Rain can't dampen the spirit of the people

 

It lacks the anonymity of a city, the weather could be better and the prices could be lower. Yet everyone in Westport says the town is about the people and the community they form. ROSITA BOLANDtalks to some of them to extract the essence of the place. Photographs: Dara Mac Dónaill

THE COVEY

“YOU’D GET A FEW LOOKS FROM THE TOURISTS IF YOU SAID TO WHOEVER YOU WERE WITH ON THE STREET THAT YOU WERE GOING FOR A FEW LAYS”

Liamy MacNally, who is 54, was born and grew up in Wesport and still lives in the town. He is a freelance broadcaster and reporter and writes a column for a weekly paper, the Mayo News

“I’m a covey. It’s means you’re Westport born, bred and buttered. We have our own cant here in the town. ‘Covey’ means fella. A ‘doner’ is a woman. Some say they’re ‘covesses’, but we kind of ignore that one. ‘Luke’ is keep quiet, and ‘bruiser’ is your dinner. A ‘rum chanter’ is a good singer. ‘Going for a lay’ is going for a drink. You’d get a few looks from the tourists all right if you were on the street and you said to whoever you were with that you were going for a few lays.

“I love Westport and the energy of the place. It’s all about the people and the great community that’s here. I always say that in Westport you have your own family but you also have the family of the town.

“It’s a planned town. So there is a basic order to the town, structurally, and I think people have fed on that and protected it. The fact that it’s a planned town does impact on people’s sense of order. People have a duty of care to the town and the environment here. You have to strike the balance between what tourists want and what locals need.

“You can come into town on a Saturday, and it can take two hours to do a lap because you meet so many people you know. A lap is down James Street, over the Mall, up Bridge Street and across Shop Street. And when there’s a funeral of a local, the cortege does a final lap of the town for that person. All the businesses knock off their lights and close the door as a sign of respect as the cortege passes.”

THE RETURNED EMIGRANT

“ FROM A LIFESTYLE VIEW, LIVING HERE IS WHAT YOU WOULD WISH FOR. FROM A BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE, IT’S NOT AS GREAT”

Alex Blackwell is 56 and from just outside Westport. In 1989 he emigrated to the US. He returned in 2008 with his American wife, Daria

Alex Blackwell

“Daria and I met in 1995 in New Jersey and married in 1996. We came home here every summer. We both love it here. And we both did not love where we lived before, in the US. We were working all the time. We’re making up the time we lost there by living here. And you never get that time back.

“We left the US in 2008. We had built a house back here in the intervening years, so we had prepared a base. We have a boat, the Aleria, a 57-footer. We sailed home, north to Halifax and then straight to Westport. It took 27 days. We anchored pretty much in front of our house. We had no jet lag, and all our possessions had been shipped ahead and were waiting here for us. We were met by a fleet of boats at 7am and had champagne. That’s the earliest I’ve ever had champagne.

“I had a business here before I left Ireland, but it failed. It was an oyster hatchery. I had hired people who were then in their teens. I didn’t know anyone any more when I came back, but people knew me. Every day I’d walk past people in Westport, and they would say, ‘Hello, Alex’, and I didn’t recognise them. It was quite the disconnect.

“What’s not so good about being back is that it is generally very expensive living here. And the infrastructure linking us to the rest of the country by road is challenging. The road to Dublin is so full of lorries it’s not pleasant. So to drive to Dublin, we go to Galway and then take the motorway. Broadband connection is relatively slow. From a lifestyle view, living here is what you would wish for. From a business perspective, it’s not as great.

“One thing that strikes me is that people don’t recognise we’re on the sea. Clew Bay is underused, and is not a big part of Westport.”

Daria Blackwell

“When I came here first I thought that Westport was the quintessential town that you would imagine in Ireland. It’s a jewel. Having lived here, I know it’s all about the people. The views of Croagh Patrick and Clew Bay are magic. The scenery draws you here, but what keeps you here are the people.

