OLD MEETS NEW The old Burishoole Bridge viewed from the red bridge on the Mulranny to Newport section of the Greenway. Grianghraf: Cormac Ó Cionnaith
Ten years after the Great Western Greenway opened, a special relationship between Council officials and landowners remains
Tiernaur man Pat Cannon first heard about the Greenway when Anna O’Connor, the Walking Officer with Mayo County Council, called to his home over ten years ago to ask him to allow it pass through his land.
The idea of turning the long-abandoned old Westport-to-Achill railway line into a cycling and walking trial did not grab him straight away. “I thought it was daft at the time,” he admitted to The Mayo News.
The retired builder was not alone in having that thought, and with 60 other landowners living along the proposed route from Newport to Mulranny to negotiate with, many felt the project was doomed to failure.
A decade ago, the Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey opened the Great Western Greenway along that route, and its has since extended either end to Achill and Westport. It attracted a peak of 265,000 users last year.
Anna O’Connor and Pádraig Philbin, Tourism Officer with Mayo County Council, were the main movers in getting the first section of the Greenway opened. It proved to be a catalyst, and other greenways have subsequently been created around the country.
“I am proud of it,” Anna told The Mayo News at a ten-year celebration with local stakeholders in Nevin’s Restaurant in Tiernaur last Thursday. “It does my heart good when I come through Newport and Mulranny and see cyclists and walkers going through it. It really does do wonders for you.
“When meet our colleagues on a national stage they always want to know the Greenway story and invite us to talk about it. They are always trying to replicate a similar model, but we always say ‘You will never be like us because we are the first and the iconic one!’.”
Lots of tea
When the Great Western Greenway was first conceived, Ireland was in the middle of an economic crisis with financial cuts being made to every sector of society. However, when funding was made available by the Department of Transport for an off-road cycling trail, the opportunity arose to develop the old railway line, and it was seized.
The only problem was getting the landowners to sign off on a trail cutting through their land. An impossible task?
“It was daunting, and I think they were looking at me as much to say was I crazy,” Anna explained. “The first phase was from Newport to Mulranny and at the time there were 61 landowners along that section so there was a lot of knocking on doors and lots of drinking tea.
“I have to say the people were very welcoming and gave us the time … They were a little bit cautious, but in the end they came on board and did work with us.
“At the time, people didn’t really know what the Greenway was, and we really didn’t know ourselves. We had a big task to get people to come on board and work with us but in fairness to the people of west Mayo they were not found wanting. They did work with us to develop it into the project it is today.”
While he was initially skeptical about the project, Pat, like many of his neighbours, is proud of the part he played in the development of the Greenway and the success is has become.
“I see it everyday when I look out the window, the amount of people using it. It is very few days that somebody doesn’t pass by on a bicycle. There is no doubt that it has brought new life to Newport and Mulranny in particular. As far as I am concerned the Newport to Mulranny section is the king of the greenways. I might be selfish about it, but the views coming over Mulranny are the jewel in the crown in my opinion.”
Whatever approach Anna and Pádraig took with the landowners all those years ago, it should be used as a manual for all civil servants on how to deal with the public. To this day, there remains a mutual respect and understanding between the landowners and the council officials.
“Without Pádraig Philbin and Anna O’Connor it would never have happened. Pádraig Philbin was the best civil servant I encountered. He had a way about him with people. If every other civil servant was like him we would have a great country,” said Pat.
With plans to extend the Greenway around Clew Bay and up into north Mayo, Anna is looking forward to seeing what the future holds – but she knows that the Newport to Mulranny section will never be bettered.
“It was unique and a huge learning process, and I don’t think I would have changed anything. It was a good time, and we developed friends for life out of it.
“I love chatting to the landowners and connecting to them all, we have a special friendship. It was a real community effort to come together to look at an old hidden asset and bring it back to life.”