by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Westport was recently voted the best place to live in Ireland, an accolade that has nothing to do with the clemency of the weather there as the town is right on the Wild Atlantic Way where the weather is as unpredictable as the moody Atlantic itself. I’ve experienced blistering sunshine in Westport – and the place shone and sparkled like a sack of diamonds – but mostly it’s been mixed and, often, I’ve seen the rain come down in sheets. In ways I now think this adds to the quality of the experience you have there as a visitor. You cannot expect sunshine and blue skies so if and when they come you’re giddy like a child a Christmas.
When we awoke on our first morning in Westport we could see Croagh Patrick clearly from our lodgings in Rosbeg, just outside the town. It was cloudy but the clouds were high in the sky so the peak was dominant, head and shoulders above the ridge, like the 11 year old in the class picture who grew faster than all his peers. It’s just over 750m so, by alpine standards, probably doesn’t even qualify as a mountain, but it looks like a mountain and, when you try to climb it, it feels like a mountain 4 times its actual height.
Croagh Patrick attracts thousands of visitors every day. On Reeks Sunday in July 30,000 make the climb of Ireland’s “holy mountain” in honour of St Patrick, who, tradition says, completed a Lenten fast there in the fifth century. My Dad’s bachelor brothers from the midlands in Co Offaly, made the annual pilgrims’ ascent in their bare feet and completed all the penitential rituals well into their 70s. We started in high spirits but soon the mountain subdued us, its relentless upward trajectory making itself felt on our calves. It wasn’t long before we were silent and sore and reflecting on the heroics of those past generations whose faith led them barefooted and uncomplaining to the top.
When we eventually got to the top after the arduous last leg over loose shale, Clew Bay was laid out below us like some mythical land that we’d only just discovered. It’s breathtaking in more ways than one, the Nephin Mountains to the North framing your view of the Bay with its countless islands.
The Great Atlantic Greenway
On our second morning we rented bicycles at Clew Bay Bike Hire and set out to conquer the Greenway, a 90 km round trip from Westport to Achill Sound along the disused railway line. The Great Western Greenway, to give it its full name, is Ireland’s longest off-road walking and cycling way and is a perfect example of how our industrial heritage can be re-cycled (Ha! Ha!) and re-purposed as an hugely appealing visitor attraction. It’s a triumph of community collaboration too as over 150 local farmers provided permission for the Greenway to pass through land now rightfully theirs.
The first section of the Greenway takes you from Westport to Newport and is an easy 12km spin. The initial part of the route under a protective canopy of trees is flanked by a profusion of wild flowers and all you hear are buzzing bees and bountiful birdsong. At times you’re parallel to the main road and other times you’re surrounded by magnificent meadows. Before long you’re freewheeling downhill into Newport with its magnificent nineteenth century viaduct. We stop for coffee and home baked cakes at The Blue Bicycle Tea Rooms and, having taken some rain earlier, bask there in the bright sunshine.
From Newport to Mulrany is a more challenging 18km following the serpentine path of the Burrishoole River over a beautiful 7 arch bridge dating from the 1700s. It takes you over an extensive area of blanket bog, a unique aspect of Ireland’s landscape. At times it’s just you and the views and you begin to understand why Mayo features so prominently amongst the counties of origin for Irish emigrants in the US. You wonder what it must have been like for young men and women from such isolated areas to pitch up at Ellis Island in the bustling busyness of urban New York?
The final stretch to Achill Sound is quite exposed and you face into a tremendous headwind. The skyline seems to stretch to infinity and the hills to the north are dappled green, the scurrying clouds projecting their dark shadows on the surface. The loneliness of the long distance runner takes hold as you battle onwards eventually reaching Achill Sound where you cross the bridge and rest on the island side before doing it all again in reverse.
Westport House, built to designs by James Wyatt and Richard Cassels in 1730 is the ancestral home of the Browne family who still own it today and run it as a tourist enterprise. It’s a perfect example of the evolution of such grand estates á la Downton Abbey and gives you more than a glimpse into the challenges and issues around ownership of legacy property. Since the 1960s Jeremy Browne (sadly recently deceased) and his family have creatively positioned the house and lands as a visitor attraction bringing more than 3m visitors across its threshold. The immense cost of on-going maintenance, the struggle to generate sufficient revenues and the impact of such traffic have reduced the house to a relic of old decency.
The grounds, meanwhile, ring to the sounds of children’s laughter as they’ve been turned into a Pirate Adventure Park in deference to the Browne’s family connection with Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen. It’s a family paradise, in many ways, with activities including zip lining and zorbing to suit all ages. There are even paddle boats on the ornamental lakes shaped like giant swans.
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner of SoolNua, a boutique marketing agency working for destinations and enterprises in the MICE sector.