A blueprint for promoting and protecting the heritage of the Mid-Cork Gaeltacht shows how doing so could also help sustain the region’s population and economy.
The benefits are outlined in a draft plan drawn up for Cork County Council to guide the conservation, management, and interpretation of various aspects of heritage in the 100-square mile Múscraí Gaeltacht near the Cork-Kerry border.
The heritage identified ranges from natural outdoor features such as the Gearagh wet woodlands, partly located in the Gaeltacht region, to War of Independence battlefield sites and everything in between.
Also considered is the living culture that includes the Irish language and dialect, music, and traditional customs. Other elements highlighted in the plan include built heritage such as churches like the popular wedding venue of St Finbarr’s Oratory in Gougane Barra, but also the traditional farm buildings and rural cottages.
A key element to the planned revitalisation will be the development of a tourism brand for Gaeltacht Mhúscraí. This would be focused largely on high-earning cultural tourists but also on on attracting visits from school groups who wish to immerse themselves in the Irish language.
Irish is spoken daily by around a third to half of people in the mid-Cork Gaeltacht, but there are fears about dwindling numbers dwindling in all Gaeltachtaí.
The main settlements in the Múscraí Gaeltacht are Baile Mhic Íre/Baile Mhúirne and Béal Átha ’n Ghaorthaidh, and the smaller villages of Cúil Aodha, Réidh na nDoirí and Cill na Martra.
The tourism initiatives suggested include themed walks and cycle routes, and a Scéal Mhúscraí trail of 20 intact publicly-accessible sites across the region.
Pressure should also be created to complete the Beara-Breifne route, a 500km walking and cycle route from the Beara peninsula in West Cork to Cavan and Leitrim, following the march of 17th-century west Cork chieftain O’Sullivan Beare.
The draft strategy, prepared for the council by heritage consultants Research + Dig, says the route is undermined by low enthusiasm from a local tourism perspective at some points along it.
“Events revolving around the Beara-Breifne Way should be held to further cultivate local interest in this historic and beautiful walk,” the report says.
It was commissioned by Cork County Council after an idea brought to it by Acadamh Fódhla, an academy which has been recording Múscraí’s musical, historic and natural heritage.
The draft plan says the closures of shops and post offices pose risks to the role of local villages as drivers of socialisation. That role is under further threat for Baile Mhic Íre/Baile Mhúirne if they are bypassed by the planned upgrade of the N22 Cork-Killarney route through the Gaeltacht, it states.
The strategy makes a strong case for State subsidies to keep post offices open in Réidh na nDoirí, Cill na Martra and Baile Mhic Íre, and to get the Béal Átha ’n Ghaorthaidh post office re-opened. But this should be seen as a stimulus rather than a permanent underwriting, with an immediate and short term cultural- linguistic-economic imperative to do so.
“This forms part of a broader village revival strategy — which includes efforts to enhance the role of the villages, which in turn enhances their attractiveness as places to live, which will in turn increase their population, thereby supporting local services,” the report states.
In order to sustain population levels and help Gaeltacht villages flourish, it is proposed to create a community bus or transport scheme. It would connect them to each other, and to the market town of Macroom just east of the region, where much of the population now travels for services and shopping.
In order to strengthen the local retail and hospitality sectors, it is suggested that a combined brand be created for all retailers in the Gaeltacht. This could be linked to the tourism brand, incorporating not just bars and restaurants, but hairdressers, butchers, shops and other outlets.
There would be greater interaction between people in those sectors to co-ordinate marketing, cross-promotion and discount bundles. School students in Macroom who are interested in Irish should be facilitated in finding weekend work in the Gaeltacht.
It is also suggested that efforts be made to make Macroom an Irish language town, by encouraging bilingual shop signage with small grants or VAT reductions, free conversational Irish classes, and a system of pins to be worn by Irish speakers to encourage its use. Additional incentives should be considered for Irish speakers wishing to live in the Múscraí Gaeltacht.
These included a proposed small-scale version of the Living City tax scheme for a limited time. This might include incentives to refurbish buildings over 50 years old within village boundaries and in rural areas.
While it is proposed that most new housing be provided in the villages, or within 10-minute walking distance, the draft plan says housing will be needed outside of villages to ensure the rural hinterland’s cultural landscape is protected and known about.
But it suggests preference for re-use over new builds, including conversion of derelict farm buildings into homes, supported by tax incentives.
The report addresses the need to boost employment opportunities, particularly for an increasingly highly-educated younger population. Among the chief concerns is the need for high-speed broadband to sustain office development to complement existing Údarás na Gaeltachta- supported industries.
Although still a draft plan, Cork County Council heritage officer Conor Nelligan hopes councillors will back what is believed to be the first strategy of its type in the country.
“It’s not a tourism plan or a nature plan either, but its backbone is the heritage that shapes the place and everything in it. Some of these things are part of daily life in the area, but we are in danger of losing some of them without a proper strategy like this,” he said.
The draft strategy will be discussed in two final consultation meetings in Baile Mhúirne and Béal Átha ’n Ghaorthaidh on Wednesday and Thursday.