Capitalising on our natural heritage

FROM old walkways in Drimoleague in west Cork, to wild flowers on Valentia Island, Co Kerry, heritage and the natural environment are being used increasingly to create jobs.

Research announced at a Heritage Council conference has shown that our built heritage already supports more than 30,000 jobs and contributes more than €1 billion to the economy. It is one of the few areas that, linked to tourism especially, could generate more employment.

Heritage is not traditionally recognised as a job creator or a productive sector, but the research commissioned by the council shows it supports employment in tourism, agriculture, forestry, and culture, as Heritage Council chief executive Michael Starrett pointed out.

A key finding is the central importance of Ireland’s historic environment to tourism. It is seen as a powerful motivating factor for wider tourism and related visitor expenditure, with one-fifth of total visitor expenditure attributable to our historic environment.

“What is important however is that we continue to invest in the quality of our heritage as a tourism product. It is futile to simply market any product and not maintain investment in its quality,” Mr Starrett says.

Construction work in the built heritage sector has also played a significant role in boosting the economy and has contributed approximately €500 million annually to Irish national income.

Traditionally, a case for funding or investment in the historic environment has been made on the grounds of ensuring the protection and enhancement of a particular structure. In recent years, however, the Heritage Council has placed a much greater emphasis on the involvement of communities and individuals in that process.

This is the case right across the country, with the Drimoleague Heritage Walkways being a typical example. Attracting visitors to areas which do not have industry or other forms of job-creation is a way of generating economic activity. Such places are often ideal for activities such as walking and generally enjoying the outdoors and have an obvious allure for urban folk anxious to get away from it all for a while.

In Drimoleague, David Ross and a number of other farmers came up with the idea of developing walkways as an extension of the Sheep’s Head Way. Details of how the funding was secured and up to 15km of walkways was put in place, mainly over private land and involving 14 farmer, have been published in the recent issue of Heritage Outlook.

The Drimoleague area is rich in history, with the old Beamish corn mills, three distinctive churches and an old railway station preserved almost intact since the west Cork line closed in 1961.

“From the beginning, the walks were viewed not just as a local tourist amenity, but as an effective means of showcasing the rich heritage and folklore of this parish,” Mr Ross says.

Almost 9,000 people could use the walkways in a year, he reckons, and businesses in the area have reported a positive spin-off.

“Much remains to be done, especially in the area of accommodation and service. But, in the meantime, Drimoleague, which was once the key railway junction of west Cork, can now take pride in its new reputation as the walker’s junction of west Cork,” he notes.

A pocket book guide to the walkways has also been published and its 120 pages contain a wealth of history, heritage and folklore about local people and places. 15 hand-crafted wooden seats have been placed along the walks in memory of people who have played significant roles in Drimoleague’s life during the last century.

Derarca Lynch, of Bog Cotton Gifts, Valentia, designs glass chopping boards, placemats and coasters featuring six of the most common wild flowers on the island. Her concept — “Put Some Irish Wild Flowers On Your Table” — was born out of a love of the beautiful, vibrant wild flowers which grow in profusion on Valentia Island and a love of photography. Given the natural beauty of the island, she doesn’t have far to go for inspiration.

Fuchsia blooms from June to October and it’s hard to miss the little red ballerina with the purple skirt waving along every ditch on the Island, she says. A stroll on the bogs at the back of the island in the early summer months reveals white fluffy heads of bog cotton waving in the breeze. On the sea shore, carpets of pinks, can be found, decorating every sea wall and cliff-side on the Island. In early spring when the lambing season has started, yellow gorse, or furze, lights up the landscape.

“It’s like nature suddenly turns on a bright light and the ditches are lined with the vibrant yellow flowers that radiate a sweet coconut smell,” Ms Lynch goes on lyrically.

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