'Westport will always be the best place to live . . . I love it'
WRITER WILLIAM Makepeace Thackeray and Minister of State for Sport Michael Ring may appear to have little in common – but not to those present yesterday below the steps of Mayo’s Westport House.
For where the much-travelled 19th-century novelist bestowed Westport with the “most beautiful view”, the 21st-century politician granted it similar international status.
And not just for now, but for eternity. “This is not the best place in Ireland to live . . . it’s the best place in the world,” Mr Ring proclaimed, to cheers and laughter.
What’s more, he laid down the gauntlet to The Irish Times.
“You can never have this competition again,” Mr Ring said. “Westport will always be the best place . . . I live in it, I love it and I intend to be buried in it.”
Even as the junior minister wound up with a promise to “bring home the Sam Maguire Cup” when Mayo face Donegal later this month, the sun broke through the cloud and thousands gathered to celebrate the occasion.
From drumming to displays in craftwork, from “zorbing” in giant bubbles to zip-wire riding, there was a variety of activities in a programme, which opened with an ecumenical celebration hosted by Fr Charlie McDonnell and Rev Val Rodgers in the Holy Trinity Church.
The Clew Bay Pipe Band gathered followers in the town’s Octagon, and the music continued up in the grounds of Westport House with jazz, rock, classical, traditional and choral music in three separate locations.
Storytellers and cheesemakers, beekeepers and bakers weaved their magic, while show jumping and rugby attracted audiences on the lawns.
Even as Mary Curran and Áine Ní Dhubhghaill teamed up to play French horn and Irish harp on the great stairs of the historic house, John O’Callaghan, the “man of the moment” who penned the winning pitch for Westport, was receiving handshakes by the dozen.
A “landmark achievement” was how the Editor of The Irish Times, Kevin O’Sullivan, described the award, paying warm tribute to the collective hard work of civic leaders, local authority and business representatives and many voluntary organisations.
He presented Mr O’Callaghan with a framed front page of the newspaper edition of June 25th, 2012, recording the final outcome of the contest which had attracted 563 entries from 32 counties.
The role of those residents in the late 1950s and 1960s who had “laid the foundations” for success was emphasised by town council cathaoirleach Ollie Gannon when he was presented with the award by the managing director of The Irish Times.
Westport had won Tidy Town accolades on three occasions, Mr Gannon said, and it was fortunate to have so many voluntary organisations sharing one goal and “ a sense of pride and place”.
For a population of 5,000, it boasted an extraordinary number of such groups, Tidy Towns committee secretary and former chairwoman Pam Flanagan noted at a forum on the role of the community chaired by Kathy Sheridan of The Irish Times.
The Westport 2000 town plan, put together by stakeholders in conjunction with the town council, was also instrumental, fellow panellist and town architect Simon Wall said.
Whereas the so-called Celtic Tiger had left a “sour taste” in many communities, it had been “harnessed” for the greater good in Westport, he said.
Other energies had also been harnessed, with Ms Flanagan citing how graffiti had been approached in a sensitive manner.
She recalled a recent comment by one teenager, who inquired if she had found discarded bottles during a Tidy Towns clean-up.
“We didn’t break them . . . we left them in a bag for you,” she was told.
Speaking about the role of the internet, the communities editor of The Irish Times David Cochrane described the development of “hyperlocal” communication in the US. Technology facilitated community links, and some of the largest online communities were those with specific shared interests, he said.
Architect and contest judge Paul Keogh referred to the importance of a “shared vision”, as in “a vision, strategy and symbolic actions”. If other towns learned Westport’s lessons, Ireland would be a “better place” for it, he said.
Out on the gravel, Sheelyn Browne, who manages Westport House with her sister Karen, estimated that up to 6,000 people had attended.
As she spoke, dozens of later visitors were streaming up the driveway after the All-Ireland hurling final.
The south Mayo town at the mouth of Clew Bay has a busy diary yet – the Westport Food Festival runs from September 21st to 23rd and its arts festival fortnight takes place from October 1st to 14th.