It’s astonishing how polluted our soundscape is. Seán Ronayne is an ornithologist on a mission to record the songs of all the birds that live on or migrate to this island. During a brilliant talk in the National Botanic Gardens in October, he played some of his recordings to a rapt audience. A documentary about his inspiring work is being made for RTÉ. He remarked on how difficult it was to hear just birdsong alone, even in remote areas. Ireland is a noisy place. The roar of traffic is a constant intrusion.
Walking routes that take us away from its stressful drone feel like a balm. Kevin Mullen’s children and grandchildren learned to cycle on Lime Avenue, the carriage-width road that runs up to Castletown House from the busy Kildare town of Celbridge. I joined Mullen to walk the now disputed stretch last month, starting from the gate where local group Save Castletown has been trying to keep this space for walkers, bikes and children taking their first wobbly moves into active and sustainable travel.
Earlier this year, 235 acres of the demesne had been sold to a private developer. The sale led to the closing of car access off the M4. The OPW plans to allow Lime Avenue to replace it will compromise a local walking amenity with a history of a right of way dating from the 18th century, protesters argue. They have mounted a long protest at the gate to stop cars, unless they have a blue badge. The group is determined to keep up the protest into the winter. “Hot water bottles and warm coats” will be deployed, they say.
Artist and lecturer Rosie McGuire has been knitting together references to the cultural and natural resources of Castletown. Fellow campaigner Saidhbhín Gibson joined us a short while into the walk. “The mental wellbeing that comes from access to a place like this is priceless,” she says. People from Straffan, Leixlip and Maynooth all use it regularly, she explained. “Like art and culture it’s hard to put a value on this.”
They fear for the yew and oak trees, some of which are more than 400 years old, along with extensive woodlands around the site. Seven of the nine Irish bat species are on the demesne. Threatened wild bees are represented by at least three species: field cuckoo bee, large red-tailed bumble bee and moss carder bee have all been recorded there. The OPW managed meadows were awarded an International Green Flag Award this year.
Lime Avenue is a much-loved artery of health and community. Ceding it to traffic in a climate and biodiversity emergency is a backward step. Places where the birds sing from the branches of long-lived trees and it is quiet enough to hear their songs are too precious to lose.