Fintan O’Toole has a piece in the Irish Times today decrying the removal of the road signs at Ballyvaughan. He argues that it signals three kinds of stupidity. First, that it erodes a sense of place. Second, that it undermines local democracy. Third, that it illustrates a lack of joined up thinking between the NRA and the needs of tourism and local economy.
The argument about place is well made.
“Like the rocks on the nearby seashore, it has accumulated an exotic accretion of barnacles and seaweed, in this case about 20 signs. They point in a conventional way towards other places: Lisdoonvarna, Corofin, Killimer, Fanore, though until fairly recently there were two signs for Lisdoonvarna, one pointing left and the other right. But local businesses and attractions – BBs, Monk’s Pub, the Tea and Garden Rooms, Aillwee Cave – gradually added their own markers. The result was a kind of organic art installation, a riot of letters, colours and angles.
The signs didn’t just point to particular places, however. They also indicated a certain kind of place, an Ireland that is a little bit different, a little bit more richly textured, where place itself is a multi-layered concept. It is not a piece of Paddywhackery or of self-conscious performance for tourists. It’s a real, functional thing that happens to tell you something about the way Irish people think of where they are. … The Ballyvaughan signpost is this kind of conversation stuck on to a pole to form a prickly porcupine of possibilities. …
There are now no pointers at all to the businesses along the coast road to Black Head, one of the most beautiful stretches of Ireland. This may be a small thing in itself, but it points to three different kinds of official stupidity, each of which has had a disastrous effect. The first is the stupidity of not understanding the importance of place. Place isn’t an abstract concept. On the contrary, it’s where all the big things come together – economics and society, the past and the present, the idea of what is distinctive with the idea of a shared space. And one of the things we screwed up so mightily in the boom years was this sense of place. Putting 300 suburban houses on the edge of an old village of 200 houses, leaving the whole thing as a ghost estate, is what happens when a sense of place is lost.
For the NRA, the Ballyvaughan sign isn’t an aspect of a particular place, it’s an affront to the proper sense of placelessness. They see the village as an obstacle to be driven through in the most efficient manner possible. As an NRA spokesman explained: “The purpose of signing on the road network is to promote safety and efficiency by providing for the orderly movement of traffic”. The sin committed by the signpost is that it exceeds its proper purpose of being exactly like every other signpost.”
The other two arguments are a bit more tricky. Admittedly we’re talking about a signpost here and there is latitude for some commonsense and pragmatism, but at the same time one of the prime reasons we’ve ended up in the mess we’re in is because of a lack of good governance and the fact that we haven’t been following sensible rules and procedures. The reason we have ghost estates on the edge of villages is not solely because a sense of place was lost and local democracy was not allowed to operate. In fact, local democracy in the form of councillors were allowed to lose the run of themselves and good practice around planning failed to take place. There is a clearly a tension here between being over-officious and leaving things too loosely governed.
Exceptionalism is always a difficult issue to deal with. Exceptionalism around one road sign is okay. All road signs and it becomes a major issue. Clearly a balance has to be found between local interests and good governance and democracy.