Eco-resort planned for Midlands peninsula sold by Lenihan family

Yewpoint by Lough Ree purchased by Hodson Bay group is set for tourism development

The owners of the four-star Hodson Bay resort near Athlone plan to develop a major eco-tourism facility for the midlands on a 145-acre peninsula acquired from members of the Lenihan family, whose political dynasty has included former cabinet ministers Mary O’Rourke and the late Brian Lenihan jnr.

The specially protected conservation area, Yewpoint, on the shores of Lough Ree, was bought by the O’Sullivan-family owned Hodson Bay group using a special purpose vehicle, New Island Resorts, backed by outside investors. The acquisition also includes two small islands, Horse Island and Robin Island.

Since the deal last year during lockdown, the group has already opened a series of walking trails on the land in time for the summer season at Hodson Bay, a 176-bedroom resort on the lake shore beside the golf club. The longer-term plan, however, is to build small villages of eco-cabins on the peninsula, from which cars will be banned and the only guest access will be via golf buggies.

Waterways Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and Roscommon County Council are also examining the possibility of developing a new marina at Yewpoint and a floating boardwalk, similar to the one at Acres Lake in Drumshanbo in Leitrim.

Regional masterplan

The area’s potential for eco-tourism was considered as part of a development masterplan for the Shannon region, which was launched by the Government in March. Environmental advisory firm SLR Consulting has also been commissioned to assess the possibilities for the peninsula.

"I'm delighted. I never thought that piece of land would fall into our hands at all," said John O'Sullivan, the chairman of the Hodson Bay group, which employs more than 500 and also includes the luxury Hyatt hotel in Dublin's Liberties district, the Sheraton in Athlone and the Galway Bay hotel.

The acquisition of the scenic peninsula by Hodson Bay reunites two adjacent land parcels that were historically part of the one estate, which went all the way back to Jacobite times in the 1600s when the hotel was a monastery, St John's Abbey. It was later plundered by generals affiliated with Oliver Cromwell. Eventually, the estate ended up in the ownership of PJ Lenihan, a Fianna Fáil operative who was the father of politicians Mary O'Rourke and Brian Lenihan snr.

The Lenihans opened a hotel on the site, and that parcel was peeled off and eventually sold to Mr O'Sullivan, who opened the current hotel in 1990. The 145-acre Yewpoint peninsula, meanwhile, was owned by another son of PJ Lenihan, Paddy Lenihan, whose descendants brought it to the market.

Ecological sensitivity

It is believed New Island Resorts paid about €1 million for the land. Development of the eco resort will require far more capital and is likely to be done in several stages, depending on the implementation of the Shannon plan and the limitations of planning permission on such an ecologically sensitive plot.

The “untouched” land includes an oak forest and 100 acres of meadowland, and is rich in wildlife. Mr O’Sullivan says he aims to turn it into the country’s top ecotourism resort, which would be a boon for the tourist economy in the region, marketed by the State as part of the Hidden Heartlands.

“It all depends on what is deemed acceptable for the area under the masterplan. But the minute we know what is allowed, we will proceed,” he said. “You would do it in steps. You might do, say, 10 eco-cabins in the first phase. Then you’d go again, and build it up from there.”

Although it is currently owned by New Island Resorts, Mr O’Sullivan said he is hopeful that it would eventually be bought by the Hodson Bay group, which prior to the pandemic had annual sales of about €32 million, not including the Hyatt, which traded for only a few months before coronavirus arrived.

Mr O’Sullivan said the group was gearing up for a busy summer of domestic tourism at its hotels in the midlands and west: “The problem this year is Dublin.”

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is Business Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Caveat column