Sean Byrne: Wicklow Way farmer, host, & advocate

The Byrne family has farmed in the Wicklow hills, along the Wicklow Way, for five generations. As a teen Sean helped out just down the road at a guest-house catering to hunters and fishermen on the beautiful Lough Dan. He also worked for his neighbors, the Guinness family, on their estate on the sublime Lough Tay. This farm boy gradually developed a gracious ease in working with people of all walks of life, a strong sense of the traditions of rural hospitality, deep knowledge of the land and the region, and a guiding commitment to preservation of the mountain uplands and way of life.  Photo above of Sean and Theresa Byrne.

This is the story of how these threads of a life lived in the Wicklow Hills gathered into a remarkable story of engagement with and advocacy on behalf of the uplands and of Ireland’s first long distance walking route: the Wicklow Way.  [Note: while Sean is the central figure in this story, he would be the first to point out that he is just one of many people who worked together, and who continue to cooperate daily, to make the Wicklow Way a great walking trail.  He is just the one I got to know best.]

Lough Dan House: a dream come true  

In addition to farming, Sean worked for years as a building contractor; living with his mother while he saved to build a house for himself and his Dublin-born wife, Theresa. After years of saving and planning, the time to build finally approached. He suddenly felt a strong pull to his longtime dream of building a bed and breakfast on the family’s 80-acre hill farm on Lough Dan, the stunning ribbon lake in the National Park in which he grew up. The guest-house down the road had long since closed. And he knew very well the appeal of the local landscape to walkers, cyclists, paddlers, birders, riders, hunters, fishermen and others seeking immersion in the beauty of the hills just south of Dublin. It just might work!

In a fit of inspiration, he quickly changed the construction plan to a design that would serve both as a family home and a B&B. After years of working on construction of the B&B in his spare time, he finally developed a simple web site to see what would happen. Within 24 hours he received an email from an Israeli couple making a reservation to stay five days. He was amazed and panicked: there was still much work to do before they could properly receive guests. They got the work done and the rest is history: today the Lough Dan House is a very popular destination for Wicklow Way walkers and for many others who want to enjoy the hills and lakes.

Early on, Polish construction workers working in Dublin discovered Lough Dan House as a nice place to bring their families to Ireland on holiday.   Soon walkers and others discovered the charms and business grew. Theresa continued to drive school bus for 10 years after the B&B opened, but now devotes her time to the B&B. Sean has driven school bus for the past ten years. Together they know all the kids in town over several generations!

They provide guests from around the world with delicious meals (serving lamb from the farm), full services (i.e. drinks, packed lunches, laundry airport and local transportation, guiding services, & advice if asked), and overall consummate hospitality.

There is no TV at the B&B because it stifles conversation. The Byrnes’ idea of hospitality includes conversation and a sense of quiet community. They want their guests to have to option of enjoying each other’s company, or just reading and relaxing if they prefer. Sean loves to tell about a guest who was quite miffed that he couldn’t watch a big football match one evening. Sean observed that the dinner table that evening was alive with sparkling conversation. And Theresa noted that the man who was so upset about lack of television was especially lively that night, enjoying himself in a social way that simply wouldn’t have happened if the football match had dominated the evening!

Lough Dan Bed and Breakfast is a dream come true for both the guests and the hosts!

But this part of the story leaves out the saga of a legal struggle and ongoing community effort to retain the very rural qualities that make the region so attractive to tourists.

 Giving communities standing: Lugalla Interpretive Center lawsuit

When the Office of Public Works (OPW) announced a plan to establish a large National Park Interpretive Centre (with restaurant, car and bus parks, etc.) in a location of spectacular beauty near Lough Dan, locals were outraged. While they didn’t object to locating an Interpretive Center in the park, they instinctively knew that the selected location was spectacularly unsuitable. It blighted a treasured beauty spot along Wicklow Way, undermining the very purpose of locating the trail in such sublime surroundings.

The OPW not only declared that it would move ahead on its plans (and began construction), but also said that it had no obligation to consult with locals on this issue. It further asserted that it was exempt from local planning processes. The community was stunned and objected, mounting protests, calling for investigations, and eventually mounting a legal challenge.  Mr. Byrne was a key player in the entire process as it dragged on from 1989 – 1995.

He represented the Wicklow Upland Farmers and Property Owners Association on a small steering committee of plaintiffs in the suit (which also included the Mountaineering Council of Ireland). The lawsuit eventually made its way to An Bord Pleannula, the Supreme Court.

The legal strategy was fascinating. Briefly: Their lawyer recommended that identical briefs be filed simultaneously in two separate jurisdictions. Sean and his compatriots were skeptical of the strategy (concerned in part about the expense!), but reluctantly agreed. Their solicitor quickly approved the panel of judges appointed to hear the Wicklow-based lawsuit.   But he kept rejecting the judges nominated to hear the Kerry-based suit.   It turns out he was waiting until a judicial panel from Kerry was proposed that was diametrically opposite in its political orientation to that of the Wicklow panel. His strategy worked: the Wicklow case was turned down, but the Kerry case was eventually upheld. The resulting conflict of judgments sent the case to An Bord Pleannula, the Supreme Court, where, after more legal wrangling, the standoff was resolved in favor of the plaintiffs.  The Wicklow community now had standing in National Park planning in their region!

