Precious Heaney Homeland in Peril

The mystical Lough Beg wetlands. (Photo courtesy of Steven Hylands)

By Peter McNamara

Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and long-time Dublin 4 (Sandymount) resident, died on August 30th 2013. If he were alive today you can be sure he would be deeply concerned about the latest goings-on in his native Lough Beg.

The government of Northern Ireland has decided to build a £160-million motorway through this untouched natural habitat. During his lifetime Heaney was a vigorous critic of the A6 motorway plans. He sent many faxes from his Dublin 4 home in support of the campaign to save the area.

The current situation is alarming. In fact, the course of events are somewhat hard to believe.

Considering the unique beauty of the Lough Beg area, its status in the work of one of the 20th century’s defining poets, and the superior alternative routes outlined for the proposed A6, overturning the decision to build this destructive road seems like a straightforward affair.

Unfortunately, perhaps shockingly, the organisation which is most forcefully promoting the road, and which is providing the funding for it, is the same one charged with the responsibility of deciding whether it is in the public good that it be built.

There is no check on the power of the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure. It’s a strange state of affairs when the developer of a major road can give itself permission and be the competent regulatory authority.

For this reason, it has fallen to concerned citizens of Northern Ireland, and to lovers of natural and poetic beauty further afield, to stand up against the Department’s short-sighted decision.

Opponents of the current plan want no further action to be taken on the A6 motorway until there is a new government in Northern Ireland, a new Minister elected, a new Environmental Impact Assessment carried out, and some real consideration given to alternative proposals.

The Route and not the Road

Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland (FOE NI) are one of the groups on the frontline of this fight. In their official briefing on this issue, they stress they are “against the route and not the road.”

There is an issue around the under-developed and, some feel, largely forgotten area west of the Bann basin in Northern Ireland. The A6 project is supposed to be part of the drive to reinvigorate this region.

FOE NI have outlined easier, cheaper, and more efficient routes to the one proposed. There is a way to help regenerate the under-developed region west of the Bann, while also sparing Lough Beg from devastation.

As environmentalist Chris Murphy told the Northern Ireland High Court as part of his challenge to the project, the planners “couldn’t have picked a worse route.” According to Murphy the chosen A6 path is “the most engineeringly difficult, and culturally and environmentally damaging.”

As it’s proposed, the motorway will rise high above ground level to forever fragment and, as Heaney himself put it, “desecrate this landscape.” In their briefing, Friends of the Earth NI write that the motorway will “draw other developments in its wake,” industrialising the serenity and ecology of Lough Beg. The 10,000-year-old wetland would be destroyed “for the sake of four miles of road.”

Two alternative options are to upgrade the existing road, or to traverse a brownfield site. FOE NI have found that both of these plans are widely supported by locals. According to the late Seamus Heaney, the road could also be taken “through an old aerodrome where there is an industrial estate and so on, which wouldn’t be as much of a wound on the ecology.”

Not only will the chosen motorway damage what’s already there, but it may also create new flooding concerns. The Environmental Impact Assessment that was undertaken as part of the planning processes is ten years old and does not consider the severe flooding events which have recently affected the Lough Beg area. No assessment has been made of the consequences of displacing this flood water or the impact of future flooding on the feeding grounds of birds.

As climate change continues unabated, it is likely that this pattern of severe flooding will continue or worsen. Taking this additional reason into consideration, it seems a clear mistake to build in the Lough Beg floodplains.

“An Ecological Treasure”

Heaney, in one of the letters of opposition he sent from his home in Sandymount, believed “it’s hard to say ‘you shouldn’t touch those places because I wrote about them’, but the fact is that those undisturbed acres are as much a common spiritual resource as they are an ecological treasure.”

“All over the world,” the poet wrote, “it is being realised that the outback, as we might call it, of the ‘developed’ areas is the last vital ditch in need of protection.”

Although he might have been too modest to acknowledge the significance of his homeland to Irish and international culture, the verdant locations that inspired the ground-breaking poems in Death of a Naturalist, and in his later writings, must be protected. In an interview for the Guardian newspaper, the Nobel Prize-winning poet spoke of Mossbawn being his “omphalos” – the Greek word for “navel”. It was the centre of the young Heaney’s universe, the keystone of the imagination of one of the 20th century’s leading poets. 

