Heritage is hot, now to capitalise on it

MANY visitors to Listowel seek out John B Keane’s bar, or the street where another famous writer, Bryan MacMahon, lived.

But, they might overlook numerous other aspects of a place so bountiful in heritage and tradition.

Long before it became a rendezvous of literary folk, the north Kerry market town was renowned for the salmon-rich River Feale and its beautiful, artistic shopfronts — not just the topless Maid of Erin which fronts the Central Hotel, in the square. Every second building in this town has a facade worth noting and conserving.

Along with Youghal, Co Cork, and Westport, Co Mayo, Listowel has been chosen to take part in a pilot Historic Towns Initiative. The idea is to use the heritage and history of such towns to attract visitors, as well as enhancing the appreciation of the locals and to encourage them to protect gems in their midst.

More and more influential people are coming to realise that our environment, in all its manifestations, is our key attraction, and not just the scenery. Hundreds of other Irish towns could also have been selected but, hopefully, this is the start of what will be an ongoing national programme. There’s huge potential here. We’re told a large number of tourists are now seeking a ‘unique experience’ when they come here. They want to feel and see our environment close-up, to get a taste of heritage and to bring the dead pages of history to life by walking close to the old walls of Youghal, for example.

If Listowel never had a literary tradition, its buildings and shopfronts would be a magnet in themselves. Some of this shopfront architecture dates back more than 100 years, a tribute to the skill of renowned craftsmen and the appreciation of the property owners.

The name of Pat McAuliffe stands out because he elevated shopfront design from the everyday to an art from. Working in plaster, he drew from numerous influences, including nationalism and Celtic art, to create imaginative and colourful facades, in Listowel, Abbeyfeale and other towns.

Another craftsman still remembered today was Paddy Whelan who went around with his tools on a bicycle and was known as the ‘cement god’.

The square is another outstanding feature in Listowel which also has quaintly-named places, such as Tay Lane and the Cow’s Lawn, that compel the curious to find out more, preferably on foot.

The three selected towns were announced by Arts and Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan, who lives in Finuge, near Listowel, but, suggestions of local favouritism aside, Listowel is genuinely worthy of the honour. Involved in the initiative are the Heritage Council, Fáilte Ireland and the Department of the Environment.

In Youghal, there has been a lot of investment in heritage, in recent years, including the town walls, a local painting scheme and the soon to be reopened Clock Gate, perhaps the east Cork town’s best known landmark.

Long past are the days when Youghal sold itself as a seaside resort that lured thousands of fun-seekers, including huge crowds of daily excursionists travelling by train from Cork. Taking a walk on the beach last summer, the eye was drawn to the derelict railway station, now a forlorn sight and a reminder of another era.

Youghal’s heritage tourism offering is currently the subject of scrutiny by a group of third-year tourism students from Cork Institute of Technology (CIT). They are conducting research study into how best to capitalise on heritage tourism.

Aileen Murray, of the Youghal Socio-Economic Research Group, says a lot of visitors travel to the area independently to experience the place at their own pace and stay longer than many of the escorted tours. So, the obvious aim is to attract more independent visitors. “This study will seek to develop the profile of this independent visitor and understand just how they are finding out about Youghal, and in turn seek to target more of them,” she says.

Westport, one of Ireland’s few planned towns, was designed by well-known architect of the Georgian period James Wyatt. Tracing its design history back to the 17th century, the town is built around the Carrowbeg River.

A tree-lined boulevard, The Mall, is an outstanding feature and is just one of the many aspects of Westport that has stood the test of time. It’s obvious from the appearance of the town that Westport people take understandable pride in their own place and it is no surprise that they have twice won the top Tidy Towns prize.

The Clew Bay Heritage Centre at the Quay pieces together the picture of Westport past and present, as well as making connections with the Browne family, of Westport House.

Croagh Patrick is also close to Westport, of course, while the Clew Bay Archaeological Trail steps back into 6,000 years of history and find links with the present day.


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