Photographie aérienne d'une forêt

The prospect of a referendum on the incorporation of the Rights of Nature into Bunreacht na hÉireann (‘the Irish Constitution) has taken a step closer with the publication of a report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action. If the next Irish Government respects its mandate to restore regard for Nature and our island home as a living subject of our history – we’ll bring together two great movements: the movement for ecological justice on the island and the belated work of decolonization.

The Rights of Nature refer to legal and constitutional acts of recognition that Nature (or ecological systems and features such as rivers and mountains) have intrinsic and unquestionable rights to exist and to flourish. Celebrated examples of countries that have already enshrined Nature’s rights into their constitutions include Ecuador and Bolivia. In a landmark court case in Ecuador, the highest court in the land ruled that plans to extract copper and gold from a mine in a protected cloud forest are unconstitutional and violate the Rights of Nature.

An interesting feature of the Rights of Nature movement here is the leading role of activists and academics from the North and the border counties. Local activists opposing plans to mine gold in the Sperrins and Donegal have been to the fore, with pioneering motions steered through Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council.

These local initiatives – in concert with global civil society - formed the backdrop to successful efforts to have Ireland’s Citizens Assembly on Biodiversity Loss (2022) include a recommendation for a constitutional referendum in its report earlier this year. That recommendation has now been endorsed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action (December 2023), which accepted, in principle, the recommendation of the Citizens Assembly.

A successful referendum campaign – leading to recognition that Nature, our island is constituted by a ‘community of subjects’, both human and ‘more-than-human’ – would represent a significant moment for the Irish State’s journey towards decolonisation. The notion that Nature and its ecosystems are somehow undeserving of protections for their intrinsic rights to exist and flourish is an alien one, which can be traced back to European colonial philosophies that have licensed settler colonial land theft and the twin crimes of ecocide and genocide. Only to the dismal philosophical and economic imaginaries of European moderns did it occur that Nature is dead and for the taking.

Indigenous and colonised peoples across the world have thought and behaved differently. Their cultures, spiritualities and languages reflect a very different sensibility and ‘way of being in the world’, informed by an understanding that we are relatives of those other communities of mountains, rivers and wildlife. Pope Francis has echoed such thinking in his Laudao Si Encyclicals. This very ancient understanding of being is deeply relational: nothing exists prior to relationship and deep regard or care for the other. In Ireland, our indigenous language and mythology are repositories of similar wisdom. Consider, for example, the mythic and ecological resonance of the tales of the Fomorians versus the Tuatha Dé Danaan, with its contemporaneous call to balance competing societal tendencies to bend Nature to our will or surrender to Nature’s sovereignty.


Indigenous languages are disappearing from the world at the same rate as our biodiversity. This is no coincidence of course. Some of the drivers of the ongoing sixth mass extinction of biodiversity and wildlife, notably European colonial adventures, have also been behind the decimation of indigenous communities together with their vital knowledge systems, mytho-poetic traditions and languages.

This is a story all too familiar on our own island, which served as a laboratory or template for political and ecological colonialism. Brian Friel's play, Translations, explores a community's traumatic experience of loss, or dispossession, that extends to both language and landscape. The story of imposed re-designation of local place names is an allegory for a larger process, a painful experience of 'exile' as a community's landscape is withdrawn from them. As Sinéad Mercier has noted, through the distortion of language and place, the land was withdrawn from its inhabitants, as Irish place names infused with local memory, myth and knowledge, were replaced by meaningless English denominations.

The celebrated Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh, has described how over two centuries European colonists tore across the world, viewing nature and land as something inert to be conquered and consumed without limits and the indigenous people as savages whose knowledge of nature was worthless and who needed to be erased: “It was this settler colonial worldview – of just accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, consume, consume, consume – that has got us where we are now.” The mass conversion of nature into dead matter has deep roots in the European Enlightenment tradition, which is associated with the celebration of possessive individualism, calculation, control and the instrumentalisation of nature so that it can be placed at the service of human ends (economics). It is worth noting that the European Enlightenment associated with Descartes, Newton and Locke was, in fact, a counter-revolution against Renaissance civic humanists who were also known as "nature enthusiasts".