The conflict in Wicklow was not unique. Their 1995 Supreme Court victory lent support to activists nationwide in their campaigns to regulate a wide range of environmental incursions, such as commonage divisions, overgrazing, afforestation, damage to fish stocks, building mountain roads without planning permission; and locating airports, aerials, power stations and quarries in unsuitable locations. As expressed in a press release (Irish Mountaineering Log, no. 111, p. 35) by a coalition of groups:

….It is now clear that all development – even by the State — must be done in consultation with all interested parties and in particular take into account the aspirations of the local communities who will be most affected….The Court case has…left a legacy of bitterness and divided communities. It need never have happened.…The decision now requires the OPW to conform to the normal democratic planning processes where all legitimate parties’ interests are taken into account, including all bodies interested in safeguarding the environment.

But how does a region move from conflict to cooperation in protecting its treasured old-ways and conserving its lands while opening them up to sustainable tourism? The court victory was just the beginning of learning to work together towards a common aim.

Founding of the Wicklow Uplands Council (WUC)

In a recent article for the WUC Newsletter Sean Byrne eloquently outlined the challenge they faced in the wake of the Supreme Court decision:

At the time (1995) there were various groups and organizations representing different interests, sometimes completely at odds with each other. All trying to communicate with Government agencies to present a case for their members, they were taken advantage of each time.   Representations were not coordinated and one group was played off against another. Authorities were, as is still the case, quite happy to see divisions created within communities as they were steered towards blaming each other for what was becoming a most divisive situation.

What was lacking was an umbrella body or mechanism to bring all involved groups together. It was a big ask, considering the diversity of the groups involved as follows: farming bodies, Irish Farmers Association, Cheviot Sheep Owners Association, commercial dairy farmers, National Association of Regional Game Clubs, local gun and sporting clubs, An Taisc, Wicklow environmental groups, Farmers and Property Owners Association, Mountaineering Council of Ireland, large private estates, commercial shooting estates, angling clubs, outdoor adventure centres, motor sports interests, community groups, walking clubs, mountain biking enthusiasts, medium and small businesses, tourist services and suppliers, the list could go on and on.

To address this pressing need on a national level, the advocacy group Keeping Ireland Open organized a conference in 1995 in Galway called “Seeking a Partnership Towards Managing Ireland’s Uplands: Towards a Partnership”. The theme of the conference was “that key issues must be addressed not only from a specialist point of view, but also with the perspectives of all stakeholders whose livelihood and environment is affected”. This set of discussions eventually led to the development of the Irish Uplands Forum, which continues today.

Meanwhile, Professor Adrian Phillips (Trinity College Dublin) was invited to work with Sean and many others in County Wicklow on a process to develop consensus and compromise around local planning issues. Professor Phillips led a study visit of Wicklow farmers, including Mr. Byrne, and other stakeholders to the Mourne Heritage Trust, which was established in 1980 to address similar issues in County Down (Northern Ireland).   After studying this and other models, including structures in the Scottish Highlands, they put together a plan to establish the Wicklow Uplands Council.

Sean has been actively involved since its inception and, twenty years later, is currently chair of the board of WUC. The group is unique in the Republic of Ireland. It has a long track record of regularly bringing people together from many different uplands sectors to discuss issues and exchange views. Its mission is:

….an independent, voluntary organisation which represents the shared interests of over 50 member groups and individuals. It takes a partnership approach to sustainable development and promotes projects which bring value to people who live and work in the uplands area and those who use it for recreational purposes.

Sean was on the search committee to hire the first Executive Director. When the committee gathered to review the applicants, everyone had scored one applicant higher than all the others: Colin Murphy, a specialist in peace studies from Northern Ireland. He had long worked in various capacities at the Glencree Center for Peace and Reconciliation in County Wicklow. Glencree was founded in response to violent conflict in Irish society. While there was some initial concern about how the appointment of a Northern Irelander would be received locally, Mr. Murphy was hired as Executive Director and served with distinction until 1997.

It was a brilliant appointment! Not surprisingly, the very mission and skills manifest in the work of Glencree were just what the WUC needed: finding ways to promote understanding among people with differing views and interests, moving beyond destructive conflict to develop cooperation in communities, and resolving conflicts and developing a healthy respect for each other.

These are essentially the purposes of the WUC, and they are the values that have motivated Sean Byrne in his work at Lough Dan and in his community for many years.  As the WUC celebrates its 20th anniversary this year it takes great satisfaction in the fact they have been meeting monthly for two decades to understand each other’s views and find common cause in fulfilling their mission.

Talking with Sean I came to see that he literally embodies and intentionally promotes in all areas of his life an ethos of mutual understanding, dignity, and mutual respect. What a wonderful legacy of building consensus has come to his community, to his beloved Wicklow uplands, and to Ireland from the work of this farm boy from Lough Dan!