The story behind Ireland's greenway success

Greenways have achieved the seemingly impossible task of convincing land owners to allow strangers on their land without any compensation – how did they manage it?

The notion that we might willingly allow outsiders build pathways across our property is farcical considering our often craven, clawing grasp of land. Yet that is precisely what is happening all over Ireland now, as ever more greenways are being developed. What began as a quixotic dream to convert an abandoned Mayo railway track into a tourist amenity has become the most innovative development in Irish tourism, providing a viable way to open up access to the countryside, stimulating jobs in remote areas and encouraging more sustainable travel. Most remarkably of all, greenways have helped make cycling and walking breaks a mainstream option, rather than the domain of eager activity nuts.

The success of Mayo's 42km Great Western Greenway from Westport to Achill had a domino effect, leading to the Great Eastern Greenway along Carlingford Lough's southern shore, which led to the Old Rail Trail Greenway from Mullingar to Athlone, and Waterford's new Greenway from Waterford city along the Copper Coast to Dungarvan. All were inspired by the 80,000 visitors who spent €7 million in the first year of Mayo's Greenway.

But how did Mayo achieve the seemingly impossible task of convincing 161 separate land owners to allow strangers parade freely across their land without any economic compensation, while in theory, lowering the value of their property and making access to it more awkward?

Pádraig Philbin, senior engineer for Mayo County Council, points to a prophecy by the 17th-century prophet Brian Rua U'Cearbhain, who predicted that "carriages on iron wheels, emitting smoke and fire would carry coffins to Achill on both its first and last journey". When this prediction actually came true 200 years later (with the first train on the Achill railway in 1894 carrying the bodies of potato pickers drowned on their way to Scotland, and four decades later the final train hauling the corpses of 10 young Achill men buried alive in Scotland) it gave the railway a mythic allure, which made the idea of reviving it in the 21st century more credible.


With this was a lingering folk memory of the benefits the railway had brought to this desperately poor part of the country. “It was built to the finest specifications in the 1890s, with cobblestone culverts and elegant cut-stone viaducts, bringing massive hope to a place which had none,” says Philbin. “Those who now own the land are descendants of tenant farmers who once used the railway and who experienced the devastation when the railway closed in 1937 with no proper road network to replace it.”

Local acceptance

These memories helped further encourage local acceptance of the idea, but ultimately it took the walking development officer, Anna Connor, knocking on each and every door of the 161 landowners to allay their fears about security, insurance liability and access issues.

"The farmers who were part of the Rural Social Scheme were my greatest allies," recalls Connor. "I first convinced them and they won everybody else over. I stressed to everyone that this would be a demonstration project for the whole country. It had worked in France and Spain and I knew it could work here, but they had to trust us, to believe that this community resource could bring wealth to the area. There was one old landowner living in England who had had bad experiences with state bodies in the past and she was very wary. I travelled back and forth to England to reassure her, knowing that once she saw the trail she'd most likely agree to allow it continue through her land."

When the first section from Newport to Mulranny opened, "people could see immediate benefits," says Connor, "with their kids getting jobs in local bars and hotels. Everyone wanted to be part of the success, and it was a lot easier to get agreement for the remainder of the trail to Achill Island and Westport. We're now extending it out to Louisburgh and across Achill to Keel as locals really like the type of tourism it brings."

A quarter of a million people now use the Great Western Greenway annually and 200 jobs have been created in guiding, bike rental, cafes, taxis, hotels and so on. It's no wonder other counties followed suit. In 2012, Louth County Council managed to secure funding to build a greenway along the old railway line between Carlingford Marina and Omeath. They too had to undertake the painstaking process of securing access from more than 30 landowners along a disused railway line that had closed in 1951. As in Mayo, no money was paid for land, but gates and walls were erected to allay the concerns of individual land owners.

The Carlingford Lough Greenway opened in 2013 and work is now beginning on a new cross-border stretch heading north to Newry to connect with a canal tow path leading the whole way to Portadown. This is only the first phase of an even bigger project to construct a Great Eastern Greenway linking Newry to Dundalk along the old railway, and then connecting it to a Boyne Greenway that is currently being planned in conjunction with Meath County Council.

"To make a greenway is to make a community," says Pat O'Rourke, executive technician in the infrastructure section of Louth County Council, quoting Charles E Little's book Greenway for America (1990). He sees the Carlingford Lough Greenway as a key motivator for sustainable mobility and increased partnership across the border. "The cooperation of the landowners as the project evolved has been extraordinary. Along with the tourism benefit to the area, the local community appear to regularly use the Greenway. We had over 53,000 users in 2016 and not just at weekends. It's opening opportunities to cycle to work for some, and inspiring all of us to consider behavioural change surrounding car use and ultimately reduce our carbon footprint."

Key tourist attraction

The opening of the Old Rail Trail Greenway from Mullingar to Athlone was a more muted affair as the region is not as tourist-focused, but by next year when it stretches the whole way to Dublin along the Royal Canal it will become a key tourist attraction, especially once the section from Athlone west to Galway city and onwards to Clifden is built in future years. It will then offer a full coast-to-coast off-road pathway across Ireland.

"We're on site in Co Kildare at the moment finishing some works between Maynooth and Moyvalley along the Royal Canal," says Barry Kehoe, director of services at Westmeath County Council. "By the end of this year, the 84km from Athlone to Maynooth will be open, and the 26km from Maynooth to Dublin should be ready too. The challenge will then be to complete the section from Athlone to Galway." Since the railway line and canal bank are already owned by the State, the remaining corridor of land to Galway will also be bought outright as opposed to negotiating permissive access with farmers, which will provide for a speedier, but more expensive and less community-focused greenway.

"It has certainly been one of the most positive projects that I have ever been involved with in my time in local government," says Kehoe. "People are delighted to have it on their doorstep, delighted with the quality of it, delighted to see a piece of national infrastructure being brought back into use. The number of people getting out walking or cycling, or bringing their families on roller blades has been significant. We're now putting in more picnic facilities, playgrounds, toilets and links to places like the Hill of Uisneach and Kilbeggan, and we've a link built to Lough Owel which we hope to extend up towards Lough Derravaragh and onwards towards Fore and Lough Lene in north Westmeath."

All attention last year was on the Waterford Greenway, which, like Mayo, in its first year was a victim of its own success, with 250,000 visitors, some of whom were inexperienced cyclists causing chaos on busy days. Some may prefer to explore the quieter 36km Great Southern Trail from Rathkeale to Abbeyfeale along the old Limerick to Tralee railway line instead. It's a magical and much overlooked greenway which hopefully will get a boost when it is extended this year to Listowel.

Perhaps the most significant element of greenways has been the phenomenal return on investment they deliver. Brian Quinn of Fáilte Ireland regards them as transformational in terms of rural development. "They are catalyst projects that have been shown to rejuvenate communities and offer genuine high-value experiences for tourists. The Mayo Greenway cost €7.5 million and the Waterford Greenway cost €20 million and the return on investment was almost immediate."

Pádraig Philbin of Mayo County Council agrees: “In all my years as an area engineer I don’t think I ever saw as great an effect by any work we ever did as was brought to west Mayo by the Greenway. The return on our investment was phenomenal. Seeing cars with bikes on their racks from far away counties and countries still delights me.”

Greenways are one of these rare things that delight tourists, locals, Government officials, health activists and environmentalists equally, and which magically seem to pay for themselves in a matter of years. Expect far more in the future, and the more we use them, the more there’ll be.