Controversy Over Irish Walking Paths

The government joins in an effort to keep “unofficial” walking paths open for tourists.

Walking across a farm field to get to a beach, a hilltop or an old monument used to be no big deal in Ireland. But nowadays, a controversy is brewing over public access to private lands, pitting farmers and other private landowners against hikers who want to keep their right to roam the famous green fields on self-guided Ireland walking tours.

For 10 years, a privately funded group known as “Keep Ireland Open” (KIO) has tried to find a solution that will give tourists, and a lot of Irish people as well, continued access to thousands of “unofficial” walking paths that have crisscrossed the countryside for years. Dublin native Roger Garland is the Chairman of KIO (he was also the first Green Party TD elected in Ireland in the 1980’s). He says the group’s efforts are now getting a helping hand from the Irish Government, which has set up a “Countryside Council” to try and create a national network of public walking paths, recorded on maps and marked on the ground. The government is, according to Garland, “gradually goading local authorities” into helping the effort. It’s a slow and expensive process, since about half of the “rights of way” proposed are met with legal challenges from landowners.

Screaming Farmers

Only rarely have farmers come out and yelled at people to get off their lands. But according to Garland, “for tourism, one bad incident is one too many.” The problem, he says, differs from county to county. “At some locations in Wicklow (near Dublin), up to 1,000 people, mostly Irish, might pass a particular point in the countryside on a weekend day. In Kerry or Donegal, you might have only 50 or 100 in a day, mainly Europeans.” Oddly enough, he says, landowners in Kerry or Donegal often get more upset about the hikers, because they’ve only appeared in the past 25 years or so. In Wicklow, hikers have appeared by the thousands every weekend for as long as anyone can remember.

“Keep Ireland Open’ isn’t a perfect name for our group,” Garland says, “because Ireland today isn’t really open – it’s only half-open.” Getting a national map of walkways will be worth the long effort, he feels, “because once it’s done, it’s done for all time.”

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