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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, October 23, 2008
    Watching the free birds fly
    Why would a website devoted to the culture and landscape of an upland area of the west of Ireland be interested in hosting a text of a talk about a walk along the M62 motorway?

    Maybe because those involved have a keenly developed sense of place which embraces the proposition promoted so convincingly by Doreen Massey that while places are important and unique they are not static, they are unbounded, and have complex 'identities' which are global in reach. So Tom, of aughty.org writes to me saying, 'While we are based in a rural area we see the city at night. We see the planes in the sky. We like what you are doing.'

    Doreen Massey writes about planes in her seminal essay A Global Sense of Place which is made available on aughty.org [as a pdf] alongside news about County Clare Heritage Council Grants Programme and Heritage Education Strategy, farming notices about the spreading of slurry, papers on the geography and ecology of the Sliabh Aughty uplands and items about various regional arts events.

    Massey notices how the planes that make global movement so easy for business travellers fly over - but never stop at - the Pitcairn Islands, and the islanders are isolated as air flights increase and shipping concurrently diminishes. She takes a walk down Kilburn High Road, noting that 'overhead there is always at least one aeroplane', and this adds to her impression of an area of London which is connected on many levels to the rest of the world. She unblinkingly observes Kilburn High Road as a place where Irish Republicanism meets Hinduism and 'a Muslim [newsagent] ... chafes at having to sell The Sun', it is 'a chaotic mix' which she embraces as her home.

    You find this sort of progressive engagement with ideas about people and place on aughty.org. Not your regular tourist area guide or local information site, instead 'aughty.org aims to provide a focus for information and discussion about the Sliabh Aughty uplands in Counties Clare and Galway in the west of Ireland.' [my italics]. Since 2006 gatherings have been held in which 'people from around the region and further afield explored ways in which the heritage of the Aughties could be recorded, protected and enhanced by considering the region as a whole.' The website brims with the consequences of these discussions: pages of research, notices and observation on flora and fauna, biodiversity, history and heritage, archaeology, settlement and land use, culture and tradition, and families. Pulling in contributions from people way outside Clare and Galway where they might inform the conversations within.

    People like Doreen Massey, whose enrichment of such dialogues is esteemed. But also odd motorway walkers from Merseyside, it seems. Me, I'm immediately struck by one cultural connection: the area encompasses the fields of Athenry, which gave their name to that famous ballad of the Great Famine, about a Galway man banished to Botany Bay for stealing food for his starving family. For reasons sometimes sectarian, sometimes sentimental, deeply historical, always profound, 'The Fields of Athenry' is sung often here in Liverpool.

    'We hope to stimulate more debate and research, connect groups and individuals and generally raise awareness about this unique place,' say the people behind aughty.org. They're doing it well.