pollutants causing problems around the country. Industry and agricultural run-off are the biggest causes, but there is no one source that is singled out. There is also every appearance that the country never developed cohesive systems and policies to keep the water clean.

If you are surprised by all of this, I don’t blame you. We as tourists often see Ireland as a kind of Brigadoon, especially out in the country. One of the reasons that we visit is a lack of development everywhere, nostalgia of a sort, the small-town feel.

Not too many other countries have been able to profit from that kind of absence. But brands like Kerrygold took full advantage of the fact that factory farmed cows are decidedly not the source of their iconic butter.

It looked like Ireland was on the right side of the ecological movement by default. But development did creep in, especially during the Celtic Tiger years. The rapid development overwhelmed some rural areas especially. Building permits outpaced sense and thoughts of consequences.

This led to some strange occurrences, like flooding on one side of a street while the other is fine. Then there are the expected consequences of progress, like dirty water, loss of undeveloped land, depleted forests and loss of animal habitats.

What is amazing is that there is no real polarizing political element in this. There is no virtue signaling on one side while the other is in a kind of defiant cowboy pose. The climate issues in Ireland are not divisive.

That in itself is hopeful. They were, after all and shockingly, the first country to take a hard stand on smoking by banning it in public places, in 2004. It was an amazing move at the time, since so many people did smoke, at least socially.

They have not given out plastic bags in stores there for around twenty years. No one complains, they get on with it, grab a bag from home and bring it along.

While solar power is not much of a presence yet, the wind is being harnessed for power. Wind turbines are scattered around the country. I was surprised to see them out in Connemara, by Padraig Pearse’s cottage no less, but it is a windy spot.                            

Like atheists in foxholes, it is hard to find climate deniers standing out in an unprecedented hurricane gale. Are we the resource gulping catalysts for climatic catastrophe? I hope not.

Every April, Earth Day comes along and gives us that New Year’s type of boost. It kicks in hope and the opportunity to refocus, pick up some trash, recycle a bottle and look for other ways to honor the gift of this Earth.

See More of Lisa’s Akron Irish columns HERE

Picture of Lisa O'Rourke

Lisa O'Rourke

*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education.Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division.She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She enjoys spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at [email protected].

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