RYLE DWYER: It’s time to get out of our tourist trap and offer value for money

WITH all the talk about a possible visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland and the 3 Irish Open being played at Killarney this weekend, it is worth remembering that the queen’s great, great grandmother, Queen Victoria, was largely responsible for putting Killarney on the tourist map with her visit to the area in 1861.

Victoria went boating on the Lakes and spent a couple of nights at Muckross House, which is now one of the main visitor attractions in Killarney. Her women attendants were taken to a high point to view the lakes, and this was thereafter known as Ladies View.

On Newstalk radio last Sunday, Ger Colleran asked Justice Minister Dermot Ahern if Queen Elizabeth II would be taken to Ladies View, if she comes here next year. The minister had obviously never heard of Ladies View, but then there is a great many places and things that all of us have ignored.

In the 1950s a cousin from Tralee was ordained in Cork, and the breakfast was held afterwards in Tralee. Passing through Killarney on the way back from Cork, his mother decided to go sightseeing around the lakes. So the breakfast was delayed as a result of her sightseeing. She was born, reared, and spent over 50 years living within 20 miles of the lakes and decided to go around them on that memorable day. There are many famous places around Ireland that most of us have never visited. That could be a target for the tourist authorities in this country to get everybody to appreciate what we have, and take a right look at ourselves.

As editor of The Kerryman in 1999, Ger Colleran caused considerable controversy when the newspaper published a frontpage article suggesting that the replica of the famine ship, the Jeannie Johnston, should be put on the Lakes of Killarney. Before I even saw the paper I got an indignant email from the United States asking what kind of idiots were writing for The Kerryman.

The original Jeannie Johnston had sailed between Tralee and North America during the Great Famine, and it was famous for never having lost a passenger. That was the time when other vessels were deemed “coffin ships,” because so many people were dying on the voyages. A full-scale replica of the Jeanne Johnston was built in the Tralee area, The Kerryman reported on April 1, 1999, that Sven Ufhart, the UCC-educated son of a former Swedish ambassador to Ireland, had told the newspaper that the oak being used in building the ship the was so dense that the vessel “will sink as fast as the Titanic when it hits the sea water”.

“The original Jeanie Johnston was built of pine and floated like a cork on the water but by insisting on the highest quality oak the promoters have created a vessel that will only float in one body of water,” according to Ufhart. He said the ship “might float in fresh water.” Thus, it was suggested that it could be put on the Lakes of Killarney, where it would be a great attraction.

“This is bullshit!” my American correspondent thundered in his email. “Fresh water has lower density than salt water, so a heavy ship would be lower in the water in the Lakes of Killarney than in Tralee Bay. If the ship would sink in salt water like the Titanic, it would go down a damn sight faster in fresh water.” The article, which was published on April 1, 1999, noted that the ship was due to be launched on April 1, 2000. The article was, of course, an April Fools’ joke, but most of those involved in the project did not see the funny side. They complained it would undermine their fundraising, because so many people would not realise that the report was only a joke.

The Jeannie Johnston project was one of the first of the Celtic Tiger projects to go sour. It was designed as a tourist attraction, but it was plagued by cost overruns, followed by delays in sailing to the United States. The whole thing cost Tralee Urban Council and Kerry County Council a fortune, and the ship was then sold off and is now idle in Dublin. That’s more absurd than sailing it on the Lakes of Killarney.

The whole thing was one of the numerous tourism projects that went wrong. Many empty hotels around the country seem to have come to the same sticky end.

Next year would not only mark the 150th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s visit to Killarney, it will also be the 100th anniversary of the last visit to the twenty-six counties of a reigning British monarch – the current queen’s grandfather George V, who came in 1911. Thus, her visit next year it would have a kind of historical symmetry, and it could provide an enormous boost to tourism by attracting people from Britain, which has always been our biggest tourist market. Although this tourist season has been very slack, golf is still attracting a significant share of tourists, and the exploits of Graeme McDowell in winning this year’s US Open, and Pádraig Harrington in winning three major titles in a couple of years has put an enormous spotlight on Irish golf. For years there were arguments that any major golf championship in this country had to be played near Dublin.

Killarney broke that mould by successfully staging the Irish Open in 1991 and again the following year. Since then little credence has been given to the idea that tournaments must be staged near Dublin to have any chance of success.

In July 1950 the Tipperary-Cork Munster Hurling Final was played at the Fitzgerald stadium in Killarney before an overflow crowd of more than 50,000 people. Twenty-seven trains were put on for the event. It was a particularly hot day, and some enterprising on the road up to the stadium sold glasses of water for a few pence.

Maybe they made a few bob, but they earned a dreadful reputation for the town. That criticism now seems particularly unfair when people are paying over a euro for a small bottle of water. I got a particular insight into this from a very early age. If my mother wished to buy something in Killarney, my brother or I would ask the price, because we had Kerry accents, whereas she has always had a distinctive New York accent. Once she said something, the price would go up and we would be bombarded with staged Irish nonsense. It was the kind of fawning behaviour that gave tourism a bad name.

“Some say the devil’s dead and buried in Killarney” was a line the Clancy Brothers used to sing in the United States, where people would say that they “visited Ireland and Killarney”. It was an intimation that Killarney was so different that it was not part of the real Ireland at all.

A number of businesspeople realised the damage being done and went out of their way to ensure value for money for customers. Clearly the rest of Ireland needs to learn that lesson now, because we have overpriced ourselves out of so much of the tourist market.


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