In his work, Seamus Heaney humbly celebrated the mystery of the fields and bogs surrounding his birthplace. Like any gifted artist, he invites us to look again at what we may be taking for granted around us. The hills and fields of Mossbawn, Lagan’s Road, Anahourish, Sluggan and the Strang of Lough Beg, are featured in the great poet’s work; but above and beyond this they have an intrinsic value of their own.

The Lough Beg area is the last great lowland wet wilderness left in Ireland. It is of global significance not just for the Heaney legacy but for the breeding waders: this area is home to the increasingly endangered curlew, and wintering whooper swans and golden plover visit these wetlands in vast numbers. The swans come to these fields every year from their breeding grounds in Iceland, and represent a true wildlife spectacle.

What’s more, 8,000-year-old Mesolithic archaeology was recently uncovered in Lough Beg. As Heaney himself said, the area is a “direct link to the environment our Mesolithic ancestors knew, and precious lung in the countryside.” If the A6 goes ahead on it’s proposed route, the four miles of road will cause such damage that this ancient land and archaeology will be lost forever.

UNESCO and Tourism Potential

There is still time for a change of mind. By choosing one of the alternative routes available for the A6, the NI Department of Infrastructure can spare the Lough Beg wetlands and help develop the economically neglected areas west of the Bann basin. In fact, the Department could decide to not only protect but to actively harness the cultural and natural value of this region.

Friends of the Earth NI argue that the Lough Beg landscape is so unique, “it merits the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.” The area has already achieved recognition as a Ramsar site, under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, enacted to conserve wetlands of international importance. Its also designated a Special Protection Area, under the EU Birds Directive.

Tourism numbers in Ireland are increasing year on year. With some thoughtful branding and committed promotion, there’s no telling what status the wetlands might attain.

A new “Heaney Homeplace” has already been opened in Mossbawn. Taking a cue from the marketing marvel that is the Wild Atlantic Way, Tourism NI (the Northern Ireland tourism board) could create an attraction to rival the likes of the Giant’s Causeway, Newgrange, and the Cliffs of Moher.

Sign the Petition and Spread the Word

Seamus Heaney was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” He worked to express some of the wonder and heritage around him. It’s saddening to think that his poetry might become our only means to experience these beautiful Irish locations.

If you’d like to lend your voice in opposition, there is a petition on – Google “save the Heaney homeland petition” and you will find it. Nearly 6,500 people have signed the electronic petition. Although it seems a small contribution, petitions of significant size can often tip the balance when it comes to public decision making; to greater the outcry, the greater the chance of being heard.

These plans have been argued over for more than a decade, and the story has been in and out of the news at different points in that time. There have been Irish Times editorials, BBC news items, and polemic articles by journalist Fintan O’Toole, actor Stephen Rea, and multi-award-winning writer John Carey.

Now, however, the situation is getting more worrying. With the distraction of Brexit, and in the absence of a government and relevant minister in Northern Ireland, opponents to the A6 route fear construction might begin soon. It’s a mistake that would stand for centuries.

Friends of the Earth NI believe Lough Beg has the potential to become “an economic powerhouse for Mid Ulster, a new sustainable economy based on cultural tourism and the interplay between nature, landscape, literature, history, and people.” This is a blueprint that could be followed all over Ireland.

The threat to the Heaney homeland exposes a lack of care and respect which is visible not only in Northern Ireland, but in the Republic as well. We admire our artists, musicians and writers, and acknowledge the central role they have played and continue to play in shaping Irish identity at home and abroad. When courting tourism and international investment, politicians often invoke the “cultural capital” these artists offer, but do little to actually support them in their lifetime, and seemingly less to protect the places they elevate and enlarge.

With the fight to save Heaney Country, there is an opportunity to set a better example in Ulster, which could be followed on the whole of this island.

It takes a minute to sign the electronic petition “Save Heaney Country” on, and by adding your name you can make a difference. If this issue does alarm you, consider writing to your TD, or spreading the word any way you can.