From Castlebar - County Mayo -

Local Papers Commentary
The Western People 8 October 2003
By The Jaundiced Eye
12, Oct 2003 - 14:23

Landslide victims suffer as Govt is accused of inaction

Landslide victims in North Mayo have called for President McAleese and the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to visit their devastated villages. Local resident’s spokesman, Brian Wilson, made the call as 28 families were advised at a briefing session on Friday last that their properties had been placed in the low to medium risk category. "We would like the President and Taoiseach to see for themselves the damage done to our homes and our lives and then they will understand what we are going through," he said. Work will continue this week on the mountainside and with 14 properties still in the high-risk category another briefing session is planned for the coming week.

The dogs in the street now know that sheep overgrazing is the root cause of the Pollathomas landslides – that and heavy rain of course. Rain on its own could not have done the damage seen. But Teagasc has actually accused people who say overgrazing is the cause of ‘having an agenda’. Of course there’s an agenda – an environmental one. But on the other side the agenda behind trying to cover up the real reason for the landslides is even more interesting. Mayo TDs and councillors who have called for more sheep on the Mayo commonages now have to face the grim reality of what they were promoting. It’s embarrassing to be caught. It’s not sheep – it’s radar, it’s the gas terminal that might have been built – it’s anything but too many sheep. The environmental side has been out in the open for years. Overgrazing has contaminated our drinking water sources all down the west coast. Shellfish harvesting has had to stop due to sheep faecal coliforms reaching the sea and being concentrated by mussels. Clew Bay’s shellfish status has been downgraded recently. Angling rivers have been wiped out due to erosion caused by sheep overgrazing so anglers have been extremely annoyed over two decades now. The fisheries boards scientists have been presenting the evidence - photos of the bare soil and landslides in the overgrazed catchments for years but to no avail. Lakes have gone a deep brown colour due to peat from overgrazing and fish stocks decline. The once beautiful Mayo hillsides with their purple heathers, especially at this time of the year, have taken a severe hammering to the extent that tourists just laugh at the brown peaty muck and exposed glacial till.

Europe said ‘no’ to compensation but it’s unlikely that Dublin will also say no to compensation for the Pollathomas victims. The local pub has reopened according to the Irish Times yesterday following the latest update of the risk of further landslides which came after the Western People piece. The Board of Works has also promised to assist Mayo County Council in some of the works required. Presumably insurance companies will also pay out in the same way as they would for wind damage or flood. For those without insurance obviously they are in serious bother and will benefit from Red Cross or other compensation. In the end the image of Bertie in his wellies when the Dodder flooded last November suggests that fair is fair and if his constituents got a few bob so too should the North Mayo voters.

Of course everyone feels sorry for the folk who have had to leave their homes and for their distress on that dreadful night. Just as people felt for the folk caught up in the Dodder flood last year. The Dodder flood, however, was immediately blamed on bad planning permissions located in the flood-plain upstream. It was not a good idea to cover acres of ground with concrete and roof-tiles resulting in a much flashier runoff pattern such that the river swells up much more quickly than before. The flooded residents got their compensation nonetheless. In the case of the Pollathomas disaster, poor planning at a European level and national level is also responsible. For decades the CAP threw money at sheep in the West of Ireland without any concept of the damage that was being done. It was far too late by the time it was finally acknowledged officially. Checking the Dept of Agriculture website yesterday it states that the Knocknalower DED – i.e. the hilltop at Pollathomas was destocked of sheep by over 50% as part of the Commonage Framework Plan (CFP) such was the scale of the damage observed. The Heritage Council and others have also referred to overgrazing in Pollathomas in the past so it cannot be denied that the hillsides have been damaged. Of course the CFP was years too late to redress the damage. Compromise rules. The destocking recommendations were the result of a serious tension between the Duchas/Environmental side and the Agriculture/Gimme da Money side. The damage visible in Mayo everywhere suggests that all sheep should be withdrawn for a number of decades to allow proper recovery of heather and other species - but this would mean putting the poor farmer out of business.

