Every town has one: the unofficial tourist offices
Tourists seeking advice are often sent to the amateur tour guide for advice, directions and the kind of expertise guidebooks cannot compete with
If you travelled in Ireland this summer, you might have had the experience of stopping in a town or village and asking a local to suggest somewhere to stay or eat. “Do you know who you should ask?” they’ll say, pointing you in the direction of the local unofficial tourism ambassador.
You might be sent to speak to a retired postal worker, or a walking enthusiast, or amateur historian, or perhaps the longest-serving business owner on the main street, but, rest assured, every town and village has such a person, dispensing the kind of knowledge difficult to replicate in an app or audio guide.
These people will often take a little extra care in where they send tourists, wanting them to experience their area in as full and local a way as possible, and helping to promote lesser-known locations.
Sean Murphy, director of Murphy’s Ice Cream, in Dingle, Co Kerry, has been living there for 13 years, and is well-placed to offer tourists a local perspective on what to do. As an American, he also has an insight into what outsiders might be looking for. Murphy believes that, more and more, visitors want the kind of local knowledge that guidebooks often lack.
“When tourists land in places, they want the inside scoop and to touch the real town,” he says. “With the internet, information is easily available, so they all come pretty well-informed. What they want from locals is that extra ounce of information such as where they should eat and what they should do.”
Sometimes, however, locals can miss things that might seem attractive or special to outsiders. Blame the self-deprecating nature of the Irish, Murphy says.
“The thing about Ireland is that it is a country of very humble people, to its credit. But in terms of appreciating what we have here, often the really simple things are overlooked, whether it is the quality of the milk or a walk along the harbour in Dingle. These are things I haven’t seen every day for my whole life, so I can perhaps appreciate them a little more and point people in their direction.”
The sage of Ennis
Another person closely connected with their local town is business owner Noel Tierney, who runs a traditional cycling, fishing and games shop – Tierney’s Cycles and Fishing – on O’Connell Street in Ennis, Co Clare. The shop has been in the Tierney family for more than 100 years, and Noel’s father, Michael (87), still works every day behind the counter.
Because they rent bikes, Noel and Michael are often the first port of call for tourists visiting Ennis. Noel says that, for his father, the interaction with visitors is what keeps him going. “My father’s oxygen is people,” says Noel. “He’s 60 years trading on the street, and his drug is meeting people and having the chat, and that gives him purpose to come in every day.”
For thirsty tourists, Noel helpfully lists several options in the town and generally sends visitors to one of his favourite pubs. “For a pint, thankfully we have loads of lovely bars in Ennis. I might send them to Knox’s across the road, or to O’Connell’s Bar, or Brogan’s or The Poet’s Corner in the Old Ground Hotel. The pubs that have survived are really catering for tourists now with meals and nice decor.”
Noel says he never feels burdened having to answer tourists’ queries several times a day – he recognises that, for a small town like Ennis, a vibrant tourism industry is vital to its economic survival.
Following several years of decline, Shannon Airport is beginning to see some passenger growth and this can have a knock-on effect. “A perfect example of the importance of Shannon was a few years ago when Ryanair were doing a Treviso flight,” he says. “The amount of Italians around here was amazing, and they are cycling-mad.”
When tourists are looking for advice on a day trip from Ennis, Noel points them in the direction of the Loop Head peninsula, which he feels has managed to stay true to itself.
“It’s great to see it opened up. There was a time there were signs up everyone saying ‘Do not enter’. I always say to people: if Loop Head was in Kerry, they’d have opened the place up 40 years ago.”
Going the right way in Connemara
Amanda Burke runs All Things Connemara, in Clifden, Co Galway, with her partner, Jonathan Powell. The shop stocks exclusively local items, and bicycles are available for rent.
Burke tries to go the extra mile to help tourists enjoy the natural beauty of Connemara. Sometimes this can mean breaking the news to tourists that they are many miles away from where they had intended to be.
“We’ve had a few call to the shop here thinking they were in Sligo,” says Burke. “Or often they might ask, ‘where are the Cliffs of Moher?’ Cashel is another one. I had a lady recently ask me where the rock was. They expected to be in Tipperary and ended up in Galway. It happens quite a lot – thankfully we’ve plenty to keep them here.”
For queen and Cork
In Cork, fishmonger Pat O’Connell was pictured giving Queen Elizabeth a tour of his fish stall in the English Market during her visit two years ago. Since then he has become for some the unofficial face of Cork. More tourists than ever are passing through the market, and some are making it their business to meet the best-known fishmonger in the country.
“I was brought up the market and have been in here since I was five years old,” he says. “If I myself go to a city, it is the people that leave the impression on me. We went to Toronto recently and a guy stopped us on the street and asked did we need directions. I’ll always remember that about the city.
“The other night in Cork I was coming over the bridge by the Cork Opera House and two Germans were lost. I walked along with them and put them on the right road. The lady called me back and said that was really nice. It is what Cork is all about.”
O’Connell’s top city tips for tourists include the Glucksman Gallery and Fitzgerald Park, near University College Cork, as well as the often-overlooked Shandon Street area. In terms of dining, he suggests Farmgate Cafe, Crawford Cafe and Nash 19. Not a day goes by, he says, when he is not asked a question by a visitor.
“It takes from my time, but I don’t mind,” he says. “The alternative would be much worse. For a long time, Cork suffered in that people were coming in by ferry and plane and bypassing us en route to somewhere else. Now, they’re staying, and we’re glad to help them any way we can.”
Like all the other unofficial tourist ambassadors in towns and villages across Ireland, O’Connell gets the fact that his role is to make visitors feel at home, even when they may be many miles away from their own.