National Park City – A Game Changer for Galway

On October 29th, President Michael D. Higgins gave a powerful thought-provoking speech to an online (via Webex) meeting of people of all ages drawn from a wide strata of local society on why the movement towards transforming Galway into a National Park City  is so crucial at this particular time in human history due to unprecedented Climate Change, biodiversity loss and pandemics, and why it can be a template for other cities in Ireland to follow. His talk was followed by presentations from Dan Raven Ellison,  a visionary campaigner who led the successful drive to establish London as world's first National Park City; and from Kathryn Tierney, policy coordinator at the Directorate General Environment of the European Commission involved in the EU’s radical new growth strategy known as the ‘Green Deal’ with its key principles of circular economy, wildlife protection, zero pollution, clean energy, net greenhouse emissions by 2050 with funding being made available towards research, business innovation and community transition. So impressed are all three by what is happening in Galway that President Higgins agreed to become this new movement’s official patron; Dan to be its mentor; Kathryn to be its champion at EU level; whilst Duncan Stewart, Ireland’s most well-known environmentalist, is its national champion.

So what is meant by ‘Galway National Park City’ and why has it so excited these four luminaries?


The aim of this new pioneering initiative is to make our urban environment more healthier, sustainable, harmonious, beautiful, equitable with biodiversity-rich environments of quality green and blue spaces where people value, benefit from, and are strongly connected to the rest of Nature.


Over eighty (and more to follow) individuals and their respective organisations have started to come together over the last few weeks to help facilitate this process. They will form a steering committee representing the widest possible cross-section of backgrounds, professions and sectors of Galway society including education, community, health, medical, arts, environment, youth, engineering, corporate business, small business, crafts, residential neighbourhoods, scouting, direct provision, marine, waterways protection, renewable energies, makers/repairers, cycling advocacy, walking advocacy, life sciences, data science, social sciences, media, heritage, animal welfare, ecology, and urban farming. Each of these persons have in their own professional and volunteering fields been undertaking or coordinating incredible projects in their workplaces, schools, communities and neighbourhoods, sometimes over many years,  to enhance and care for the city’s unique natural heritage and to help others to benefit from it. Much of the activities of these local champions often takes place without the wider general public being aware of it. The National Park City initiative will help join up and promote their activities, provide a city-wide approach and inspire others from all of the different sectors to follow suit.

A series of local speakers from diverse backgrounds outlined at the launch some of the current environmental and sustainability activities that they are involved in. SAP staff have transformed, with support from Friends of Merlin Woods, a large sterile green lawn into a lush wildflower meadow at their HQ in Parkmore, the first such conversion within a business park in the region; NUI Galway is implementing a campus wide all-embracing consultative Sustainability Strategy; residents and management at the Eglinton Direct Provision Centre have implemented organic gardening and upcycling programmes; students and staff at Galway Community College have planted a woodland, and developed compost, reuse and recycling projects; Claire Lillis, R&D manager at Aerogen, showcased a video on the Connemara Greenway that demonstrated its economic, social and environmental benefits; John O’Sullivan introduced ‘EcoEd4All’, a new Galway-piloted conservation course for Transition Year students that is being rolled out to schools nationwide; Anne Murray explained how the 2019 Galway Science and Technology Festival was the largest ever event held in Ireland on Climate Change involving businesses, NGOs, schools and colleges;  Ríonach Uí Néill guided participants through the ‘Drowned Galway’ outdoor arts mural trail; and Conor Ruane gave an overview of the Galway-Roscommon Local Authority Community Waters programme.


The fact that this important gathering took place online demonstrates why a united approach is needed to transform Galway to meet the challenges that now face us in a rapidly changing world. A virus, an entity smaller than a human cell, had in a matter of a few weeks brought the most powerful species on the planet to its knees.  The coronavirus pandemic is just another symptom(one of many) of humanity’s abuse of nature that is increasingly coming back to haunt us. As President Higgins said at the meeting, mankind stands at a precipice and needs to combine its individual/sectoral talents, and work together like never before in a unity of purpose to come up with solutions to the catastrophic that we have put ourselves in.