I asked Mr Google and found that there are a very large number of Dail questions dealing with sheep on the Dail record website. Mayo County Council last November suspended standing orders to propose a motion to allow more rather than less sheep on Mayo commonages. The motion passed reads: – "That this Council calls on the Minister for Agriculture and Food to re- examine all CFP in Mayo with a view to revising the drastic level of destocking currently being proposed". Mayo TDs have continually put pressure on the Minister to allow increased numbers of sheep on Mayo commonages and to relax the environmental controls designed to achieve sustainability. Unfortunately the laws of nature know nothing about the Dail or Mayo County Council motions. Years and years of damage have weakened the basic structural or engineering strength of the hillsides. And it can’t be undone instantly by just passing a law and certainly not by voting to allow even more sheep to graze up there as they have done. The root mass that should be holding the whole thing together is now just a pale shadow of what it should be because of these policies. The lack of heather and proper vegetative cover allows the surface peat on the hillsides to crack open and dry out over the summer thus weakening the structure even further. At Pollathomas the engineers are telling us that the massive downpour on 19 September forced the water into the cracks in the peat structure. It got into these cracks and down underneath the blanket peat into places where it would never have got to normally if there had been a decent cover of heather – sluicing the whole thing down the hillside.

The obvious damage that has been done to Mayo hillsides has weakened their structural integrity to the extent that the Pollathomas landslides were inevitable given that over 80mm of rain fell within a few short hours. The Mayo TDs that have called for actual increases in sheep numbers on Mayo hillsides in the Dail over the past number of years now need to examine their consciences. While these areas are obviously economically deprived overgrazing only makes matters worse destroying good angling rivers and lakes and driving tourists away from an obviously degraded landscape apart altogether from the cost of dealing with bacteria in water supplies. Wiping out shellfish fisheries with bacterial contamination from overgrazing runoff is not a good idea either.

The Teagasc advisors that have said ‘no problem now’ and even ‘restock’ need to think again. The County Councillors that have obliterated the phrase ‘sustainable development’ from the new Mayo County Development plans need to think again. All they need to do is pay a visit to Donegal and compare the amount of heather still on the Donegal hillsides versus the almost total lack of heather in Mayo in order to appreciate what damage has been done here by overgrazing. The Pollathomas disaster was waiting to happen and it could happen in any one of a number of other overgrazed hillside areas around the county given similar heavy rainfall again. Wake up folks and smell the coffee!


Call to have ID on all bottles and cans

A call for the clear labelling of the names of alcohol retail outlets on bottles and cans has come from Fine Gael Senator Jim Higgins. His call has come in the wake of a recent Irish Times survey which indicated that three out of five youngsters between the ages of 15 to 17 years are drinking alcohol. He said the survey indicated the serious extent of the alcohol epidemic among young teenagers in the country and the manner in which the under 18 alcohol age limit is being flouted. "When it comes to enforcing the law one of the big problems is to establish which retail outlet supplied the alcohol to the youngsters." he said. He added that it should be possible with modern technology, and it should be mandatory, that off-licences, supermarkets etc., be obliged to have the name of the premises clearly shown on the cans and bottles.

An interesting one this indeed. So when the Gardai chase after the youngsters caught drinking under the bridge or down by the lake all they have to do is pick up the cans and pay a visit to the off-licence that sold the stuff. Technically probably very feasible indeed – a simple stamp or bar-code on every can or bottle. Easily done when putting them on the shelf.


Davitt College celebrating 21st anniversary in November

Davitt College evolved out of the old Vocational School built in the early l930s at Newtown, Castlebar. The old vocational educational system catered for educational training in technical subjects, craft and apprenticeships. Donagh O’Malley by introducing free education, brought about a revolution in educational opportunities which resulted in all schools offering both technical and academic subjects. This meant there was no difference in the education received in either Secondary or Vocational schools. Under the guidance of the then Principal Mr. Joe Langan, the student enrolment increased dramatically. Recognising the need for a bigger and more modern facility Mr. Langan, began a successful campaign for the provision of a new modern facility on a green field site. His dream was realised in 1982 when Davitt College opened its doors at Springfield. The school originally planned for 550 students grew rapidly and within a few years had a student population of 750.

Gosh, I remember when it started – is Springfield there that long? Good luck to all the green-uniformed students who have attended Davitt College over the past 21 years. And good luck too with the celebrations on 14 November. Photos in the Connaught this week too of this years Davitt’s ‘Debs’ (God I hate that word) – all spruced up with black tie and little black numbers!

© Copyright 2003 by Castlebar - County Mayo -