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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 24 April, 2014

Nama to Nature: Why we are planting trees on ghost estates

Group of friends urge fellow citizens to help Ireland’s 600 ghost estates return to nature rather than blight the landscape – Frank Armstrong describes one guerilla planting session in Co Leitrim.

NAMA to Nature plants trees on Waterways ghost estate at Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim.
NAMA to Nature plants trees on Waterways ghost estate at Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim.
Image: Sarah Lincoln

A GROUP Of friends has taken an innovative approach to the eyesore of one ghost estate: by planting trees on it.

NAMA to Nature – an idea thought up by Andrew Legge and Serena Brabazon – has a Facebook page which records its work with the message: “Ireland has over 600 ghost estates and 40,000 empty dwellings. Rather than watch the government dither and procrastinate let’s help nature take them back.” Legge says the Facebook page is simply to document what he and his friends did on one estate in an area of Leitrim that has personal meaning to them – and encourage others to repeat the action in their part of the country if they see fit.

Frank Armstrong, a food writer and lecturer at UCD’s Adult Education Centre, joined a planting session on one such estate, ‘The Waterways’ in Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim:

ON THE WALL outside ‘The Waterways’ in Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim a series of images with the caption ‘Boating from your back door’ survive. It features families frolicking on marinas and an overhead picture of how the estate will look. This could easily be the work of an artist lampooning the Celtic Tiger. But there is no irony intended. It is the real deal, an enduring monument to greed, folly and hubris.

Inside, houses in various stages of construction loom, some merely steel girdles, one a completed show house with decking outside which the family boat could be moored. There is no sign of the tennis courts or luxury cars that feature in the pictures.

Much of the area is covered in hardcore, hard-packed stone that does not permit plant life to grow. Here roads were to be built. Giant mounds of styrofoam and heaps of plastic bags complete a sickening picture.

Now even the caretaker’s portakabin has been abandoned with a window smashed in. Inside there is still a radio, a rotting copy of the Yellow Pages and rubber boots that look beyond repair. The Marie Celeste showed more signs of life.

We were building an Ireland resembling 1950s America, and now all that remains is a scene that reminded me of when Charlton Heston’s character in the original Planet of the Apes film encounters a crumbling Statue of Liberty. It is remarkable how quickly the Irish dream dissipated.

Ghost estates endure… scars on the landscape and an eyesore for communities

The ghost estates survive as a cliché that foreign news agencies use to portray the Irish excess and corruption that almost derailed the European project. They are no longer ‘the story’, but they endure nonetheless, scars on the landscape and an eyesore for communities. What tourist would appreciate the sight of these building sites?

With ‘The Waterways’ now held as security for unpaid debts by the state I decided to join a group called NAMA to Nature. Last Sunday morning we planted over one thousand trees on the site.

I am an unlikely activist and I acknowledge the importance of abiding by the law. But there are exceptions. For example I would steal a loaf of bread to stay alive and our Constitution states that all rights including those to property are subject to the common good. A community can justifiably abate a nuisance.

We left early in the morning, some of us rowing across a lake in the haze of daybreak with bags of compost, spades and saplings. By 8am we were down to work, managing to find sufficient exposed soil to plant 500 alder, 100 silver birch, 100 hazel, 100 ash and 200 willow. What we did was a largely symbolic gesture, tonnes of rubble still need to be removed and the plastics need to be disposed of as a matter of urgency or they could pollute the adjoining lake.

Finally they agreed to let us carry on… the common good was recognised

At about 10am two members of An Garda Siochana rolled into the estate in a large transit van, expecting trouble perhaps. When asked who we were and what we were doing we replied that we were private individuals planting trees on public land. The gardai seemed confused.

Then another car entered the property. The two gardai briefly left us and had a discussion with the driver who it transpired was a former caretaker. Upon hearing what we were doing he told them he had no problem with it. The developer had left him high and dry. I wonder how many lonely cups of tea he drank in that portakabin before deciding that enough was enough.

The gardai were still perplexed and the exchanges became increasingly jovial. A garda took the numbers of three of the participants, one of whom warned the garda to refrain from any late night texting. The young man, who had the healthy glow of a Gaelic footballer, blushed slightly; the other was finding the whole affair increasingly amusing. The pretty tree-planters would make a good story for the boys back in the station.

A few phone calls were made. We agreed to leave the property if they compelled us to do so. Finally, they decided to let us carry on, expressing their personal support for our actions. The common good was recognised.

We hope that this half-finished estate can one day become a nature reserve, but much work is needed to bring it anywhere close to that point. Perhaps other scars on the landscape can be healed in the same way. When vandalism on this scale occurs the people should have a right to take proportionate measures to mitigate it.

We strongly advise anyone participating in a project such as this to exercise the utmost caution in ensuring the health and safety of themselves and those around them, and to refrain from any damage to the property therein. We also encourage everyone to respect the gardai and seek the co-operation of the local community if they come from outside it. The objective is simple: help nature restore life by planting trees on scarred landscapes.

NAMA to Nature is chronicling its work on this Facebook page>

This was the scene at the Keshcarrigan planting:

Nama to Nature: Why we are planting trees on ghost estates
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  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    The dream? Billboards at the Waterways estate show an idealised version of what the area was to look like... before it became a ghost estate. (Image: Andrew Legge)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    The dream? Billboards at the Waterways estate show an idealised version of what the area was to look like... before it became a ghost estate. (Image: Andrew Legge)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    The reality: One of the unfinished houses at the Waterways. (Image: Sarah Lincoln)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    The Shannon-Erne waterway at Keshcarrigan - the Waterways was to overlook the amenity. (Image: Serena Brabazon)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    The team prepare to row across to the Waterways estate to begin planting saplings. (Image: Serena Brabazon)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    Getting to work at the site. (Image: Sarah Lincoln)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    Planting saplings in wasteland at the Waterways. (Image: Sarah Lincoln)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    The Waterways estate at Keshcarrigan. (Image: Sarah Lincoln)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    Abandoned building materials at the Waterways. (Image: Sarah Lincoln)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    Built - but uninhabited - houses at the Waterways. (Image: Andrew Legge)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    Planting a sapling at the estate. (Image: Andrew Legge)
  • NAMA to nature at Keshcarrigan

    Some of the 1,000 trees planted at the site in one day. (Image: Andrew Legge)

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