“We are developing a startup online business, a medical-knowledge clinic, for people who are diagnosed with chronic conditions. The flights into Knock are great for tourism but not for business travellers, because they’re not daily . . . we have to go to Shannon or to Dublin, which makes it more expensive.”

THE BOOK FESTIVAL COMMITTEE

“TO SOME EXTENT IT IS LIKE LIVING IN A GOLDFISH BOWL”

The third Rolling Sun Book Festival will take place in November. It is run by a committee of Westport women in their 40s and 50s. They include Maria Ruddy, the owner of the Clew Bay Hotel; Ursula Skerritt, a psychiatrist; Áine Ryan, a journalist with the Mayo News; and Mairéad De Burca, a solicitor

Áine Ryan

“Westport does attract people with a certain amount of money. It’s a honeypot. Property prices have always been higher here. So it’s a self-selecting community in that way. Some of the people who are struggling financially go and live in Castlebar. There’s one estate in Castlebar known as Little Westport, because there are so many people from the town living there.

“In the summer the town does seep some of its character due to gridlock, because all the traffic has to go through the town. There’s no ring road, and it doesn’t seem as if one will be built any time soon. A ring road to take away the traffic would enhance the dinky, colourful atmosphere of the town. Sometimes you get very fed up with yet another camper van stopping on the street so that someone can take a picture of Matt Molloy’s pub. It would be true to say sometimes there is a little bit of tension between tourists and the locals who are trying to live busy lives.”

Ursula Skerritt

“Community is what keeps me in Westport. I’ve lived here since 1989. There’s a friendliness, an openness and a cosmopolitan nature to the place; there are lots of artists and writers and blow-ins living here. There are so many blow-ins living in the environs that I think it creates diversity, openness and tolerance in the town. There’s also a large Protestant population here, and Protestants have always had an ethos about community, working hard and sharing with each other. It’s a can-do ethos, and I think that has made a difference to the town over time.”

Maria Ruddy

“We have 10 hotels in the town. None is in Nama and only one isn’t family-run. We all have healthy competition between us, but the difference [between Westport and] other places maybe is that it’s healthy rivalry. It’s not cut-throat. If we are full, we’ll always refer people to another hotel. We don’t want the business to go out of the town. We have to co-operate with each other to survive.

“We do get a huge number of stag and hen parties in the town, both from all over Ireland and the UK, but we try to manage them. We will try to take only one in the hotel, and we suggest to them when they are booking that they do an activity as part of the weekend; climb Croagh Patrick or cycle the Greenway. It’s amazing how many of them do take it up once they find out what’s on offer. I think we’re all very proud of the place, without being cocky about it. That’s just the truth.”

Mairéad De Burca

“I agree with everything the others say. The only thing I’d say is that when you choose to live in a small place like this, to some extent, it is like living in a goldfish bowl. Everyone knows everything about you. Whereas if you lived in Dublin, say, you could walk down Grafton Street and nobody would know anything about you. So you do give up your anonymity.”

THE TEENAGERS

“WE HAVE HORRIBLE WEATHER HALF THE TIME”

Dylan Moran, who is 18, Maria Kelly, who is 17 and Seán Southgate, who is 16, are all members of the drop-in Cove Youth Cafe, located on the town’s Fairgreen

Seán Southgate

“We moved to Ireland in 2000 from England, and to Westport four years ago. I really like it. It’s small enough to get around, but I can’t see myself staying here for the rest of my life. I’m thinking about going back to England when I finish school.

“My only complaint about Westport is that there are hardly any internet cafes left. And you can get fed up with the tourists. They’re always asking you to take their picture. I do take the pictures when I’m asked, but I usually leave their heads out.”

Maria Kelly

“If you’re in Dublin and it’s raining, it’s kind of depressing, but when you’re here, even if it’s raining, it’s still pretty. I really want to go and live in Dublin, but I’ll always come back here. What I like about this place is the atmosphere.