This may seem too overwhelming a task for a few thousand citizens of a small city on the western edge of Europe. But we should not underestimate ourselves. For if we combine ingenuity with a common sense practical approach by ‘thinking Global and acting Local’, we can make a significant contribution to positive change. This is what the National Park City Galway is all about.

Over last few months, the natural world came to our aid and gave us clues to what is required to turn things around.  In our time of crisis, when we were confined to our homes and locality, the parks on our doorstep that many of us never actually visited before, characterised by the sights and sounds of bees and birds that we never noticed or heard before, became our place of refuge and our outdoor gym providing a ‘green prescription’ for our physical and mental health. Galwegians in unprecedented numbers took to walking, cycling, and growing organic vegetables, herbs and fruits as well as in helping neighbours through a renewed spirit of ‘Meitheal’. We also began to repair home appliances and recycle materials that we may have previously thrown out. Some of us gave a whole new lease of life to old laptops by installing new free open-source software, so that they could be used by school students who desperately required them for the new online education that was suddenly thrust upon them.

Without realising it, we were answering the call from the higher echelons of the  United Nations and the European Union to transition from a linear (take, make and waste) economy to a circular economy.


Galway is strategically placed both in human and natural resources to become a world leader in sustainability and environmental repair. Surrounded by ocean, rivers, lakes, mountains, bogs and green landscapes, we can be a global centre for renewable energies, organic farming, green tourism, restoration of natural habitats and carbon retention. But we are also blessed with a creative arts and crafts sector; a vibrant community and environmental sector; a location for some of the world’s leading biomedical corporations whose products are saving lives, and IT companies whose digital technologies are bringing us all closer together; a hub for leading edge life-enhancing scientific, medical and engineering research; a centre for indigenous business innovation; a high level of volunteerism; and a flagship for schools and colleges integrating the Outdoor Classroom and Outdoor Lab into educational studies. The political life of Galway should also be praised, after all it gave Ireland a president that is respected throughout the world for his vision, sense of justice and intellect.


A few weeks ago, a presentation was given on the Galway National Park City initiative to a Special Policy Committee (SPC) of Galway City Council where it received unanimous support from the officials and councillors present. The proposal now goes to a full meeting of the council for discussion. We hope that City Hall enthusiastically becomes a fully-fledged leading active partner in this exciting endeavour to create a city for the future that is ‘Green’ as well as ‘Smart’.

We have serious problems locally including traffic congestion, urban sprawl, housing shortage, pollution and an absence of rangers in our parks. But the council should be praised for making positive strides on key environmental issues over the last few months including adopting the All Ireland Pollinator Plan, appointing a Biodiversity Officer, and putting forward proposals for public consultation on increasing the zones of attractive pedestrianisation within the city centre. 

However we as citizens should be more ambitious. A safe city-wide access-for-all cycling, walking and public transport infrastructure is long overdue. The main urban parks and waterways must be connected via a network of ‘ecological corridors’, and wildlife sanctuaries should be established. Planning regulations should encourage the development of ‘urban villages’ and green features such as the use of renewable energies, rooftop/vertical gardens, rainwater collection systems, community green space and native planting areas.

The boreens (country lanes) in the rural areas of the city such as Castlegar, Ballinfoile and Menlo should be protected and promoted as walking routes. The Dyke Road has the unique potential to be an inspiring green/blue hub out of which radiates the Connemara Greenway (by constructing a bridge over the old railway pillars), the Terryland Forest Park, a boreen network emanating out to the rural hinterland towards Coolough, Carrowbrowne and beyond; and a Corrib waterways that stretches to Mayo. 

In the past when City Hall came together in a partnership approach with the wider community, extraordinary unprecedented measures were achieved that placed Galway at the forefront of sustainability and environmental care within Ireland. These included the establishment of the country’s first pro-recycling 3 bin domestic waste collection system; the Cash-for-Cans scheme and Ireland’s largest community urban woodlands project (Terryland Forest Park).

