What’s so new about Ireland’s Ancient East?

1,000 tourism providers have been trained in the ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ brand, and 25 sites have received upgrade grants. So why don’t more visitors know about it?

Ireland’s  Ancient East: The elaborate bridge at Ballysaggartmore

Ireland’s Ancient East: The elaborate bridge at Ballysaggartmore

 

Large brown signs welcoming motorists to “Ireland’s Ancient East” have begun to appear on county borders in the midlands and along the east coast. These are the first visual symbols of Fáilte Ireland’s marketing strategy to entice international visitors to spend their time – and money – east of the river Shannon.

“Eighty per cent of visitors come through Dublin, but only 28 per cent of them visit the counties in the midlands and along the east coast,” says Paul Keeley, programme director for Fáilte Ireland. “Five counties – Galway, Clare, Kerry, Cork and Dublin – get 80 per cent of the overseas bed nights. There are 21 counties chasing the rest of the bed nights.”

In some ways, it’s all about money: By 2020, Fáilte Ireland hopes to increase tourism revenue in the region from €454 million to €650 million and the number of bed nights from 8.6 million to 9.8 million. Overall, the tourism authority’s aim is to increase visitor numbers to this region from 1.6 million to 2.2 million by 2020.

“We need to persuade tour operators to support the brand and get those bed nights booked before they come,” says Keeley. “Currently, most visitors stay in Dublin and take day trips to Brú na Bóinne and Glendalough, or they start and finish in Dublin and spend the rest of their holiday out west.”

The campaign to promote Ireland’s Ancient East is well under way, but tourism executives and providers are keen to stress that this is not the Wild Atlantic Way mark 2.

“It’s a touring region and not a touring route,” says one operator off the N11. Add Keeley: “The Wild Atlantic Way was there already. It was mainly about adding the signage. But Ireland’s Ancient East is all about the density of built heritage sites and telling people the stories about these places.”

Map out itineraries

To this end, Fáilte Ireland has created nine themes spanning 5,000 years of history. On the impressive Ancient East website, visitors can watch videos and look at places to visit under themes such as “Ancient Ireland”, “Sacred Ireland”, “Castles and Conquests” and “Big Houses and Hard Times”. They can map out three- and seven-day itineraries across the northeast, through the centre of Ireland or from the southeast to the northeast.

Some 25 specific tourist sites have been grant-aided to upgrade their facilities, and more than 1,000 tourism providers have been trained in the Ancient East brand. By the end of the year, large orientation signs promoting 10 other sites within an hour’s drive will be placed at 80 sites along Ireland’s Ancient East.

Hook Head Lighthouse in Co Wexford is pleased with the extra attention and finance. The not-for-profit enterprise that rents one of the world’s oldest operating lighthouses from Irish Lights.

“We received €80,000 to tell the stories of the lighthouse through holograms that enhance our guided tours,” says general manager Ann Waters. “Over 80 per cent of our business has been from the domestic market up to now, but we’re hoping to attract the ‘culturally curious’ who don’t mind finding their way to places.”

Culturally curious they may be, but these travellers will also need to be savvy with maps – we noticed no signs for the lighthouse along the N11.

Ancient East: try these four itineraries





“Signage has been an issue for years,” Waters acknowledges. “We’ve had American visitors arrive almost in tears after navigating their way on the small roads. Ideally, we would like the roundabout on the N25, where you turn for Hook Head, to be renamed Hook Peninsula Roundabout.”

We noticed a similar absence of signs on the N11 while searching for the privately owned Tudor Gothic Wells House on our return journey. When we finally got there (it’s on the R741 between Gorey and Wexford), we found people enjoying archery, crafts studios, house tours and afternoon tea.

Restored gardens

Wells House & Gardens is a new attraction in north Wexford. “We have restored the gardens based on the original Daniel Robertson plans of the 1830s,” says Sabine Rosler, who owns the house with her husband Uli. “Robertson also worked on Powerscourt and Killruddery Gardens in County Wicklow and on Johnstown Castle. I’d love to showcase his work here.”

With visitor numbers reaching more than 120,000 last year, the Roslers have been approved for signs, which they will pay Wexford County Council to put in place this year.

The Cavan Burren site, which is part of the cross-Border Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, is already reaping the benefits of the Ancient East branding – not least because it features on the new television advertisement.

“Our visitor numbers are up 15 per cent on last year,” says Grainne O’Connor, Cavan County Council’s geopark officer. “We are mentioned in the itineraries because we have such archaeological layers of history here, and our local guides tell visitors about the folklore as well as the archaeology.

“It’s all about the local economy,” O’Connor adds, “and people spending money in Blacklion and the Border towns, especially now with Brexit.”

Not everyone thinks the vast region from Cavan to Cork should be bundled together.

“I think they should have left the Wild Atlantic Way to bed down for a while before starting another route,” says Brú na Bóinne tour guide Stephen Delaney.

“The Wild Atlantic Way is obviously working,” he says, “and I love that it really promotes the beauty of our coastline and also that it pushes forward places that might not, traditionally, be hot spots for visitors. Places like Killybegs and Mullaghmore.”

Tried too hard

Delaney says “Ireland’s Ancient East” is simply too vast. “The new route, while it certainly focuses on aspects of Ireland’s hugely important past, seems to encompass what was left over. I think they have tried too hard to cover everything, and should have focused solely on the east coast.

“If anything ‘the midlands’ possibly deserve its own route and promotion,” he says. “And, to me, it doesn’t make any sense that the Ancient East goes as far as Cork. Places like Cashel, Blarney Castle and Kilkenny don’t need more tourists.”

As the manager of most of the heritage sites on Ireland’s Ancient East, the Office of Public Works will be key to the new region’s growth in tourist numbers.

“Fáilte Ireland have given us a capital package and funding to tell the stories of our sites on Ireland’s Ancient East,” says Frank Shalvey from the OPW heritage services.

Aware that sites such as Brú na Bóinne attract huge numbers, the OPW is keen to encourage visitors to other historic sites in the region. These include King John’s Castle in Carlingford, which is currently being restored to allow visitors inside for the first time.

Other projects include an archaeological museum at Knowth, which, although accessed via Brú na Bóinne, attracts far fewer tourists than Newgrange.

“We plan to create a specialist stone museum of the megalithic art of the Boyne Valley in the outbuildings of the OPW-owned Knowth House, across the road from the site,” says Shalvey. “Essentially, we’re trying to invest in secondary sites to spread the load more broadly so it’s not just about visiting the Rock of Cashel, Newgrange and Glendalough.”

On a visit to Brú na Bóinne, I ask tourists from the United States, Germany and Australia if they have heard of Ireland’s Ancient East. The question is met by blank faces. Tourists at Hook Lighthouse hadn’t heard of it either.

Only time will tell whether those large brown signs will entice more tourists to spend their time and money east of the Shannon.

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