In 2013 the Irish government announced the designation of the country's first wilderness area in County Mayo in the Nephin hills and in July this year I made my first visit.
A real wilderness experience stays with you forever. Once experienced in it's purest form there can be no substitutes or blurring of lines. Wilderness is sanctuary from the ravages of our manmade world where nature is left to it's own devices, uncontrolled and thriving according to it's own laws. It is the place where we are reminded that we are not master of anything, where we can reconnect inside and out with the rhythms of the natural world. The irony is that wilderness is a concept created by man yet within that concept there are realities which most of us wouldn't deny. A natural undisturbed area is one overriding characteristic. In Europe wilderness is becoming ever increasingly hard to find. My own experiences come from countless days camping in the backcountry of some of the vast landscapes set aside in the United States. I know it would be unwise to expect to find the vastness that seems to stretch into limitless space of the Sierra Nevada or the deserts of Utah. Still size is not what defines a wilderness landscape and the basic precepts of what does should surely be found in any area with wilderness designation. Peace and tranquility are a given. A roadless landscape, pristine, wild, safe from commercial exploitation. The basics, a realistic place to start and the common ground that generally spans all wilderness areas.
I camped and explored the trails and hilltops for 3 days. My first evening I sat by the Altaconey river, happily flowing in and out of daydreaming, stirring the river with my stick, listening to it's gurgling. I tried to skim a few stones but each one entered the river with a perfect 'plop'. Some things I've never mastered. The midges tried to ruin everything but I persisted, defiant and determined to stake my ground. My tin cup sat beside me with a nip of Jameson whiskey in it that warmed me inside from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes. Some things I have mastered. I could have been in Colorado, California or Scotland. I wondered if landscape, one reminiscent of another is so we can be subtly reminded as we observe of our common ground. So there I was lost in a myriad of thoughts in a tiny little corner of beautiful Mayo. I had Ireland's only wilderness all to myself while the rest of the crowds revelled somewhere else on one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year. Then the clouds rolled in and I made a mad dash for the tent as raindrops pelted down without warning. I fell comfortably asleep to the rhythm of the pitter patter of rain.
'Nephin Wild' as it is called is a reassuring idea but on closer inspection it has a long long way to go. Perhaps we should be more patient and allow the idea that is Nephin Wild evolve because if one thing was obvious it needs to. My first day out walking I had to step aside off a road to allow several vehicles past. Heavy timber felling machinery owned by the state forestry agency Coillte dot the landscape and swaths of land are laid bare from clear cutting leaving vast scars across parts of the landscape. At any high point you can pick out at least one of these areas. Apparently Coillte are in a process of clearing the non native species they planted for commercial gain. So we may have to endure the sound of machines clearing forest for a few years to come yet while trying to enjoy the nature here. Then there's the sheep. Why an animal that is hugely destructive to vegetation cover are still here in an area supposedly in a state of rewilding is confusing, if that is the right word. My guess is that land ownership rights leave many issues unresolved in the rewilding of Nephin and may continue to do so.
Still if you can get past these jarring intrusions on what is being marketed as a wilderness you can almost believe it will get there. Streams run free and one can walk for miles without having to clamber over barbed wire a bane of the Irish countryside. However it will only get there if those who have opted to call it wilderness believe in what that really means. If the objective is increasing it's amenity value through 'maximizing it use value' with the installation of 'facilities' as has been reported then the idea of creating a real wilderness will never be realized. Instead it could be compromised for the creation of a sort of theme park at the cost of it's inherent value as wild untouched landscape and nature for the sake of nature not economics or adventure capitalism. Sheltering in the Lough Avoher Hut and looking out on the Nephin hills there is a hint of wildness that promises Ireland could grow into this if some can keep to their words once they understand the true meaning of them.