Top prize to Westport - a model for every town and county

Mon, Jun 25, 2012, 01:00

MAUREEN GAFFNEY is a native of Cork and a resident of Rathmines. She loves both, she says with conviction. “But I have to say I love Westport. It’s a place of such quiet civilisation, a little gem of a town, glowing with colour. And not a single piece of litter.”

And yet, if she and other judges had left it at that, Westport would have been just another tidy town.

“Westport is a beautiful place, well-kept and pleasant to visit, but those aren’t the reasons it won”, said Conor Goodman, Irish Times features editior, who chaired the judging panel.

“The judges chose Westport because it is a community of people working together to make the best of the town’s many advantages.”

In a town of 5,500 with a staggering 97 voluntary associations, this is hardly surprising. Gaffney was struck by the human engagement, by the number of people who simply met her eye: “Maybe they recognise you but they’re just curious probably – they look at you and they salute you, to use that country expression.”

She imagined what it might be like to be a stranger moving to Westport: “I concluded you would have a tremendous chance of integrating . . .”

Westport has its own singular means of integration. Usually, a stranger in a new town would ring the golf club to get to know someone, said Gaffney; in Westport, you would ring the Tidy Town people. She spoke of them as “forces of nature . . . people who could run Ireland”.

Some 15 rotas of volunteers – including retired people and transition year students, each with their named hi-vis jacket – turn out on a Sunday morning to clean up the litter after the Saturday night ravages. “By 9am, there is not one piece of litter left,” said Gaffney. “It’s almost become a status thing to be on the rota.”

This is crucial. Having worked as chair of the Rapid programme for some years and having been to every deprived estate in the country, said Gaffney, one of the difficulties they consistently heard, was of getting people to work together. Westport has solved it.

The chamber of commerce works hand in glove with the town council, which works in turn with the voluntary associations, who all work with the businesses. Much of the town’s glow is attributable to the natural slate roofing, the beautifully designed street furniture and the paint-colour service offered by the town council to local businesses.

The town boundaries, building design and attention to detail were fiercely guarded and maintained in the bubble-era. Social housing was designed as carefully as any private development, located within a walk of the town, surrounded by leafy, well-lit green paths, with allotments in front of the houses. “Westport is a model of how to do it well,” said Paul Keogh.

Some €60,000 in prize money from multiple awards was set aside and invested in a centre for young people, incorporating a skate-park, a vandalproof shelter and an outdoor gym beside it. A minor problem with graffiti was resolved when the artist involved was tracked down and diverted to decorate the skate park. In the face of mightier challenges, the town never dropped its standards.

It hauled Lidl before An Bord Pleanála, forcing it to adapt its customary box design to the town’s aesthetic. It funnelled Dunnes Stores into an attractive stone-built old school in the centre. The Westport quays were developed, with tax incentives, says Frank McDonald, “but not in a bad way”.

There were concerns in the panel that Westport might be a bit “twee”, a touch manicured, perhaps an excess of hanging baskets. Gaffney assured that the French planting consisted of such exotica as flowering broccoli and an investment in mature trees rather than saplings ensured no ugly protective fencing.

“It is a model to every town and county,” said Keogh. “On governance, it scores really high. It has been so well managed . . . Yes, urban Ireland is alive and well.”

The Pitch - John O’callaghan

PHILOSOPHER-POET John O’Donohue wrote “a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there” (Divine Beauty) and “place is not simply location; a place is a profound individuality” (Anam Cara). I agree.

Westport has this profound attraction that makes me want to return there again and again and live there.

Why? Because Westport has it all. Lovely people, lots to do, excellent employment, fantastic amenities, gorgeous scenery, a thriving arts and cultural scene, great sports and leisure facilities, a palpable community spirit, a choice of good restaurants, fine schools, a caring social services centre, an active retirement group, flourishing overseas partnerships and more.

You see, Westport was planned, right from the start. Back in the 1760s, the original village of Cathair na Mart (Stone Fort of the Beeves) was relocated from the demesne of Westport House to where it now stands and it has retained this attractive layout to this day. There are unique buildings such as the Gothic-style Holy Trinity Church (1872), the architecturally designed Post Office (1901) and the Market House on the Octagon, designed by James Wyatt. St Mary’s Church has two stained-glass windows by Harry Clarke. At Christmastime the town is especially welcoming with lights adorning all of the trees on the Mall.

A recent innovation is the transformation of our old railway line into a walk and cycleway that connects the town centre to Westport Quay. From there you can enjoy the delights of Clew Bay and its many islands, or stroll through the grounds of Westport House where this year, in June, there’s a weekend-long festival of music and entertainment for everybody. The Westport to Achill line has been reopened as the Great Western Greenway, a fantastic new amenity for cyclists and walkers alike.

There’s always something happening in Westport. The Rolling Sun Literary festival, Gaelforce and Sea to Summit adventure events and the Westport Street Festival every summer, to name but a few.

Westport Arts Festival always has a great programme and the local St Patrick’s drama group have sell-out productions. The predominant focal point for all artists, photographers, pilgrims and writers is, of course, Croagh Patrick. It is synonymous with Westport and cries out to be climbed and admired in equal measure. Westport is a dynamic and industrious town, with a variety of successful indigenous and multinational businesses.

The many fine hotels provide both a high standard of accommodation and employment. A frequent winner of the National Tidy Towns award, there’s a true pride among its citizens and I’m sure that if a scale existed to measure the Genius Loci or Spirit of Place then Westport would come out on top every time.

Westport is the best place to live. I love Westport deeply, I’m always passionate in extolling its many virtues and no matter where I go, I always love to return.

Online & in print

VIDEOS

Watch the videos of Westport and the four runners-up online

ENTRIES

Read all 563 entries received, on irishtimes.com/bestplace

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