“It’s always been a friendly town. I’d hate to see it lose its community spirit; for example, I’d hate to see Westport try to be a city.”

Dylan Moran

“Nothing really annoys me in this town, other than some of the people in it, of course. I was amazed when I heard Westport won Best Place to Live. There are so many other towns in Ireland, and we have horrible weather half the time.”

THE CANADIAN WHO MARRIED A LOCAL

“IT’S A GREAT PLACE TO BRING UP CHILDREN, SAFE AND SMALL”

Travis Zeray is 33 and from Ontario in Canada. He met his wife, Colleen Kennedy, who is also 33 and comes from Wesport, in 2004 when they were working together in Whistler, in Canada. In 2006 they moved to Westport. Zeray co-owns Clew Bay Bike Hire. Kennedy is a herbalist and has just opened her own clinic

Travis Zeray

“The first time I saw Westport was in the Cayman Islands. We were working there, and we watched a video of Westport and Co Mayo that Colleen’s parents had sent us. I had never even been to Europe, let alone Ireland. We were having a baby in 2006, and wanted to live somewhere we could raise a family. Colleen told me Westport was beautiful, and I was pretty confident I’d find work. She said she loved it, and we never thought twice about moving here. I’ve never been out of work since getting here.

“It’s ironic in a way that I’ve come from Canada, because we see so many Irish people leaving every week to go to Canada.

“Westport has all the benefits of a city, such as lots of restaurants, yet it’s a small town. The people are really what make Westport. It’s about community. People help each other out, like they did when I was setting up the business. If I have a criticism, it’s that business rates are very high.”

Colleen Kennedy

“I went travelling at 19 and worked abroad for seven years. I lived in France, India, Canada and in the Caymans and Bermuda with Travis. So I’ve spent a lot of time living in other lovely places, but this is where I wanted to come back to, because I have networks of family and friends.

“It’s a great place to bring up children, safe and small enough for everything to be accessible. Why wouldn’t you want to live somewhere like this, where your surroundings are so beautiful?

“The only thing is, the train service could be better. We’re lucky to have a direct train to Dublin, but there’s no early Saturday train, so you have to go the night before if you need to be there early on Saturday.”

THE SEASONAL WORKER

“IF I HAD A FULL-TIME JOB HERE I’D NEVER WANT TO MOVE AWAY”

Charlene Cronin is 27 and from Rathkeale in Co Limerick. A kayaking instructor at Saoirse na Mara, she lives in Westport from March to October. She also works at Matt Molloy’s bar

“I’d love to live here year-round, if there was the work. I’ll be going to France in the winter to work in a ski resort. I’ve lived in Dublin, London, Sydney and Melbourne, and I just love coming back here. I definitely long for Clew Bay when I’m away. It’s so clean and so pristine.

“Westport is a small town in Co Mayo yet has everything. There are always new faces. Once you meet someone out once they’ll always say hello to you again. There’s always something happening; there are always festivals and gigs.

“The only bad thing about being here is the fact that it ends. Without sounding cheesy about it, the fact that I have to go away for work in the winter is the worst thing. If I had a full-time job here I’d never want to move away.

“It’s really safe. I lived with four guys last summer and we never locked our door once. You can leave your bike unlocked outside your door at night without worrying about it being robbed. I left my bike locked overnight in Dublin last summer and it was robbed.

“Westport has always been different. It has always had money. Things weren’t as bad here during the Famine. So I’m told, anyway. There are a lot of people here with their heads screwed on. I think the town is all about a lot of people pulling together.

“I work in Matt Molloy’s part-time. It’s the hub of the town. We have locals there, and every tourist is sent there, because there’s music every night of the year. I don’t think Irish pubs get any more authentic than Matt Molloy’s. It’s not a plastic place and, most importantly, local people go there as well as tourists. I teach kayaking, but I’ve never been in a currach. I mentioned one night that I’d like to row a currach, which is a boat only a local would have, and I’ve had an offer to be taken out in one. It’s that kind of place.”

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