Is Ireland a 'genuinely filthy nation'?

We’re fond of saying that, when the sun shines, there is nowhere in the world more beautiful than Ireland… But what about our growing litter problem?

“WE ARE A genuinely filthy nation. We are a filthy race of people.”

So said Senator David Norris in the Seanad last week. We Irish are fond of saying that, when the sun shines, there is nowhere in the world more beautiful than our own country. That said, our growing litter problem seems to suggest that many of us don’t appreciate its beauty. Is Norris right? Are we truly “a filthy race of people”?

(I wondered about Norris’ claim a bit guiltily the other day when the wind caught one of those really irritating inserts in my Irish Times and carried it off to the ends of the SuperValu carpark. Weighed down with groceries and hobbled by arthritis, I let it away to hell to it.)

Bringing fly-tippers to justice

I know a man – “Martin”, he said I should call him Martin, for fear he gets burnt out – and he patrols some of the loveliest areas of South Munster. If you met him on the road, you probably wouldn’t pay him any heed. He drives an anonymous van and he’s a friendly, unremarkable-looking man. He works as a contractor for Coillte, the company which manages the State’s forestry and he cleans up and removes the rubbish left by illegal dumpers and – where possible – he helps to bring the fly-tippers to justice.

Coillte has over 445,000 hectares of forestry – about 7% of the land cover in Ireland – and almost all of that is public land. Which means it belongs to you and me and we can walk it as we please, free of charge. Which is as it should be, on our own land. I’ve spent a bit of time walking on our land lately and much of it is a balm to the soul. A long walk in the woods can be the best therapy going, sometimes.

There’s a patch of woodland to the north of Kilworth in Co Cork which suddenly opens up to a view of south Tipperary and, as the sunlight washes over the patchwork foothills of the Galtee Mountains, you might be struck that the only way it could look more ‘Lord of the Rings’ is if Ian McKellen and a gang of forced-perspective small people suddenly marched into the clearing, being grimly cheerful about fried breakfasts and hoping desperately they make it to the next, inevitable, series of sequels.

Coillte spends an average of €450,000 on this work

Martin and I took a spin around that area recently as I accompanied him on his rounds. We drove through tranquil forestry bearing the scars of past winter storms, the light breaking between white trunks snapped like twigs, on fallen trees with the wheels of their roots standing exposed. Rounding a corner, we found the remains of perhaps five black bags of domestic waste. The bags had been torn open by animals and the contents scattered around. Squashed plastic bottles, milk cartons, food wrapping and broken toys were among the household rubbish spread all over the ground.

Coillte spends an average of €450,000 per annum collecting, cleaning and removing general domestic waste from forest lands. In Cork alone it spends approximately €40,000 per annum. Martin’s modus operandi is to sift through the rubbish he clears and – when he finds evidence to identify the dumper – he contacts Cork County Council, which then instigates prosecution. He recently had a successful prosecution against someone who dumped several bags of household waste in the same area. She was a repeat offender and was fined €1,100 and €1,300 on two separate charges. Although she had attempted to burn the rubbish, she was identified from household bills which had survived the flames. On top of the fines, she had to pay the cost of the clean-up too.

It was in these woods too that Martin last year found five animal carcasses and several barrels of blood. Illegal industrial and agricultural dumping is also a growing problem for Coillte. As well as digging through bags of rubbish, Martin – again worth repeating that this is not his real name – operates a network of hidden cameras in dumping blackspots. Last year, Cork County Council investigated in the region of two thousand cases of illegal dumping and littering and they note that persistent littering is on the rise.

Why would anyone want to ruin this?

At the end of our tour around the litter hotspots of North Cork, Martin and I stood leaning against a gate, looking down and south across the fields, to the gentle bowl of the Blackwater valley. Away in the distance, past Kilworth and beyond it Fermoy, was Corrin Hill, a tiny landmark against the clear, blue sky. All around us, the ditches and hedgerows were alive with colour and life as foxglove, thistle and heather rustled in the breeze. Behind us was, of all things, a eucalyptus forest, an experimental Teagasc plantation.

“What I don’t get,” Martin said, “is why anyone would want to ruin this. I’ve seen people drive from Cork City to the woods beyond Ballyhooly to dump litter. Now, if you can’t afford to pay for your bins, how can you afford to pay for the petrol to drive a 50 mile round trip to dump your rubbish in forestry and destroy something like this?”

I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I’ve long had half a theory that maybe it’s something to do with us being a conquered people, with a folk memory of no longer owning our own land. Maybe that’s far-fetched, but then again, no Irish person ever went broke blaming the Brits for everything. Maybe I’m right, though. Maybe some part of us, or some part of some of us, has yet to reclaim – to our own satisfaction – ownership of our own country.

Maybe that disconnect might help to explain more than just Ireland’s litter problem. Or maybe Senator Norris is simply right about us. Maybe we really are “a genuinely filthy nation”. Maybe, as he says, we really are just “a filthy race of people”. I’ll be thinking about that the next time the wind catches an insert from my newspaper and decides to add it to our national litter problem.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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