The local business community in the midlands has warmly welcomed the announcement by Failte Ireland that it is to launch ‘Ireland’s Midlands – Our Heritage, Our Legacy’ a new tourism initiative to rival the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East. Over the next three years Failte Ireland and Bord na Mona, together with the local authorities of Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly and Galway will invest €20 million in a capital works and promotional programme to showcase the special heritage of the midlands, and the traditional practices that still linger on here but which have died out over much of the rest of Western Europe.
Ireland’s Midlands – Our Heritage, Our Legacy will involve investing in developing the River Shannon, its tributaries and the remaining areas of raised bogs to build a unique discovery experience for tourists to the region. The initiative will involve developing and promoting a series of mesmerising ‘Legacy Points’ linked by a network of ‘Heritage Ways’. Consultants have been commissioned to come up with an initial shortlist of 15 Legacy Points, but this will be whittled down to just 10 when intense lobbying by local politicians has been completed. A network of Heritage Ways will be built to link these points, criss-crossing the region. The Heritage Ways will be built using local materials, and will be based around the blueway, greenway and brownway concepts. Tourists will be encouraged to leave their cars at gateway entry points and explore the region either by foot, boat, bike or quad, building on the slow-tourism concept that is all the vogue these days.
The concept has already been trailed in the vicinity of Clonmacnoise and has proven to be a huge success. Here tourists are given a truly unique interactive experience of the countryside. The experience begins with a boat trip along the Shannon from a special jetty built just close to the historic heart of ancient Clonmacnoise, where tourists are given an audio-visual show about the special relationship between the callows and the corncrake, now a thing of the past. After the boat trip along the blueway, tourists head for the high ground of the Pilgrim’s Path greenway, providing stunning views over the surrounding countryside. Here the greenway follows the esker along actively worked sand and gravel pits. The path then descends to Mongan Bog, so special it was gifted to the Irish State by the Dutch. The main attraction here is the Interpretative Centre, and after a cup of tea and cake, the adventurous can explore the bog by quad for a once in a lifetime experience along the brownway.
Bord na Mona, one of the largest employers in the region, has been hugely supportive of this initiative. Head of Strategy, Mr. Pete Portach, says that the new initiative will bring much added value to its operation. ‘Almost all of our peat harvesting activities have a strong traditional theme and are firmly rooted in the past. We are lobbying hard that our two peat-fired power stations will be given ‘Legacy Point’ status, as tourists from Germany and Holland would be in awe of how the midlands still manage to have not one, but two of these fully operational stations’. The thousands of acres of bare milled peat that is actively worked is likely to be an added attraction to visitors from Continental Europe, as this is a type of landuse with which they would be totally unfamiliar. ‘Ireland’s Midlands – Our Heritage, Our Legacy is a win win situation for Bord na Mona, and the good thing is that our staff won’t even have to upskill to showcase our dearly held traditional practices’, Portach added.
It is understood that discussions are at an advanced stage with the local community that manages the Abbeyleix Bog project to see if Bord na Mona can take back that bog and put it into active peat production once again. Mr Portach explained that while this community participative initiative was seen as a progressive way of doing things at the turn of the Millennium, it now runs the risk of damaging the brand that we are trying to develop for the region.
The Minister of State Kevin Boxer Moran, a keen advocate of river management, has expressed his full support for the project. He has offered the assistance of his Department to help drain the Shannon and its tributaries in order to extend the tourism season into the shoulder months, when rainfall and flooding can play havoc with the tourism product. Minister Moran acknowledged that while his Department had carried out many fine flood alleviation projects, tackling a project of the scale of the River Shannon would be a particular challenge. It is understood that he is looking at creating a special supplementary fund to enable the Department to draw on the knowledge and expertise of the Healy-Rae’s, as they have considerable experience in this area. ‘These Kerry lads do not come cheap, but they are quality operators’ he said.