In 2020, a united vision and a spirit of togetherness in Galway can help us be part of creating a new more caring post-Covid world where we work with the rest of Nature and not against it.


Brendan Smith, interim convenor, Galway National Park City

Destruction of 20 year old community Woodland planted in Terryland Forest Park.

I was emotionally shattered to see this morning the destruction of the first woodland lovingly and proudly planted by thousands of Galwegians of all ages, assisted by dozens of council staff, in Terryland Forest Park on March 11th 2000.
Multiple tents have sprung up over the last few days in the woods and paths of this area near the Quincentennary Bridge. Trees and life buoy holders have been ripped up to make fire wood. Cans, bottles and other rubbish along with remains of nighttime fires cover the forest floor and pathways. Whilst I was there, one fire was still lit and being fueled by a person with branches being broken off trees. I worry how many more trees and their wildlife are going to disappear over the next few days. In all my years enthusiastically volunteering in Terryland, never have I witnessed such extensive damage. It is a trail of destruction.
I was contacted by one park enthusiast who lives locally and daily visits this area who told me that he was accosted by a group of very drunk tent dwellers and was lucky to flee. He reported the incident to Mill Street Garda Station. He was informed by other locals that they were harassed over the last few days. This particular area has now suddenly become a 'no go' zone. I am heartbroken.
Terryland Forest Park has seen a huge upsurge in numbers of people using it since the Lockdown began in March. It was/is a park created by the people of Galway for the people and wildlife of the city.
This recent anti social behaviour could destroy this progress.
No one has a right to destroy public property, or precious urban wildlife habitats or wipe out the herculean efforts of thousands of volunteers of all ages who planted this woodland twenty years ago.
I have informed the Garda and the council including Mayor Mike Cubbard
I had already agreed a meeting for next week with parks officials to go through the details for establishing a group of volunteer rangers to assist full time staff, something that I have been requesting City Hall to set up for many years but which was thrown out of sync earlier this year due to the Lockdown and subsequent COVID restrictions. I was so looking forward to working with council on this initiative. But the Garda have to be part of this process. We need to ensure that the people of Galway have a right to enjoy public parks without fear of intimidation or of being physically attacked.
COVID has shown the vital importance of green and blue spaces to our health and the planet. We need to protect them now more than ever.

The 'Iron Church' - the most beautiful church in Ireland?

Not far from my parental home town of Carrickmacross in county Monaghan is the little village of Laragh which I visited this week with my brother Michael. Famous for its industrial heritage and the birthplace of General Eoin O'Duffy, its most striking feature is the Anglican church of St. Peters. Situated on the summit of a high rock (hence its name 'Peter' = 'rock' in Greek), in a wooded gorge with a river of cascading waters at its base, its architecture of a tall slender tower, a weathercock-topped spire, and fish scale roofs, gives the impression that one is in an Alpine village rather than amongst the drumlins of south Ulster.
But what is even more unusual, and which is unique in Ireland, is that this ecclesiastical building is made from corrugated galvanised iron. Such churches, known as 'Tin Tabernacles', were built in 19th century Britain during the industrial revolution to cater for the huge increase in urban populations caused by the demand for workers in the new factories. These buildings could be quickly erected from factory-made prefabricated metal sheets. They were Industrial Churches for an Industrial Age to serve an Industrial Congregation.
The church was deconsecrated in 1962 and fell into dereliction until an ambitious programme of restoration was begun in 2012 by the recently formed Laragh Heritage Group.
As it was Christmas, I wanted to ensure that I visited a church and I was always enthralled by the beauty of St. Peters.

It was built by the owner of the nearby Laragh Mills, which was the first mechanised spinning mill in Ulster providing employment for c300 labourers, spinners and weavers.
However relations between the owner James McKean and his predominately Catholic workforce was never good. A man of strict temperance and with a strong Protestant religious conviction, he would complain about the drinking excesses of the local people. In the winter of 1884, the workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions as well as time off for the observation of Holy Days of Obligation. McKean refused and locked out the strikers. The Lockout continued until the spring of 1885 with McKean trying to entice Protestant workers from his other mill in Rockcurry to take the place of the Catholic rebels. It might explain why he had St. Peters built- a Protestant place of worship that was constructed within a year due to it being made largely from prefabricated metal sheets.

