Éamon de Buitléar (1930-2013) Defender of the Commons

Fiscal policy is about getting our public income and expenditure in balance, in ways that are acceptable and foster the creation of employment. When expenditure dramatically exceeds income,  and crisis is upon us, extricating ourselves becomes all consuming. But it is important even in crisis to retain what is valuable about those aspects of life that are not readily valued in markets, and don’t enter easily into the fiscal calculus.

A society can be judged in part by the extent to which it protects those aspects of our lives we share in common – our air, water, wildlife, our culture and language. Where profits are to be made, it takes no particular skill to ensure that what is needed will be provided. In his characteristically apt and pithy fashion, Adam Smith captured the essence:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but their self love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.

But self love will not protect the commons – in belonging to everyone, it belongs to no one. And so, without intervention, the climate changes, water and air quality diminish, natural endowments – bogs, woodlands, wetlands – get exploited to extinction, and most undomesticated wildlife struggles to survive. And these features are all interrelated.

Our history has made protecting wildlife and its habitats in Ireland a particular challenge. For centuries, land and fishing rights belonged to the landlord class, who were typically Protestant, while the predominant religion of their tenants was Roman Catholic.  Landlords were relatively rich when their tenants were poor; they were educated where their tenants lacked formal education; they were English speaking, often with a posh accent – they pronounced their ‘ths’ – where their tenants spoke Irish.

At their best, this landlord class nurtured innovation, creativity, research and science, helped their tenants in time of crisis, notably in Famine times, promoted democracy, fostered an understanding of Irish and Celtic  culture, created and conserved beautiful buildings, and protected nature and woodlands. At their worst, they were rapacious mediocrities who used their status, legal and political power to protect their privileges and to maximise their own well being, often investing the proceeds outside Ireland, and treated their tenants not as fellow citizens, but as sources of income.

The transfer of land and associated buildings from landlords to tenants had many economic and social advantages, but one disadvantage was that most of the new owners did not have the scale or the income to protect woodlands, wetlands and wildlife. This tension between meeting economic necessities and protecting what does not yield income was often resolved in favour of the former. Advocates speaking up courageously for the conservation of our shared endowments often spoke with an Anglo-Irish accent.  There was an old joke that the definition of a member of An Taisce (National Trust for Ireland) was someone who didn’t know how to pronounce it!  The wisdom of their insights and their saliency as regards popular support and political effectiveness was hobbled by (an often unfair) association with the landlord class. They were perceived as not being in touch with the realities, an attitude nicely captured by Lionel De Rothschild in a talk to a city gardening club: “gentlemen, no garden, however small, should be without its two acres of rough woodland.”

And this perceived disconnect between many of the spokespersons for environment and those who could protect it, meant that our built and natural heritage was gradually but inexorably eroded.

Enter Eamon de Buitléar, the man who convinced the first generation of  Irish children that watched television that nature was ours, not only ‘theirs’.  That nature is to be understood and cherished, not only to be exploited and profited from.

Constable observed that ‘you can’t see what you don’t understand’. Eamon used his humour, attention to detail and considerable style to enrich our understanding. An oft heard argument against conservationists was they ‘they prefer birds over people’. He loved both people and birds, and was fearless in extending our ethical compass, showing that sometimes we the people must make sacrifices if our natural world was to flourish. He did this while working as an entrepreneur depending on the market for his keep, where every hour he devoted to the non commercial public interest was time not spent earning a living. His business instinct led him to seek and encourage enterprise that protects and enhances the environment; he devoted his last months to supporting Rory Harrington advance the installation of constructed wetlands which dispose of waste while sustaining wildlife and cleaning our water.

His talent at breaking down barriers was also manifest in other areas: he made the Irish language a natural means of communication; he helped Seán Ó Riada revolutionise the interpretation and presentation of traditional Irish music. His meticulous sartorial style stood out from that of his fellow environmentalists, where bearded unkemptness was the norm. There is some truth in the observation that behind every great man stands a very surprised woman. His wife Laillí grew up Irish speaking in Carraroe in a family suffused with artistic and literary tradition. She was the rock on which he stood, and which made his achievements possible. And, most of the time, she was not surprised.



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Frank Convery

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