Irish Journey's. Part 1: Newport - A Cyclist's Paradise

Tourism is presently worth circa €5 billion annually to the Irish economy and will increase substantially in importance if the correct interlinked policies are put in place.
Whilst many overseas tourists come to Ireland to attend business conferences or stags/hen parties in Dublin, Cork or other cities, nevertheless viable sustainable alternatives are being developed primarily in the rural areas that will once again entice in travellers interested in experiencing the sights and sounds of the countryside or to re-connect with the land of their forefathers.
I went to experience one such project in county Mayo that has in its short history become one of the state’s fastest growing tourist attractions as well as acting as a template for others to emulate.

An Atlantic Greenway
Old Railway Bridge
The Great Western Greenway presently goes from Newport to Achill but is being extended to Westport and hopefully onto Clifden where ambitious proposals to re-develop the old railway line to Galway city will link into other major ‘green corridors’ in east Galway (that I am involved with) thus creating a vast walking and cycling network that could dramatically increase the public’s participation and understanding of eco-tourism, making it mainstream in the process. 
Walking and cycling through the vast wilderness and farmlands that exist in the West of Ireland should make people appreciate the beauty of nature and the urgent need to safeguard wildlife habitats such as bogs, mountains, hedgerows, wetlands and meadows are under serious threat from human encroachmen.

Tourism in Ireland: Short History
From the second half of the 19th century until the last two decades, the majority of foreign tourists traditionally travelled here to enjoy the country’s green and pleasant rural land and seascapes.

Ireland came to international prominence as a tourist destination when Queen Victoria visited in 1861 and stayed amongst the lakes and mountains of Killarney in country Kerry. With the construction of a network of 2,000 miles of railways by the 1890s, the wealthy aristocracy and gentry of Europe started to arrive in this part of the British Empire to enjoy the scenery, fishing, fox hunting and game shooting. 

From the 1930s, Irish governments quite successfully promoted the clean idyllic Irish countryside into Britain and to the Irish Diaspora in the USA.
Sadly the Celtic Tiger’s mad rush to modernity destroyed much of our natural heritage leaving us with a legacy of urban sprawl, a huge countrywide network of so-called ‘once-off housing’, hundreds of derelict estates, polluted waterways, a private car based transport infrastructure, intensive agriculture that poisoned our native insects and wildlife, and the disappearance of bogs, hedgerows and dry stone walls all in the name of ‘progress’.
Much of Ireland’s renowned tranquillity disappeared under a layer of concrete, tarmac, lighting and man-made noises.
This process even transformed our individual personalities changed as we became a lot more selfish, more aggressive and a lot less friendly.

Re-awakening of a Sense of Place & Community
But thankfully there is now a growing awareness across different strata of society from local communities to national government that the island’s natural and social heritage is something that is worth saving. Though the reasons may vary amongst the different groupings , nevertheless most of their aspirations are progressive, including: the development of high value eco tourism markets (from outdoor sporting activities to walking tours); the preservation of our cultural traditions and the protection of our indigenous biodiversity. There are also economic and societal side benefits such as improving personal health and fitness, as a source of clean renewable energies, leisure amenities, herbal medicines and organic farm produce.
Over the last few years, visionary individuals in local authorities are working closely with community, educational and environmental groups all across Ireland to create exciting sustainable rural projects that will increase public access to the countryside without damaging its beauty or its wildlife habitats.
For instance, under the auspices of Marie Mannion, the council’s energetic Heritage Officer, Galway is dotted with over hundred ‘Golden Mile’ routes that are maintained and developed by local communities, promoting the history and natural wildlife of the areas.  
Mayo Shows the Way Forward
One of the most interesting sustainable projects in recent years has been the development of the Great Western Greenway in county Mayo which has became a template for the rest of the country to emulate.

This world class route (Westport - Achill) that opened in 2011 is a 43.5km traffic free cycling and walking facility which follows closely the abandoned Great Western Midlands Railway that closed in 1937. The project is coordinated by Anne O’Connor walking and cycling development officer (probably Ireland’s only such officer!) at Mayo County Council who has managed to achieve what was thought impossible: the agreement of local landowners to allow permissive access to the public to pass through their lands.

This route offers gentle gradients and some of the most idyllic scenery in the west of Ireland. The route forms part of the National Cycle Network and it is the longest off road cycling experience in the Country.

Transforming an abandoned Railway into a vibrant Greenway
Railway Bridge, Newport

The Newport / Mulranny railway formed part of the once famous Westport / Achill Railway. This railway was one of the so-called ‘Balfour Lines’, called after Arthur J. Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland During the years 1887-91, who introduced the Light Railways (Ireland) Act which provided state assistance for the construction of narrow gauge lines to disadvantaged areas such as West Mayo. The first station on this extension was Newport which opened in February 1894, followed by Mullranny in August of the same year. The line to Achill was completed in May 1895.

Individual towns and villages prospered with the arrival of the Great Western and Midland Railway Company. The luxurious Great Western Hotel opened at
Mullranny in 1897 and a combined rail and hotel ticket was available.

There were high hopes for its future and it proved to be a great social and economic asset to West Mayo. Unfortunately traffic never consistently reached the levels originally anticipated. Development of road traffic in the 1930’s sealed the fate of the line. The last train ran in the autumn of 1937, only 42 years after the line had opened.

Today the section of the line between Newport and Mulranny with its fine engineering structures, gentle gradients and outstanding scenery has been converted into an off road walking and cycling route – a fitting reminder to the glorious railway era.

Newport: A Cyclist’s Paradise
Blue Bicycle Tea Rooms, Newport
The result is that Newport is the cyclists’ capital of Ireland. I was pleasantly surprised at the economic vibrancy and civic pride that is flowing through the town. 
Restaurants, bike rentals and lodgings are springing up to service this new transport market; information signage is strategically placed; well maintained playgrounds parks and walking routes are in situ; historical buildings and streets are being tastefully spruced up. 
Newport is surrounded by a lush countryside of oceanic bays, lakes, rivers, mountains, wetlands and farmlands that the tourist can now enjoy through by walking or cycling.
I noticed some families and groups hiring bikes from local renal shops whilst others brought their own attached to motorized vehicles that they parked near or in the town.
The Greenway is also becoming a popular destination for charities organising fund-raising through cycling events.
Taking the Greenway from Newport to Mullraney. I met many families and single older people on route that were truly enjoying the experience as the terrain is almost entirely flat.

 Upon completion, I left Newport with a nice feeling of satisfaction, knowing that I had seen a benign future and thus inspired to re-double my efforts working with others to put in place a Greenways network in Galway city.


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