Generations of landowners have eked out a living by farming sheep on the rugged uplands of the Comeraghs in Co Waterford.
But now many of them are looking at the wider value of the scenic mountain range that dominates the countryside, stretching from the sea at Dungarvan to the outskirts Clonmel in south Tipperary.
Farmers see the land as a resource for future generations and like many others in the region are diversifying into tourism ventures especially those that support walking and outdoor activities, culture and heritage.
The Comeragh range is formed by 12 distinct mountains, with a high point of 792m and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Centuries of history and weather have left their mark on the countryside which was the home of a Robin Hood-type highwayman, named Crotty, who was executed at Waterford in 1742.
Today, it is home to some 14,000 people, many of them living in the towns and villages such as Portlaw, Kilmacthomas, Lemybrien, Ballymacarbry, and Rathgormack.
Many others live outside these settlements, sometimes in quite remote locations. Population density in the rural areas is fewer than 10 people per square kilometre but in some of the more remote townlands, it is far less.
And yet, between the last two censuses, the area had an overall population increase of 9%.
Not alone were people staying but they were being supplemented by new residents who were also seeing the great lifestyle opportunities which the Comeraghs present.
Now, the communities have come together to showcase the beauty and heritage of the Comeraghs and expose visitors to the area’s authenticity and unique sense of place.
Comeraghs Wild is a multi-strand four-day festival (September 17-20) but every event has a common thread of allowing visitors to actively experience the best of what the region offers, be it heritage, mountain activities, music, arts, or simple reflection.
It is a collaboration between the communities in the Comeragh Mountains and along the Copper Coast, Waterford County Council and the Comeraghs Mountain Forum.
Events will take place across all the communities of the Comeragh Mountains and along the Copper Coast, named after an historic metal-mining industry, the legacies of which now also constitute a tourist attraction.
Festival spokesman Ritchie Walsh said the communities are strong and vibrant and constantly striving to create a better environment for all.
“Many of our communities organise successful festivals and events during the year. But we acknowledge that we can be stronger if we work collectively,” he said.
Mr Walsh accepted that the Comeraghs Wild Festival, or any such endeavour, will never stop people leaving the area of mid- and north-Waterford and seeking their fortunes in pastures new.
“The story of uplands areas such as this is always a story of departure, particularly of young people and particularly, in pursuit of decent employment,” he said.
“But what a festival such as Comeraghs Wild can do is create a sense of real community pride and a consciousness of the potential and the asset value of the wonderful landscape and of the heritage.”
Mr Walsh said the Comeraghs are a great place in which to live and to visit and it is a place hugely respectful of its past.
“We are proud of our spectacular scenery and intriguing heritage and want to show it off to the world,” he said.
Comeraghs Wild Festival will highlight the natural beauty, diversity and uniqueness of the area using walks and talks, traditional music, poetry, storytelling and film, with a strong emphasis on nature and adventure.
The Comeraghs are crammed with options for all kinds of visitors from the scenery of the Nire Valley to the Boolas at Rathgormack, the highest lake in the mountains and Mahon Falls, an 80m waterfall nestled close to a car park in the mountains near Lemybrien.
From delightful villages like Kilbrien and Rathcormack to the unique ecosystem of the moorland, the Comeraghs really does have it all, according to the festival organisers, right down to a mysterious ‘magic road’ where drivers bringing their car to a stop have been known to roll backwards up a hill.
The region is particularly fortunate in the presence of a significant employer such as Pinewood Healthcare in Ballymacarbry. High quality jobs are also available on the fringes of the Comeraghs in Dungarvan, Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir, and Waterford City.
A partnership between the communities in the Comeraghs and the local authority is now developing the tourism product, marketing the area widely and ensuring a quality visitor experience.
Bit by bit, they’re anchoring the place in people’s minds as being a place to visit.
This year’s Comeraghs Wild Festival will see about 300 bed nights filled in hostelries. From an economic perspective, these have a significant local multiplier effect.
Many will come for the festival’s flagship event, a concert by Mary Black in the courtyard of Curraghmore House on September 19.
Others will come to experience an authentic festival with a programme of activities that will focus on literature and music, storytelling and drama high in the hills as well as white-knuckle abseiling and adventurous canyoning.
Uniquely, 50 of those bed-nights will also consist of a camping experience high in the Comeraghs on the night of September 18 as part of the Play on the Mountain, when the festival produces a newly-commissioned dramatic work called ‘Lough Gorra’, based on the life of Crotty the Highwayman.
Until the day he was caught and hanged, Crotty was much loved and was deemed to have been hugely responsible for significant local wealth redistribution.
Now the Comeraghs Wild Festival performs a similar function but in a much more benign fashion.
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