Visitors head west for Easter despite lockdown
‘We don’t have a problem with people coming in... if they play by the rules’
JP of Durkan’s Butchers in Louisburgh: “When we have the Dubs down,” he says, “they do spend a lot of money.” Photograph: Peter Murtagh
The fields are full of spring lambs, lolling in the sunshine or playfully scampering about, up and down banks, some bristling with yellow primrose flowers.
The year has turned and nature is rising once again.
It’s Easter and, in the west, here come the holidaymaker Dubs. And the Northerners, and the English and, and – what else?
More than most parts of the island, the western seaboard relies on visitors to boost local economies. In many instances, visiting families have established deep roots where they holiday, sometimes over many years and through several generations.
Which is why Covid makes visiting under current conditions all so difficult, not to say against the regulations. No one wants to give the cold shoulder and no one wants to turn away business. Equally, however, no one wants to see a life-threatening virus inflicted on their community.
In the past two decades or so, several small estates have sprung up around Louisburgh, as have dozens of new-build homes in the surrounding countryside.
Most are owned by holidaymakers and while some have been lived in full-time by working-from-home owners since the pandemic began (including this reporter), others are being visited in recent days for the first time since last summer.
The number of out-of-county car number plates, and some yellow-and-white UK ones, has increased, though not so many as in pre-Covid years. Ana says her estate is now just about fully occupied and that wasn’t the case a week ago.
The duty managers of two of Westport’s supermarkets, Ewa Lemke of SuperValu, and Mantas Kerusakas of Lidl, say there was an increase in out-of-town shoppers since mid-week – both citing an upward tick at the tills of 5-10 per cent. Many holiday home visitors do major stock-ups at the big multiples but shop locally for other items.
In Louisburgh, JP, who runs Durkan’s Butchers, has no doubt but that the seasonal influx of visitors provides a very significant boost to local businesses. “When we have the Dubs down,” he says, “they do spend a lot of money.”
While people are anxious about Covid being brought into the community (and the word locally is there have been no cases for about a month), he has more concerns about visitors from overseas.
“But having said that, there’s plenty of space here,” he notes.
Local pharmacist John Staunton who is involved in numerous local initiatives says the lockdown rules have ground people down at this stage and the recent easing just reflects the reality of how people are behaving.
“The rules that are there have been straining us for the past few weeks and what was announced this week, really just reflects what’s been going on for a while now,” he says.
He says there would be mixed feelings locally at the prospect of a major influx of visitors – which, in any event, is against regulations as they exist.
“If people are acting irresponsibly, that’s not to be commended,” he said. “[But] it’s very hard to crack a habit and when people come here, they relax and they do what they always do.”
Which is why, with pubs and restaurants remaining closed, the opportunities for the virus to spread remain reduced.
Because hospitality remains closed, there is no Easter fillip for one of the area’s newest attractions – the Big Style adventure centre at Killadoon, a few kilometres outside Louisburgh. With inter-county travel and indoor gatherings banned, “our hands are tied”, says owner Chris Goodbody.
But he has put lockdown time to good use – refurbishing 15 bedrooms above the P Dan’s pub adjoining Big Style’s uber-cool compound which has hot tubs, open pizza oven, a brazier fire pit and a dining and lounge area made of recycled timber, and furnished with futon-style sofas, cushions and Persian rugs.
‘Level of fed-upness’
Big Style do activity weekends for up to 28 people with a heavy emphasis on surfing, stand-up paddling, yoga, hiking, Yotam Ottolenghi-style vegetarian food included, pints in P Dan’s and craic.
“We’ve taken bookings for June 15th onwards,” says Goodbody. “We have to honour a good few bookings from last year.”
This time last year, visitors would not have been welcomed into the area, he says. Now, however, “there’s a level of fed-upness” and some visiting will be tolerated, he says.
“If the place got black with people, however, there’d be [local] resentment but the feelings have changed a bit.”
A return to normality can’t come soon enough for Carl O’Grady whose family business, which includes a ferry to and from Clare Island, is very tied to the tourist season.
“Everybody’s excited about getting back to normal,” he says. “We just want to open up, greet people and meet people again.”
One day last August, he estimated there were 600 visitors to the island, whose year-around population is about 110. “We were massively busy,” says O’Grady who runs the Sailor’s Bar and hostel on the island.
Visitors would be “hugely welcome” to the island, he says, when a return is safe, which is not yet.
During the post-Christmas surge, some 30 people on the island contracted Covid. Louisburgh itself has not been hit badly but it has had casualties. Local undertaker Peter Sweeney estimates about four cases in the first half of 2019, with the same again over the summer and seven or eight cases before Christmas.
“It was all brought in,” he suggests. “One was a trip to Belmullet [in the north of the county] and another I know was from a trip to the North.”
He adds: “We’ve had no Covid cases since Christmas and we’d want to keep it that way. We don’t have a problem with people coming in... if they play by the rules.”