'I am most content when I am driving home to Westport'
Minister of State MICHAEL RINGreflects on his relationship with his home town, which celebrates its Best Place to Live in Ireland award tomorrow
MY MOTHER still lives in Fr Angelus Park, in Westport. I was born in that house and grew up in the estate of 40 or so houses. It was a traditional working-class community then, but out of that estate came so many hard-working, motivated people, including doctors, professionals and people who had other kinds of success.
I am most content when I am driving home to Westport and see Croagh Patrick in the distance. That’s when I feel happiest. My favourite activity there is to walk the town on a summer’s evening, to take in the river, the Mall, and to meet the many people I know – and the people I don’t know who are visiting from abroad.
I love to cycle, too. I am so proud of the Greenway cycle route. And I have climbed Croagh Patrick countless times in my life. As a younger man I used to like climbing it in the night vigil, when you would climb in darkness and descend in the morning light. When you’re coming down, to look out at the 365 islands of Clew Bay is a truly magical moment – as long as you get the day for it.
One of the enjoyable things about Westport is its inclusiveness. Nobody ever looked down on us because we had a working-class background. Everyone is treated the same in the town. For me, that’s what lies behind the community spirit that helped Westport win the Best Place to Live in Ireland award.
A lot of the rivalries you get in other places do not happen in Westport. For example, when the Catholic church was being refurbished some years ago, the Church of Ireland opened its doors to the Catholic congregation.
There are other factors, though. People are prepared to help each other out for the common good. When we wanted to build a new public swimming pool in 1995-96, the people and businesses of the town collected approximately £700,000, through contributions and public fundraisers. And those were difficult enough times.
There’s also hard work and hard decisions involved. I was elected to the town council in the late 1970s, and at that time the town faced a lot of difficulties. During the elections of the 1980s the politicians on the council competed, as politicians do. But in between elections we worked for the good of the town, and the council drove a lot of the changes that have made it the place it is today.
One thing we did, which sounds simple now, was to ban new plastic shopfronts, and eventually everybody saw the benefit. But the headaches and heartaches that caused had to be experienced to be believed. We supported tourism, employment and the Tidy Towns. It has paid off.
My family has lived here since the 1890s. My grandfather was from the town but left and fought for the United States in the first World War. When he came back he managed the Railway Tavern, which after that was taken over by my uncle.
My father worked in Westport Textile from the day it opened. The factory burned down in 1969, leaving the staff out of work. That was a black day for Westport, because nearly every family in the town had somebody working in the factory.
The major employers now are tourism – 11 or 12 hotels – and Allergan. The company has grown with the town. There’s lots of other small industrial activity in the town. I consider myself very fortunate that my three children can live and work in or near the town.
Anywhere I go in the world I meet people who feel the same about the place. They say, “Howiye Covey?” – it’s the term for a native of the town. “How are things in Westport? I only wish I was there.”
– in conversation with Conor Goodman
Westport will celebrate winning the Irish Times Best Place to Live in Ireland award at a community event at Westport House, Co Mayo, tomorrow.