Bringing a buzz back to former hive of activity

Tue, Jun 19, 2012, 01:00

ON THE WILD ATLANTIC WAY: A group of women has created an activity and news hub to help revive the town of Louisburgh

THE INDICATIVE route of the Wild Atlantic Way being developed by Fáilte Ireland has it going straight from Leenane in Co Galway to Westport in Mayo, via the N59, bypassing everything to its west.

But there’s reason to believe they’re looking at this particular stretch of the road again – let’s hope so because, if they’re not, visitors will be steered away from one of the most breathtaking mountain passes in the country as well as a small town in Mayo that has much to offer. And a lot more besides.

Leaving Leenane, the Dutch bikers and I took a left on to the R335 along the north shore of the Killary, Ireland’s only fjord, and followed the road into the Delphi Gap.

The scenery on a bright June evening was breathtaking: the horseshoe-shaped Mweelrea Mountain towered to our left (and the Delphi Adventure Centre tucked into it makes full use of what it and the Killary have to offer), past Delphi Lodge (wild smoked salmon for sale) and on to Doolough.

I have driven through this pass in monsoon conditions and seen the sides of the valley turn white from the sheer volume of water cascading into the lake. Not yesterday, thankfully.

The road rises out of the valley and across a bog before, at Cregganbaun, offering stunning views out to Clare Island and Inishturk. The countryside looks both remote and wild but also welcoming. Foxgloves peek from road sides and there are lush buttercup meadows awaiting the silage cutters.

In Louisburgh, a highly motivated group of dynamic, professional women have had enough of gloom and doom and have decided to do something about it.

Inside Duffy’s on Chapel Street – closed, empty and lifeless for the past decade – they are making a home for Louisburgh HQ, which seven of them set up after they decided to, as they put it, “do something about austerity”.

Catherine Duffy grew up in the shop and former family home, along with six siblings and her parents. “We were the Amazon dotcom of our day, you could say,” says Duffy. “People on Inishturk would send in their orders – groceries, oil, animal feed – and we’d send the goods out to them.”

Once they have cleaned the place up (and fixed the water leak), Duffy’s will become the centre of their operations. They are going to produce a weekly newsletter telling people what is going on in the community and provide space for a range of activities, such as drama, arts and crafts. There will be a therapy room/clinic.

Downstairs, the old shop will be brought back to life as a pop-up store to aid local enterprise.

“We are offering the premises to people who want to showcase their products for the summer,” says another of the group, Maggie O’Conor.

Across the road, a landmark corner premises at the town’s crossroads, that was semi-derelict for decades, is also being brought back to life. It will become a drop-in centre for the community and visitors alike.

Local people will be able to access advice – legal, marketing, promotional and other business development help. Visitors will be offered information about the area’s many attractions – fine sandy beaches for swimming and surfing, places for walking, the dramatic scenery, local curiosities like standing stones, megalithic graves and the Clapper Bridge.

They will also get information on where to eat and stay and what’s on each week. There will be maps and photos of the area.

“The centre will operate as a hub from which visitors can access the local community, all the services and events that are happening,” says Bríd Conroy.

“We will be marketing all the businesses in the area [there are 100 small businesses between Louisburgh, Lecanvey and Killeen] and we will be there to give advice to anyone wanting to start up or expand.

“The centre will also have bike hire and generally operate as a booking service for local tours and events.”

It was not long ago that Louisburgh was a little hive of businesses and services. Some 300 people lived in the town 30 to 40 years ago and there were 57 businesses then, says Bríd. Today just 37 people live there and businesses and services have shrivelled.

“There have been too many individuals trying to battle against a tide, all acting on their own,” says Tricia Hudson, who runs a successful restaurant, Hudson’s Pantry, in the town. The HQ initiative aims to pack a punch by having people pull together.

They are all excited about the prospect of the Wild Atlantic Way bringing more people into the area and going on to Clare Island, Old Head and Croagh Patrick.

It will have an impact – real and psychological, but is there any opposition to more visitors, more “outsiders”, coming into the area?

“By having the tourist in the shop, the shop owner can hold on to a member of staff they might otherwise have had to let go,” says Hudson.

“That’s employment. If the shop goes, the farmer, who may think he has no interest in tourism, has to travel a greater distance to get his goods.”

For O’Conor, the whole Louisburgh HQ project is about “giving a people a reason to stay living here”. As Hudson puts it: “As an outsider, it’s not your place to leave, it’s your place to stay.”

A bit more of this and the country will banish the recession and pull through for sure.

Tomorrow: Louisburgh to Ballina, via Erris

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