Great Western Greenway: the long and winding road without a car in sight

Our Going Coastal series continues with a cycle along the Co Mayo route from Westport to Achill island, stopping off for a little sailing

Frank McNally at Mulranny during his Great Western Greenway cycle from Westport to Achill, along with Anna O’Connor, Mayo County Council’s walking and cycling officer. Photograph: Michael McLaughlin

Frank McNally at Mulranny during his Great Western Greenway cycle from Westport to Achill, along with Anna O’Connor, Mayo County Council’s walking and cycling officer. Photograph: Michael McLaughlin


The old Westport-Achill rail line was never entirely successful. This offshoot of the Midland Great Western Railway company covered one of the emptier sections of an underpopulated region. From the start, it was never expected to make a profit, being one of the Balfour Lines, a light-rail scheme so called after Ireland’s then chief secretary and designed to regenerate disadvantaged districts.

Many of its passengers were seasonal farm labourers, “tattie hokers” and others, commuting from Mayo to gather the harvests of England and Scotland. The poorest of the poor, they were not charged full fare on the Balfour trains. But even with their help, the Westport-Achill line never reached the passenger figures expected during its heyday.

The first trains travelled the single-gauge line in February 1894, when road travel was still an unattractive alternative. Within a few decades, however, that had changed. Unable to compete with tarmac, the railway finally waved the white flag in September 1937, after just 43 years.

Tracks lifted, the line lay dormant for generations and was reclaimed by nature and landowners. Many people bought their neighbouring sections from the rail company. Others took use of the land and gained squatters’ rights. Parts of the route remained in public ownership. But the ghost of the old railway lingered, if only in local memory.

The beginning of a new way
Then another era dawned, one in which ideas about public transport changed again. The remains of the railway line had for years been included in plans for off-road walking routes. Now the idea of a dedicated cycle path took off.

Tortuous negotiations with 161 landowners and other interests followed. Then in 2011, the central section of the old line – Newport to Mulranny – came back to life.

Ambitions were more modest than in 1894. Anna Connor, Mayo County Council’s walking development officer, who did much of the liaison with landowners, says they had hoped 50,000 people might use the route annually. Instead, in the first year, there were 145,000. The figure climbed to 175,00 last year, by which time the Great Western Greenway had expanded to the full 43.5km. This year, the figure looks like passing 200,000. Overcrowding is now an issue on some sections at peak times.

When I cycle it with Connor, I don’t need statistics to see that the Greenway is a roaring success. Not in the literal sense, obviously. Except for the Westport-Newport section, much of which runs close to the main road, the noisiest things on the route are bicycle bells and the chatter of young families. But the traffic is constant, and a surprising amount of it involves four-wheeled vehicles: bikes with trailers attached.

Connor has more figures that underline the project’s success. The Greenway has created 38 new jobs, she says, and is helping to secure 56 other existing ones. Moreover, the project continues to develop in ways that weren’t foreseen. There is now a gourmet trail, an adventure sports trail and a Greenway artists’ group.

It is also helping to regenerate the towns along the route, much as the original railway had been intended to do.

The value to the local economy is estimated at €7.2 million a year and rising. That figure doesn’t include the less tangible benefits of so many people getting on their bikes more often. Either way, it’s an impressive return on a project that – the gift from railway history acknowledged – cost only about €6 million.

The most obvious beneficiaries are the bicycle hire shops, including Clew Bay Bike Hire, which has shops at either end of the Greenway, as well as a series of substations and even a free shuttle service. Others include Bellacragher Bay Boat Club, which has already turned many local children between Mulranny and Achill into the sailors their ancestors used to be, but is now increasingly attracting tourists too.

At Connor’s insistence, we take a short detour at Bellacragher Bay to meet the boat club’s founder, Seamus Butler. A little worryingly, he is flying a skull-and-crossbones from his motorised inflatable dinghy, a gesture to the many pirates who operated here in centuries past. But these days, he also flies under the Greenway Adventures banner that unites various thrill suppliers along the route.

So after a hair-raising tour of the bay, plus a short introduction to catamaran sailing by one of the club’s veteran sea dogs (aged 15), I make landfall again, shaken and with wet socks, but with enough nervous energy stored up to power the bike back to Westport.

Old hotel catering for new generation
Later we stop for lunch at Mulranny Park Hotel, another of the Greenway’s beneficiaries. The hotel was built by the railway company, which used to sell travel and accommodation packages. In 1922, for example, you could get a return ticket from Westport with overnight stay plus dinner for £2.30.

The hotel was one of more enthusiastic landowners when Mayo County Council came knocking. As well as feeding and watering a new generation, the hotel has been instrumental in developing the Greenway’s gourmet trail, which centres on its local food suppliers.

A few landowners refused to have anything to do with the cycle path from the start, and still do. The majority, however, agreed to work with it. After that, it was down to the personal liaison of Connor and the ingenuity of development engineer Pádraig Philbin to find acceptable compromises for each section of the line.

One farmer might want the route fenced, to keep apart cyclists and farm animals, including the occasional bull. Another would need his sheep to roam freely from one side of the track to the other. Sometimes the ingenuity came from the ground up. A cleverly angled gate-and-fence arrangement used in places allows tractor access where necessary. It was suggested by a landowner and is being copied on other rural cycle paths.

Advertisements have started to crop up along the route, drawing attention to attractions nearby. The council is working on a code to pre-empt proliferation, the idea being to strike a balance between promoting attractions that add to the route while barring crass commercialisation.

More pressing problems include a section near Achill that, for the moment, still has to share the public road. But while such problems are being dealt with, the success of the project is already redefining the whole area.

The coast: south Mayo
Beginning in Westport, the Great Western Greenway is a trail that runs as far as Achill, passing through towns such as Newport and Mulranny. The trail is 43.5km in length, and takes the route of the Achill end of the Westport railway line, which closed in 1937.

The first section was opened to cyclists and walkers in 2010, with the final section completed in 2011. The scenic route meanders around Clew Bay, which contains more than 300 islands, including Clare Island at the entrance.

Dominating the terrain south of Clew Bay is Croagh Patrick, a dark and pyramid-like presence and a site of pilgrimage. Croagh Patrick is part of a valley created when a glacier flowed into Clew Bay during the last Ice Age.

The largest island off the coast is Achill (below), attached to the mainland by the Michael Davitt Bridge, between the villages of Achill Sound and Polranny.

The Great Western Greenway, which has won an Eden (European Destination of Excellence) Award, has gentle gradients, and can be broken into sections, such as Westport to Newport (12.5km), Newport to Mulranny (18km) and Mulranny to Achill (13km).

Attractions and activities
There is a large range of activities along the Great Western Greenway. Attractions within easy reach of the route include Croagh Patrick, Westport House and the deserted village at Slievemore on Achill Island.

If you are looking for a busier break from the route, then the towns of Achill, Mulranny and Newport are natural stop-off points. Also included in the route is Westport (below), which was named Best Place to Live in Ireland in an Irish Times competition last year.

There is a blue-flag beach southwest of Mulranny. Other beaches of note include Keel beach on Achill and Bertra beach near Westport. Bike rental is available in Mulranny, Achill and Westport. There are two golf courses: a nine-hole near Mulranny and an 18-hole near Westport.

Accommodation options include the popular Mulranny Park Hotel. Staff will help you to organise day trips, sporting and other activities. Seapoint House, a farmhouse B&B, is 10km from Westport. There are also campsites in the area, at Westport, Achill, and farther afield in Castlebar.

Recommended dining options include Pure Magic on Achill, where the emphasis is on local produce, and accommodation is also available. Calvey’s restaurant, also on Achill, and with views of Keel beach, is another popular choice.

In Westport, An Port Mór, run by Frankie Mallon, has won several awards for its food. The emphasis is on seasonal, artisan produce.

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