The A6 controversy and Seamus Heaney’s Legacy

This week marks the opening of the Seamus Heaney Homeplace centre in his native Bellaghy, South Derry. The centre functions as a musuem, archive, arts and community space and library honouring the life of the nobel laureate. Yet just down the road, 100 metres from his childhood home of Mossbawn, diggers are amassing to construct the proposed A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dual carriageway, bulldozing the very landscape that inspired some of Heaney’s most famous poems .

The proposed road is the Northern Ireland executive’s response to the daily commuting problems effecting those travelling along the main road connecting Belfast to Derry city . While it is obvious to all concerned that a solution to this problem must be found, the controversy over this choice of route looks set to only be exacerbated by a forthcoming legal challenge to the portion of the project crossing through what has been deemed ‘Heaney Country’.

Seamus Heaney himself, made international headlines when he publicly stated that the proposed road be rerouted away from his homeland and the imaginative center of much of his poetry. In 2007 he stated:

”I am very, very happy to write to the people involved and the Department of the Environment. That part of the country does mean alot to me,especially its remoteness…I had few ecological concerns when I was a lad, but given the actual condition I couldn’t help respond….More recently I did become more commonly aware of the actual beauty of the landscape and the wetlands. My feeling was that when I saw the possible direction of the motorway I thought there was an alternative possibility to take it through an old aerodrome where there is an industrial estate and so on, which wouldn’t be as much of a wound on the ecology…” 1.

The proposed section of the road will go through an ancient landscape internationally recognised for its unique ecological value. Environmentalists have stated that this is the last great expanse of intact wetland habitat in Ulster and a wintering site for migrating whooper swans from Iceland among other species. 2.  It is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and one of the main breeding-grounds for snipe and curlew in Ireland. It also has a wealth of rare wildflowers including the Irish Ladies’ Tresses Orchid.

The proposed road has drawn the condemnation of many prominent artists and fellow Ulster poets including Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Sinead Morrissey. Actor Stephen Rea, who worked with Heaney as part of the Field Day theatre company, stated:

”Does it have to go exactly through there?

Do you have to choose a place that has been dignified by the greatest poet we’ve ever had?

”Are we content that people come here to see the locations for Game of thrones, is that where we are placing our imaginative level. This is a great poet, we need to preserve his landscape.” 3.

Minister for Infrastructure Chris Hazzard has responded to criticisms of the route selection,stating in a letter to the Irish Times:

”My department is acutely aware of the importance of the heritage sites relating to Seamus Heaney in his works, including Mossbawn and Lough Beg. We have consulted extensively and have been attentive to all objections that have been raised. This has been a thorough and thoughtful process where all potential route options were explored over a lengthy period of time.

I am confident that the selected dual-carriageway route is a fair and reasonable balance of engineering, environmental and economic considerations, showing respect for the historic landscape.

This decision was endorsed by the independent inspector at the public inquiry in 2007, who concluded that on balance the planned route was superior in most respects and therefore he supported its selection as the one being taken forward.” 4.

Despite this statement, significant questions remain for Minister Hazzard. At the numerous public consultations there was no mention of other transport solutions that could minimise the impact on the affected areas, such as rail. 5.

Instead locals were presented with a series of road routes. Such proposals only create divisions and suspicions within the communities involved.  Town lands, farms, businesses,houses, trees, biodiversity, all become buried under concrete no matter which route is chosen. Landscapes connected to a communities memories and sense of place in the world are decimated forever.    Are there other approaches we can use to greater minimise these outcomes?  

 Frustrated commuters, rightly looking for relief from gridlock as well as those with legitimate concerns about the A6 have been pitted against one another. It is obvious both sides want the best for their communities. Slogans and rhetoric like ‘progress’ and ‘anti-progress’ are bandied around without any real discussion of the scientific facts regarding road infrastructure.

Building new roads only encourages car use and an increase of cars on the road. If this proposed road is built and becomes clogged again a few decades down the line, will we need another new road? The UK government has been aware that building new road capacity is not the solution to commuter gridlock for decades. 

In spite of this, politicians continues to favour road development.  

A proper cost benefit analysis of other solutions to this gridlock needs to be undertaken.  The current estimate for construction of the A6 is 160 million pounds.   By building rail could money be saved for other priorities like hospitals and schools? How much safer would it be to reduce the number of cars on the road through clean,efficient, affordable rail services in combination with upgraded roads and bus services? The choice of only road routes is a false choice that attacks the rights of consumers and citizens to choose how they wish to travel.  The plans for this road were formulated forty years ago before the urgency of climate change and research indicating the numerous health, economic and social problems associated with over dependency on the car.  For all the talk of ‘progress’, it would appear this proposed road is obsolete and not fit for purpose. We need a real public discussion of all the facts concerning infrastructure.      

There is a real danger the A6 will increase pressure to industrialise Loughbeg and create urban sprawl. Will the companies this project hopes to attract employ people in zero hour and short term contracts? Will these companies pay a pittance in tax while they make vast sums of profit? Is Ulster’s environment and work force a mere ‘resource’ to be plundered for share holder profit?

Given the area’s influence on Heaney’s poetry there is no doubt this landscape is comparable to Yeat’s country in Co.Sligo. We risk destroying a landscape of great natural beauty and ecological importance that could create local, sustainable jobs through eco- tourism and heritage trails, especially now with the completion of the ‘HomePlace’ .

The real disgrace is the fact that people have to travel long distances to work in the first place. We need jobs for people close to their families, jobs that not only don’t pollute and damage priceless environments like Loughbeg but also pay a decent wage.

As the great crisis of 2008 continues to show us, the old ways of doing business and providing for humanities needs are no longer fit for purpose. This is the great taboo no politician, citizen or business leader dare discuss for fear of being labelled an extremist yet we need such discussions more than ever.

It is right that this project is being challenged in the courts. This landscape and Heaney’s legacy represents an opportunity for all of Ulster to discuss what we truly value as a society and if there are other solutions to the problems we face. 

The Save Heaney Country campaign are currently fundraising to support their legal case. More information can be found here: