IT WAS one of those rare days this summer when skies were clear and the sun’s rays warmed your face.
All morning, the beaches in one of Ireland’s most popular seaside resorts had been almost deserted, save for a handful of walkers and the odd dog. However, as the temperatures rose by midday, people began to appear.
The carefree cries of playing children filled the air as the bucket-and-shovel brigade arrived, while their elders, carrying towels, rugs, and folding chairs, staked out pitches on the sand.
Locals in Ballybunion will tell you it’s always the same: All that is needed is sunshine and the people just come. But, the bad weather has made it a dreadful year and the consensus in the traditional north Kerry resort is that is has been the worst season in memory.
“The secret is fine weather,” said well-known Ballybunion hotelier Michael Nagle.
“The one good weekend we got, the place was packed. If people see a day is going to be good, they flock here.”
Ballybunion is patronised largely by people from Limerick, North Cork, and Kerry, and many can get there in an hour or less. Newsagent and postmaster Michael Joyce said the town drew its customers mainly from a 50-mile radius, which meant they could get there quickly if a day was fine.
“We’re totally weather-dependant. This year has been the worst for us, as it has been for farmers and many others, but people must try to keep going and make the best of it.”
As if things were not bad enough, the local public swimming pool complex closed for almost 11 weeks at the start of the season after electricity was cut off following the non-payment of an energy bill. Ballybunion Health and Leisure Centre re-opened early in July, after the €14,000 charge was paid. The ESB agreed to reconnect a power supply until Sept 30 on the strength of a guarantee from Kerry County Council.
The centre has applied to the Department of Transport, Tourism, and Sport for a grant for a heat and power plant, which should considerably reduce energy costs. The centre is seen as essential to Ballybunion and has never been more valuable than during this rain-sodden summer.
The season in Ballybunion lasts less than six months, with a July/August peak in a normal summer. The season begins at Easter and finishes after Listowel Races in late September.
The town’s 20 licensed premises manage to remain open year-round and efforts are being made to extend the season. With plenty of walks and world-class golf, people can find many things to do outdoors in Ballybunion at any time of the year.
Mr Nagle, owner of the Marine Links Hotel, believes the season can also be stretched through business from weddings, parties, and various social functions.
His chef son, Derek, and business partner, Anthony Bennett, have invested €400,000 in refurbishing the hotel, with a focus on the dining room.
“The investment is paying off and we’re doing very well in food, in spite of the bad weather,” said Mr Nagle.
You rarely enter the palatial clubhouse at Ballybunion Golf Club without hearing American accents. The emporium has a distinct Yankee feel to it and little wonder since 70% of visitors to the famous links are from the US, helping to sustain upwards of 100 jobs during the season.
Ever since multiple Major winner and US golfing icon Tom Watson played Ballybunion’s Old Course for the first time in 1981, the club has nurtured a relationship with him. After his initial experience on the Old Course, Watson glowingly described as it as “one of the best and most beautiful tests of links golf anywhere in the world”. He has made several visits since and was honoured with the club’s millennium captaincy in 2000.
Former US president Bill Clinton played the old course to huge media attention in 1998, and came back few years later when out of office. A larger-than-life statue of Clinton stands out in the heart of Ballybunion town.
Clinton paid due tribute to the golfing glories of Old Course, while Watson has never ceased singing its praises and is credited with luring thousands of his compatriots here.
Inclement weather doesn’t seem to have much effect on business and most bookings would have been taken earlier in the year or even last year. According to club council chairman Michael O’Connell, business is expected to be on a par with 2011.
Unlike many other clubs, Ballybunion has not cut its green fees of €180 for the Old Course and €65 for the Cashen Course. However, anyone playing the Old track is entitled to a free round on the second course. Mr O’Connell said they had not cut the fees because they needed the revenue.
“We’re still developing the second course and are doing a number of holes each year with top designer Martin Hawtree,” he said. “As well as that, there’s an ongoing works programme to protect our facilities from coastal erosion, and this runs into a six-figure sum.”
In high season, the club employs about 50 people. There are also 40 to 50 caddies, who are not employed by the club.