A restoration of regard for the Rights of Nature – a recognition of Nature’s sovereignty as a subject of law and our history – could signal a remarkable turn in our island journey towards an indigenous political ecology – an act of liberation for both Nature and ourselves. I look forward to voting ‘Yes’ in a referendum that will give voice and extend our understanding of community to our island and our most ancient relatives in Bunreacht na hÉireann.

Report of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action

Report of the Citizens Assembly on Biodiversity Loss

They do not age. They move through time.

One of our most ancient stories tells of two tribes living on the island: the Fomorian people who made war with the Tuatha DéDanann. A war between darkness and light, they said.

A war, according to Jason Kirkey1 , between two peoples experiencing the world in two opposing ways. The Tuatha Dé Danann, content to live with nature, ruled only through the sovereignty of the land. The Fomorians, not so content, are possessed with Súil Milldagach (that is the ‘destructive eye’ which eradicates anything it looks upon) and intent on ravaging the land. In John Moriarty’s description this is a battle, a moment of utmost importance for Irish mythology. A battle between a people intent on shaping Nature to suit them and a people who, surrendering to it, would let Nature shape them to suit it.

Kirkey poses the question, ‘Might it be said that we are standing at a moment which recapitulates this same mythic motif? Has our culture become Fomorian Súil Milldagach writ large? An examination of our tendencies toward environmental destruction in favour of, and as a means to human wealth and progress, seems to suggest this.’

For Moriarty, we now resemble Fomorian seeing more than Tuatha Dé vision. We have the collective Súil Milldagach: a culture so dominated by the ocular, the grasping eye, that all other senses are now subject to the sovereign, the eye, the slave to the screen: the spectacle.

This notion of ‘good living’ finds resonance in early Irish law reference to the king’s fir flathemon (justice) upon which rest the possibilities of peaceful and prosperous times.[1] A king guilty of gau flathemon (injustice), the texts warn, will see the “soil and elements” rebel against him, bringing “infertility in women and cattle, crop failure, dearth of fish, defeat in battle, plagues, lightening, etc.”[2] The link between a just king and social and agricultural harmony set out in the eighth century text Audacht Morainn is mirrored in De Duodecim Abusiuis Saeculi (De XII) one of the most ‘profoundly influential formulations of Christian political obligation in the entire Middle Ages’.[3] The De XII, which is accepted as being of Irish provenance, describes the unjust king whose rule ‘causes not merely his own damnation but cosmological tragedy’.[4]

Our colonial experience has taught us that language (allied to economic power) can be used to impose and bestow destinies on societies and landscapes. Our linguistic heritage can also be a powerful source of resistance to a legacy of dominant narratives associated with ecologically damaging patterns of behaviour. Our solidarity with indigenous peoples around the world who have begun to succeed in empowering alternative ecological narratives and knowledge systems can extend to a recovery of our own indigenous knowledge and linguistic heritage across the island.[5]

[1] Kelly, F. (1988) A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin18.

[2] Kelly,1988,18.

[3] Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Kingship: Some Further Thoughts, in Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture, eds Paul E. Szarmach and Virginia Darrow Oggins (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1986), pp. 151–83 (p. 160). cited in Grigg, Julianna, The Just King and De Duodecim Abusiuis Saeculi Parergon 27.1 (2010).

[4]  Grigg, J, (2010) The Just King and De Duodecim Abusiuis Saeculi Parergon 27.1 29.

[5] NatureScot, (2021) Scotland’s environmental agency, has commissioned work on the links between Gaelic and biodiversity conservation. See NatureScot Biodiversity Report 1230: Ecosystem Services and Gaelic – A Scoping Exercise. Available here:

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