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Brian Quinn - a tourism trailblazer

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RETIRING Brian Quinn is pictured at the Quay in Westport. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Brian Quinn is soon to retire from his role with Fáilte Ireland

Interview
Áine Ryan

IT may be almost 30 years since Kildare native and former Irish Army officer, Brian Quinn became immersed in the development of tourism in Co Mayo but as he prepares to retire from his role with Fáilte Ireland as Activities Manager, his passion has not abated.
Born in Newbridge, Co Kildare, his late father was in the army based in the Curragh, while his mother was a primary school teacher in Kildare town.  
“Being from a military family, of course I was in the FCA and after I did my Leaving Cert in 1974, I joined the Cadet School,” Brian Quinn tells The Mayo News.
“The army controlled the type of holidays you took back in those days and myself and my friend, Rory McAuliffe went to the Glenans, on Bere Island, Co Cork, for a sailing course, which was the beginning of a life-long passion for the sailing.”  
Interestingly, his OC (Officer-in-Command) during that early period when he was stationed in Longford was Roger McCorley. He hailed from a famous Republican family and one of whose forebears has been immortalised in the song ‘Roddy McCorely’, a native of Antrim, member of the United Irishmen who fought in the 1798 Rebellion.  
Brian met his wife-to-be, Máiréad Burke on a night out while he was based in Longford during 1985 and ironically she was from Castlebar where he was later stationed. It was a whirlwind romance and they were married within six months.
He did three tours of the Lebanon during the time he was based in Castlebar where the couple first looked for a home to purcahse.
“We were out and about looking to buy a house one afternoon and we ended up in the Towers Bar [at Westport Quay] for a bowl of soup. Colm Cronin, the proprietor at the time, was also doing a bit of auctioneering and we saw a notice for a house in Rosmally that we live in to this day.” Like many army officers Quinn took early retirement in 1989.

Sailing adventures
“WHEN I came to Westport first, Máiréad introduced me to Liam Lyons, who died recently. He was an avid sailor and I effectively became his First Mate. We had great adventures going out to the islands.
“I remember the first time we went out the bay we went to Turk and got a load of crab and cooked them in a pressure cooker. We sailed down to Clare Island then and had a couple of drinks. We headed off for Westport then and the weather suddenly turned fowl. Liam got hit by the boom and was in and out of consciousness. We were using old charts and I couldn’t find Inishgort lighthouse. I thought at one stage I’d have to beach the boat on Bertra.”
Liam ended up in hospital in Dublin and, fortunately, an earlier operation on an artery after he suffered an aneurysm aged just 22, meant the injury wasn’t as serious as it could have been.

Tourism plan
“I did a degree in Public Administration and my thesis was on a tourism plan for Mayo.  which involved identifying a ring of attractions around the county – they included the Céide Fields, Foxford Woolen Mills and Turlough Park, which would become the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life and, of course, Croagh Patrick. The Deserted Village in Achill was also on the list. This was good timing as around the same time the EU had insisted on Ireland introducing five-year plans.”
He recalls that around this time also, Des Mahon was appointed County Manager and happened to have a great interest in developing tourism.
It was the early 1990s and Brian was employed as a Tourism Officer by Ireland West Tourism, a satellite of Bord Fáilte, as it was known at the time.
Branding and developing the Mayo 5,000 concept for the 1993 celebrations proved hugely successful. Indeed, he reminds The Mayo News that Riverdance had its genesis in Bill Whelan’s  music, ‘The Spirit of Mayo’ for this celebration.
“The whole purpose of this was to put a public service-led injection into tourism facilities in Mayo and hope it would be a catalyst for the private sector to react.
“We went to Enda Kenny [who was Minister for Tourism and Trade at the time] to try and get tax breaks for Achill and he also included Westport along with other towns in the country. It really increased the supply of accommodation which is very important to this day.”
Quinn explains that Westport Golf Club is a perfect example of a public service-led development, originally bought and built by Bord Fáilte.
Meanwhile, Máiréad had changed career direction, had studied law and was an apprentice solicitor with Seamus Hughes. She would ultimately go on to open her own legal practice.
 This was a very exciting time for the couple  who went to the Siberian city of Omsk in 2001 and adopted their son, Simon. He happens to be doing his Leaving Cert this year and, in his Dad’s estimation ‘is taking it all in his stride’.  
Brian was now working with ‘Mayo Naturally’, which, he explains, had ’morphed out of Mayo 5000’ and was based in Castlebar.
“I think it was in the early 2000s when Fáilte Ireland commissioned Bristol company, Sustrans, which had developed the National Cycle Network in the UK, to come over here and write a cycling strategy for Ireland. They identified hubs in the west such as Galway City, Achill, Clifden and Westport.”
Coincidentally, family life for Máiréad, Brian and Simon involved regular cycling holidays in the Spanish town of Competa in Andalusia.
“After one of those holidays, I came back and convinced Des Mahon that we should look at the feasibility of the development of a  greenway to Achill. I clearly remember the first time I walked it with Gerry Greensmyth and immediately knew its tourism potential was huge.”  
Quinn recalls that the first phase from Newport to Mulranny cost €3.8 million and it earned almost €8 million in its first years.
“Of course, the crash came then and there was no public money available, so we were able to hold on to our [tourism] advantage for longer but that is changing now with other greenways around the country.”
While praising such initiatives as the experiences offered by Canadian Travis Zeray, of Clew Bay Bike Hire, – for example, a fishing trip on Clew Bay and a cycle back from Mulranny –Quinn argues that the Great Western Greenway’s potential has not yet been fully realised.
“Experiential tourism is the trend, so we would love the Orientation and Interpretation Plan developed which would include Discovery Points along the Greenway.
“We were lucky that Des Mahon appointed Pádraig Philbin and Anna Connor to seek permissive access from the families who owned land along the  greenway. In the end, it was often the farmers’ wives who influenced a positive outcome so that their kids could walk safely to their friends’ houses.”

Retirement reflection
“AS I retire I am very conscious that Westport was blessed with ‘godfathers’ like the late Seán Staunton and Liam Lyons and Michael O’Donnell, as well as the town council and the vision and dedication of Town Architect, Simon Wall.
“Westport is on the other side of the bell-curve now,” Brian Quinn warns. “I think its time has peaked and the town needs to be careful about keeping its integrity. I remember walking the dog one night years ago and seeing the plastic Subway sign but the following day it was down. That attention to detail is what made Westport so successful as a quality destination.”
The development of the Wild Atlantic Way seems to have been a natural progression from the touristic appeal of greenways and its inextricable links to the future of farming in the west.
The whole rewilding ethos, he says, would allow visitors to engage with the landscape and its owners, who would be paid as the expert guides.
“The rewilding movement is growing in Europe and it is something we should be embracing. Tourism needs to develop a new relationship with farmers.”
Co Mayo’s most iconic and dramatic tourism attraction is still a huge priority for Quinn and the development of a proper and safe pathway must be expedited.
 “Croagh Patrick is a national monument and one of Co Mayo’s iconic attractions. Local farmers and landholders should never be at risk of being sued and the best way to do that is to put the path in public ownership.
“Why not consider making it safe by making a loop walkway which goes back down towards Lecanvey where there is an old pathway. This is best practice on mountains around the world,” says Brian Quinn.