It’s not that surprising that as our world becomes increasingly tame that we place more value on the remaining wild places. The rising profile of the principle of rewilding and the prominence of #adventure etc etc on social media points towards a reaction against the always connected, always on lifestyle. There is a huge amount of imagery that seems to be trying to seduce us, “Imagine a place where there is no phone signal”, it whispers, ironically delivering the message via the medium it urging us to escape from.
I recently read George Monbiot’s amazing book Feral which makes a great argument for letting our hills revert back to their natural state. It’s only in the last few years that I realised that places like the Wicklow Mountain exists in a completely unnatural state due to overgrazing and if cleared of the sheep and the overburden of deer would, in a matter of a few decades, revert back to their ‘self willed’ state with a wide range of flora and fauna.
This isn’t all that intuitive as the wide open, barren heather moorlands seem to sit well with our romantic vision of wildness, we equate wildness with emptiness. It also prompts the sad thought that the only places that remain wild are thus because there isn’t money to made out of them.
People often turn up their nose when terms like wilderness are used in an Irish context. And it’s true that in an absolute sense we are no match for places like Alaska, Yukon, Greenland, Siberia etc etc. But consider this, the most remote point in Lower 48 of the United States is only 45km from a road.
“Out of the million square miles of basin, range, peaks and prairies that compose the interior West, the farthest it’s possible to be from a road is a trifling 28 miles.” Source.
Even in as vast a country as the US you can’t get more than a long day’s walk from the road.
So where does Ireland stand in the wildness stakes? Well we are the least density populated country in Western Europe (source) which is a good starting point. We also must be unique in the world in that our population today is nowhere near what it was in the recent past. Currently the population is 4.76m while in 1841 it was 6.53m (source). What this means is that there are many places that now lie empty which were once home to a large population. Take for example Glenlough Bay at the very tip of the Glencolmcille Peninsula in Donegal or Glensoulan in the Wicklow Mountains where the only remaining indication of their time as a small villages/homesteads are a few stone ruins and the outlines of the lazy beds.
So what is remote in Irish terms and where is the most remote point? I asked my friend Paul, a GIS wizz, to help me figure it out. The criteria was distance from any road, it must be on the mainland (ie. the offshore island don’t count) and the point must be on land (this rules out the middle of Lough Neagh for instance).
The answer: 54.042586,-9.656568. A boggy hillside in the Nephin Beg mountains in Mayo. This point is just under 8km from the nearest road.
The point itself – it’s hard to pinpoint it exactly – is a suitably nondescript boggy hillside, but it lies fairly close to the Bangor Trail, the 30km walking route that passes through the heart of the Nephin Range. The proximity of the Trail is ironic considering that the Bangor Trail was the main route for people and livestock until roads were built in the area in the first half of the 19th century. However, it is appropriate as 16,000 hectares (160 square kilometres) of the surrounding bog and forest have recently been set aside and allowed revert back to a natural state, creating Ireland’s first designated wilderness area, known as Wild Nephin. That said there seems to be some serious issues with the project.
It’s hard to find anywhere else in the country that is more than 4km from a road. So as a rule if you are more than an hour walk from the nearest road then you can consider yourself remote, at least by Irish standards. Of course this is just a dry, analytical take on wildness, there are other factors such as terrain, climate etc. A poet might even say the wildness is within.
The summit of Mullaghcleevaun marks the most remote point in Wicklow and if it wasn’t for the pesky Military Road between Sally Gap and Glenmacnass that point would shift further east and become more like 6km from the nearest road, creating a 150 square kilometre road-less tract on Dublin’s doorstep. Then all they need to do is cull the deer and remove the sheep and let the area revert to a more natural state, and then pay the farmers to build trails rather than look after the sheep, then they could run buses to the trailheads and even built a number of simple huts. That would really be something.