The Irish Times is searching for the Best Place to Live in Ireland 2021, in association with Randox Health, and would like you to nominate your favourite. You can do so here. Click here to find out more about the competition.
It's not often that someone can say their name is carved in stone while they are still very much alive to see it. But that is John O'Callaghan's experience; the person who initially nominated Westport as the Irish Times's Best Place to Live in Ireland in 2012. His nomination eventually led to a sequence of events that resulted in the Mayo town being judged the overall competition winner.
What advice does O’Callaghan have for those people all over the country who want to write pitches for their entry to the 2021 competition?
“They should be thinking about what their local place has to offer, and why their place is so special to them,” he says. “That’s what got me going. Be passionate about where you live. I looked at Westport at a number of levels. I love the mountains and the sea. We had location in spades, and also had hearts, diamonds and clubs in community spirit.”
In fact, at the time, Westport had an astonishing 100-plus voluntary community groups working in different areas to benefit the town for all. One of these was the Tidy Towns committee, which was chaired at the time by Pamela Flanagan, who now manages a business on Bridge Street.
“Everyone working together is what made Westport so good,” she says. “It took years and years to get all those community groups together. No one individual person won the award: the whole town won it, and so everyone took pride in the win. The hype from winning is still there. It gave people more pride in their town; to think that it was judged the best place to live in Ireland. Rubbish gets picked up, for instance.”
Flanagan says that the win brought tourists, particularly domestic ones, to visit; to see for themselves what was special about the town.
Her advice for entrants this time round? “Involving young people is key. Someone needs to go into schools and talk to students, and those should be people other than teachers. The place where you live should be inclusive. What is the feeling you get when you walk around the place? Is it welcoming? What services are offered to the people who live there? Are there facilities for children?”
Flanagan, who has travelled all over the country as a Tidy Towns judge, observes that: “So many places don’t know or realise what they have in their towns. They might not have coastal views, but many places have heritage, or nature, or lovely walks. People entering the competition need to think about what they want to showcase. What is their plan for five years time? How do they get the community involved in the pitch? Treat the pitch like writing an introduction to a place that you assume people have not been to before, and do not previously know.”
Geraldine Horkan is the current CEO of Westport's Chamber of Commerce, and also the manager of the Leeson Innovation Centre, which nurtures start-ups and opened in 2018. One of its tenants is the hugely successful Payslip: a financial tech start-up, which recently secured €8.3 million in funding, and will create an additional 150 new jobs in both Dublin and Westport. The centre has a waiting list, and Horkan is hoping it will be possible to expand the premises.
“We think the new competition should be called ‘The Second Best Place to Live in Ireland’,” Horkan quips to me at one point. She’s only half-joking.
“Winning validated the work that had already been going on in the town. It gave us a tremendous sense of pride. It put a tangible value on something we already knew was there at a subliminal level. The town is the sum of its whole. There is community accountability. Winning meant we held our head higher, and noticed more,” she says.
“It has grown the town as a destination, and gave us a unique selling point from a marketing sense. Winning Best Place to Live meant to we had to live up that bar, and also, to reach beyond it. We wanted to exceed expectation, and people did come here with a lot of expectation after we won.”
Her advice for new pitches?
“Always think of your place as a whole; an entire community. What is the lived experience there for a single person; for a parent; for a child; for a family; for a long term business; for a start-up? You have to look at the whole experience of living in the place. You have to think of older people. What is the vision of our place going forward, and can we maintain that vision going forward?”
Dermot Langan, now retired, was the former events co-ordinator for Westport's then Town Council. He also organised the official day-long celebration of their overall win, back in 2012, which involved all sectors of the community.
“Winning has been a catalyst for a lot of things in Westport,” he says. “It brought us to a different level of attention. People nationally were looking at us. We saw winning as a recognition of what we had been doing for a long time. It definitely reinvigorated us as a community. It also made it easier to ask people to do things: it put a pep in the step of all our community groups.”
Langan doesn’t have exact figures, but anecdotally, he reports that several people, particularly from the east coast, have relocated to Westport in recent years.
“I’d say to people this time round: try and think outside the box a bit. People should do an audit of what’s needed in their area. Audit what is good about the place, and what do you need to make it a better place. It has to be welcoming to people. People can work remotely now, and places are much more community focused. They need to be very inclusive: of different generations, and different, diverse communities.”
"We all knew that Westport was a great place to live, but the win was a confirmation of that knowledge," says Fine Gael councillor, Peter Flynn. "There was a lot of pride in the win; that people outside the town had also viewed it as a great place to live. Winning brought people closer together, and made the co-operative vibe in the town even better. And we want to continue to make progress; that we don't stand still, and we keep Westport being a great place to live."
He points out that during the lockdowns, where people had to keep their movements to a couple of kilometres, that the owners of Westport House opened the grounds so that everyone could avail of the walks there and use this additional valuable amenity.
Flynn’s advice to entrants this time round is simple. “Inclusivity is important,” he stresses. “Be honest in your pitch, and stand over your claims. There is no point pretending you are something you are not. You need to be able to prove you are all the things you are saying you are, because the judges will find out anyway.”