Dr Arthur Mitchell: Doctor, renaissance man and champion of the Mournes
ARTHUR Mitchell was not originally from Mourne, growing up within sight of the mountains in Downpatrick. But he quickly became of Mourne, marrying into a well-known local family, setting up home in Ballyardle and taking care of many local people in his large GP practice based in Kilkeel.
Away from work, walking the mountains and spending time on the Mourne shore at Cranfield further nurtured his already strong interest in the environment. His contacts with patients and neighbours allied with his natural curiosity also saw him develop a passion for the customs and heritage of the area.
Arthur’s visible contribution to the protection of the environment began in the 1970s when government proposed to create an additional reservoir in the Kinahalla valley, which would require damming and diverting several rivers, affecting habitats and biodiversity in the mountains, along the watercourses and ultimately in the marine-protected areas of Mill Bay and Carlingford Lough.
Arthur was a prime mover in the formation of a community group whose campaign saw the scheme set aside on environmental grounds.
The Department of the Environment recognised his passion and expertise by nominating him to the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside. This in turn led to the establishment of the Mournes Advisory Committee.
Arthur served on the committee throughout the 1980s and early 1990s until an independent review endorsed his view that there was need for an enhanced, locally-based structure with practical management capacity.
Mourne Heritage Trust was established in 1997 as a community-based partnership by the Environment and Heritage Service, Northern Ireland Tourist Board and local authorities.
Arthur was elected its first chairman, serving until 2009 when he took the role of vice chairman, and clocking up 23 years in total as a board member.
The trust acted as a ‘pathfinder’ for landscape management in Northern Ireland, navigating through changes in government structures and seeking to ensure that the well-being of the Mourne area and its communities was given priority.
This enabled it to develop approaches to erosion control and path repair, wildfire control, restoration of vernacular buildings, promotion of sustainable tourism and other activities that gained national and international recognition.
In 2012 Arthur himself was recognised with the prestigious Alfred Toepfer medal awarded by the Europarc Federation. This sat alongside his MBE with equal pride and, with typical magnanimity, he saw it as recognition for all who had helped with the work of caring for Mourne.
Aside from his passionate environmental work and diligence as a GP, Arthur was a man of many talents – a true ‘renaissance man’ in a way that is perhaps becoming rare in the modern world.
He was a capable engineer, coming up with a number of inventions that were put to practical use, as well as contributing to the boards of the NI Rural Development Council and the Ulster Community Investment Trust, while finding time to be an artist, poet and other things beside.
A particularly poignant moment at his funeral was the reading of one of Arthur’s poems, written for a time after his passing and beautifully expressing his love for the Mourne landscape that he would no longer see.
His breadth and depth of knowledge was both impressive and fascinating, but he carried it lightly.
What most struck many who knew Arthur, and will no doubt live longest in their memories, was his humility, gentleness and warmth of personality.
He had the ability to commune with ‘prince and pauper’, treating everyone with respect and seeking common ground through persistence and grace.
He also had a wonderful turn of phrase, great repertoire of stories and an impish sense of humour.
For Arthur, whether in medicine, environment or other fields of endeavour, it was ultimately all about the good of people, perhaps best represented by his work with the Camphill Community at Mourne Grange.
He leaves a tangible legacy of achievement that is profound and which many who encountered him have been inspired to build upon.
But formidable as that legacy is, it is in the affection of those who knew him best that his memory will perhaps most sustain.
To Arthur’s wife Wilma, sons Brian, David and Paul, grand-daughters and family circle, we extend our deepest sympathies.
Martin Carey, on behalf of Mourne Heritage Trust