Into the wild: Where is Ireland's most remote location?
Where is the most remote place in Ireland? Author and climber David Flanagan goes off the grid to find it.
It's not that surprising that, as our world becomes increasingly tame, we crave the remaining wild places. The interest in rewilding [see panel below] and the prominence of #adventure on social media, points towards wilderness-seeking as a reaction against our constantly connected, always on lifestyle.
On our social media networks we are bombarded with a huge amount of seductive imagery: "Imagine a place where there is no phone signal", they whisper - the irony being the message is delivered via the very medium it's urging us to escape from.
However, true wilderness is a scare commodity in this modern world. In Ireland, the closest thing we have to it is the wide, open heather moorlands of the uplands and the West coast. These barren landscapes inform our romantic vision of wildness, of a desolate and God-forsaken emptiness.
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. But consider this: the most remote point in the lower 48 states of the United States is a mere 28 miles (45km) from a road.
So where does Ireland stand in the wildness stakes?
Well, we are the least densely populated country in Western Europe - which is a good starting point. Plus, we are possibly unique in the world, in that our population today is nowhere near what it was in the recent past. The population of the Republic stands at 4.76m, while in 1841 it was 6.53m.
What this means is that there are many places that now lie empty that were previously 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 remnant of its time as a collection of small villages or homesteads is a few stone ruins and the outlines of the lazy beds.
So, Ireland is actually doing pretty well in the wildnerness stakes. Still, I wondered, where is our most remote point? I asked my friend, Paul, a geographic information system whizz, to help me figure it out.
The goal was to identify the most distant point from any public road on the island of Ireland. We also decided that the point must be on the mainland (i.e. the offshore islands don't count) and it must be on land (this rules out the middle of Lough Neagh, for instance).
Paul's software identified a patch of boggy hillside in the Nephin Beg Range in Mayo as the most remote point in the country, at just under 8km from the nearest road. The point - it's hard to pinpoint it exactly - lies fairly close to the Bangor Trail, the 30km walking route that passes through the heart of the mountains.
The proximity of the Bangor Trail is ironic, considering that it 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 also appropriate, as the surrounding bog and forest have recently been designated as Ireland's first official wilderness area, known as Wild Nephin.
It's hard to find many other places that are more than 4km from a road. 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. Those of a more philosophical mind might say that the wildness is within.
The reality is that many areas have remained wild only because they are seen as having little value. Yet wilderness itself is a commodity. It can be used as a way of attracting people to the outdoors, encouraging them to exercise and take an interest in the environment.
Take for example the Wicklow Mountains, the largest continuous upland area in the country. The summit of Mullaghcleevaun is the most remote point in the mountains and the nearest road is the section of the Military Road that runs between Sally Gap and Glenmacnass.
Decommissioning this stretch of road would create a 150 square kilometre roadless tract. Investment in building a network of walking trails and planting of native trees could create a large wilderness area on Dublin's doorstep that could become a major attraction for both locals and visitors.
Just a thought...
What is 'Rewilding'?
The concept of rewilding — letting land return to a more natural state — has existed since the late sixties but has gained considerable momentum in recent years, possibly due to the rise in the number of people hiking, camping and cycling in the outdoors.
Books such as ‘Feral’, by British environmental and political activist George Monbiot, make a compelling argument that overgrazing by sheep and deer has turned much of our uplands into an unnatural, desert-like state. Monbiot claims that if the uplands were cleared of the sheep and the overburden of deer they would, in a matter of a few decades, revert back to a “self-willed” state with a wide range of flora and fauna.
Advocates of rewilding claim that rather than trying to restore an ecosystem to a particular state, the goal is to let nature dictate the outcome.
However, initially at least, it may require a helping hand in the form of planting, fencing, the removal of non-native invasive species and, potentially, the reintroduction of large predators such as wolves and lynx.
Obviously there are barriers to this vision being realised, not least getting sheep farmers to buy into the idea, but in one part of the country the process has already begun. In 2013, a collaboration between Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service set aside 11,000 hectares (110 sq km) of bog and forest in the Nephin Beg Range in north Mayo.
Their goal is to gradually allow it to revert back to a natural state, creating Ireland’s first designated wilderness area, known as Wild Nephin.
David Flanagan is the co-author of 'Exploring Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way', with photography by Richard Creagh. €22.50 from threerockbooks.com