Mr O’Connell said: “The club works well with the town and is an important part of the local economy and the tourism scene. I believe the course is better than it ever has been and golfers acknowledge that.”
The Watson link continues with the legend giving permission to the Marine Links Hotel, where he has stayed, to dedicate a room to him. A photograph of his famous chip-in on the 71st hole to win the 1982 US Open Championship will hang in the room. Hotel owner Michael Nagle is a former captain of Ballybunion club.
The sight of Seamus Mulvihill heading across the beach on his tractor each day at low tide to collect serrated wrack is as much part of the scene in Ballybunion as gulls swooping in from the sea, or the landmark ruin of the 14th-century Geraldine castle.
For many people, a trip to Ballybunion would not be complete unless they took a hot seaweed bath to ease aches and pains and boost their general wellbeing.
Collins’ Seaweed Baths have operated next to Ladies’ Beach for 85 years and are in the hands of the fourth generation of the family. Founded in 1927 by Hannah Collins and her husband Tom, the baths are run by the couple’s great grandchildren, Clare and Garry Mulvihill, and their father, Seamus. Their mother, Mary, passed away in 2007.
The wrack, gathered by Seamus at the Black Rocks, is rinsed in cold water. Nothing is added. Seawater piped from the Atlantic is heated for the baths and brings relief to general muscular stiffness and tension as well as arthritic and rheumatic pain, says Clare.
“The hot water stimulates the release of concentrated iodine from the seaweed. This acts as a natural antiseptic, whilst its oils moisturise your skin leaving a tingling freshness. People are going back to nature and to natural therapies that have been in use for thousands of years by the Chinese and other peoples. Some modern cosmetics are based on seaweed, which is one of nature’s treasures with no chemicals added.”
Some people have been returning for their “annual wash” for decades.
“We get people of all age groups, from sportspeople, to those with joint and muscle problems, to people who just enjoy being refreshed by the seaweed,” said Ms Mulvihill, a secondary school teacher in Ballybunion.
Among those to take the baths are Munster rugby players Keith Wood and Anthony Foley, actor Colm Meaney, and Jennifer Guinness.
Sweeping views of the Shannon Estuary and the Atlantic have been opened up by a spectacular walk in Ballybunion.
Farmer Mike Flahive has developed the 1.25km route at Bromore Cliffs, about a mile north of the town.
It offers panoramic views of the estuary mouth from Kerry Head to Loop Head. Points of interest are marked, including scenes of shipwrecks and places where wildlife, such as seals, dolphins, otters and seabirds, can be seen. There are also sea stacks, caves and arches and an unusually-located fox’s den, on a grassy ledge, about 80ft from a clifftop.
Mr Flahive sees the walk as an alternative enterprise, along with a self-catering house on his 50-acre farm, with his wife Eilish and children Grace and Rory also involved.
“We always knew we had something truly spectacular here,” said Mr Flahive, who added that an interpretive centre was planned.
A young family from Liscarroll, in North Cork, count themselves lucky this summer — they got to the beach twice in a single week.
Day-trippers Brian and Joanne Brosnan capitalised on scarce sunshine to make the 100-mile round journey to Ballybunion with their sons Sean, 4, and Darragh, eight months.
“When we saw days were kind of promising, we decided to go for it. The kids love the beach,” said cabinetmaker Brian.
Darragh has been to the seaside only twice, while Sean is now an experienced campaigner and is familiar with Ballybunion town and some its attractions, not least the local doughnuts.
“We find the place easygoing and accessible and it’s a great beach for kids. And, parking is only €5 for the day,” said Joanne.
Like many other families, the Brosnans have a tradition of visiting the North Kerry town through the generations.
They were about to meet Joanne’s mother Linda O’Donoghue, who braved the weather to enjoy a week in the resort.
Many people have bought holiday homes, or procured pitches for mobile homes in local caravan parks, all of which generates additional spending. Having made such an investment — a mobile home pitch can cost up to €2,000 per year — people concerned feel obliged to use the facility, in spite of the weather.