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At the entrance to the Ward River Valley Park in Swords sits a small wooden building.
A ramp leads up to three doors, which bear symbols indicating that inside are men’s, women’s and disabled toilets.
But no matter which door you try, or how long you wait, you can’t pee here, says Mark Graham, a volunteer with the Swords Pickers clean-up group, who is also involved with the River Valley Parkrun.
That can put out locals and visitors, he says. “We get a lot of people coming over from the UK to do the park run because it’s the nearest park to the airport.”
They’re the kinds of people who travel around doing 5km runs for fun, he says. People see the toilets and are delighted there are facilities, he says.
“But then they get to the door and it’s locked,” says Graham, standing outside the toilets on a sunny but windy day, with a group of other clean-up volunteers.
“It looks like a public convenience, it has signs all around it which, to the unsuspecting park user, might make people think it’s a public convenience,” Graham wrote to Fingal County Council officials recently.
“But unfortunately on second viewing it’s clear that it’s only a wannabee public convenience and is really just a big wooden box,” he wrote.
“There are a small number of outstanding works which it is hoped will be completed in the coming weeks following which the toilet will be open to the public,” says a spokesperson for Fingal County Council.
John Drinane, who organises the Swords Pickers clean-up group, says the phantom toilets are just one of a number of problems in the park, where illegal dumping and litter continue to put biodiversity at risk.
The Swords Pickers group has compiled a list of around 40 jobs it has asked over the last couple of years the council to undertake. But it still hasn’t done most of them, say Drinane and Graham.
“Like every other authority across the country we are grappling with the problem of illegal dumping, fly tipping and littering and are trying to address it through a number of direct actions,” says the council spokesperson for Fingal County Council.
That includes removing illegally dumped waste, taking enforcement action when possible and educating people about the environment, they said.
“The Council has always contextualized its response to the requests from Mr. Drinane – and local Councillors – based on the resources available to manage the ongoing challenges faced across a large, 220 acre area,” he says.
Facilities in the Park
Graham says he was pleased when he saw public toilets being installed last September. There is a coffee dock in the park at the weekends, so public toilets would be well used, he says.
He even recalls seeing Irish Water coming around to hook them up. At the back of the wooden toilet building, white pipes and orange pipes are visible.
But around seven months later, most locals have stopped trying to use the toilets, he says. “It just sits there annoying everybody.”
Visitors still get caught out, he says. You can see them trying to open the door, occasionally queuing up thinking the toilets are occupied, he says.
There are other issues with facilities in the park too, says Graham. For example, there are not enough bins, which adds to the litter problem.
Sometimes people have parties in the park, he says, which creates rubbish. “A lot of cans and bottles.”
The Litter King Struggles On
Drinane started to collect litter at the Broadmeadow Estuary, a coastal nature reserve near Swords, around 2005.
It was his weekend hobby to collect plastic waste to stop it going out to sea, he says. Then he started tracing the rubbish backwards in search of its source.
He tracked it along the Broadmeadow River to where it meets the Ward River and then he followed the trail of rubbish to his local park, he says.
Drinane loves the Ward River Valley Park, he said, and how it is wilder and less manicured than many others. “The wildlife is incredible. It is a fantastic biosphere.”
On Friday 21 April, Drinane had seven volunteers with him in the park.
They pick up rubbish for a few hours every Friday, says Graham who was among them.
But some of the trash is too big to haul away. Says Drinane: “There are parts of old vehicles, vans, cars. There is one complete vehicle.”
“We’ve given the council a list of all the things,” says Graham, “but they never picked them up.”
Beside the phantom toilets is a new floodlit all-weather pitch recently launched by the Lord Mayor of Fingal, Fianna Fáil Councillor Howard Mahony.
The updates to the park are welcome, says Drinane, but he fears that council officials and public representatives don’t understand the importance of protecting its biodiversity.
“I think the problem stems from a basic inability of people to make the link between climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental litter and dumping,” he says.
The Broadmeadow Special Protection Area, a coastal nature reserve near Swords, downstream is not being protected if the river that flows into it is polluted with oil running from old vehicles that are dumped there, and left to rust for decades, he says.
“Each of the politicians will wax lyrical about climate change, they’ll even give you positive vibes about biodiversity, but they don’t see how that relates to the amount of rubbish, plastics and microplastics in the water,” he says.
The council plans to roll out a signage campaign, says Drinane, to promote biodiversity. “I’m not against the signs, but I think it’s putting the cart before the horse.”
The priority, as he sees it, should be cleaning the park, including the river. “We do this for a few hours a week, chipping away at the iceberg, but it needs a major cleanup,” says Drinane.
The spokesperson for Fingal County Council says that removing items of bulky rubbish from the park presents major challenges to its cleaning crews.
The park itself “includes large undeveloped areas acquired in the last few years, with steep ravines, heavily wood landed areas… and the river,” says the spokesperson. “As a guide, the entire length of the park has heavily vegetated woodland and some locations reaching elevation levels of 23 metres.”
The ordinary cleaning crews can’t go into the river so they have to hire a specialist contractor to remove some materials, he says. The contractor can only remove items when it is safe for its staff to do so.
“In many instances, this work must be carried out by specially trained staff using ropes given the steep ravines that can be encountered,” says the spokesperson for Fingal County Council.
“It’s exceptionally frustrating that people would choose to dump rubbish in a such a tremendous park that is there for everyone to enjoy,” he says.
Beside the unopened toilets,there is also unopened dressing rooms, while adults and children, boys and girls have absolutely no changing facilities.
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