As aforementioned, Laragh is also the birthplace of General Eoin O'Duffy, leader of the Monaghan Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)who became its Chief of Staff in 1922. He is most famous though as the leader of the short-lived (1932-33) Irish fascist movement known as the Blueshirts

UCG Science Dress Dance 1979- The Boys of 80 Hazel Park!

(L-R) John D. Sheridan, Paul Hickey (front), Brendan 'Speedie Smith', Mike Murphy and Tommy Sheridan

My housemates from my UCG student days at the Science Dress Dance 1979, occupants of the best party house in Galway in its day!

Before the Balls (we were regulars at the annual Arts & Science dress dances!) were over, we use to quietly tell our friends that the party would continue at our place, then dash off in the first taxis available to 80 Hazel Park. Taxis packed with students would soon after be prowling the city looking for the late night house parties. But we cleverly would have the curtains pulled tight and leave all the house lights off whilst the rooms were filled with dozens of our friends happily chatting in the darkness. Then exactly one hour after the dress dance had ended everything would be switched on, the disco flashing lights and deck would start with the legendary DJ Gerry Sexton playing the music from Saturday Night Fever, Abba, Mud, T Rex, Beatles, Stranglers, Meatloaf, Sweet...... and many of us would dance the night way until the wee small hours of the morning.
We had No. 80 internally 'zoned' for parties- the front room painted orange was the Disco; the back dining room painted pink became the 'snog room' and the kitchen painted blue was where all the political and social problems of the world were fervently discussed and argued upon. The upstairs bedrooms were a no party zone (as much as was possible!) Luckily for us, our immediate neighbours were all students, nurses, young factory workers and couples, most of whom were our regular guests!
The day after the party, myself and the lads would clean everything up from ceiling to floor including washing the walls down! Then as if my magic, the house was transformed back to normality, until the next party night!
It was all good clean fun! No drugs. Just dancing & a few beers (remember 'draught' Guinness in a bottle!) However we were raided by the forces of the law every so often (on non-party nights only!) Why? That is a (political!) story for another day!
I really feel sad for youth and students at this present time. Not being able to socialise together and have a bit of fun due to COVID restrictions. It is so tough on them and they are generally taken it so well, so disciplined. 
p.s. Mike Murphy has two fingers raised in the photo in front of my face! Nothing nasty- he is just giving the 'rabbit's ears' to Paul

COVID at Christmas was personal.

Birthdays and Christmas are times when families, friends and neighbours in Ireland and elsewhere traditionally gather together for celebrations.

COVID changed all that. So many of us have had to curtail our festivities and reunions.
My own family situation was probably typical of these changing circumstances.
This month was when my youngest son Dáire became 21 and when my lovely wife Cepta reached a milestone birthday. We had originally hoped to mark these very special occasions in one's life with very special hostings. But the COVID restrictions meant Dáire could only celebrate with his student house mates and Cepta received gifts as a substitute for the big (surprise!) party.
My fantastic brother Michael lives with his family in our ancestral home in Carrickmacross. Being ill at present means that he cannot, under totally understandable COVID protective guidelines, receive visitors. So my traditional meet up with him, the wider family members and our mutual friends for social drinks in Monaghan that I look forward too so much at Christmas sadly could not happen. So my visit yesterday on St. Stephen's Day was very muted. Michael and his fine young sons Ethan and Pierce (photo) could really only chat and drink tea with me from a distant.
Neighbours, friends and family have passed away since the Lockdown in March. It has been tough not being able to take part in the traditional gatherings in order to give respect to people that we knew, admired and loved.
Hopefully we will collectively as a society soon take the necessary actions to eliminate the causes of pandemics and the other problems that we are increasingly encountering on a global scale (Climate Change, soil infertility, pollution..) by rebuilding the natural world. Time is running out