Behind the brand –is Westport ‘best’?
So are there any nettles in the closet of rose-scented Westport?
YOU could be in heaven when on a sunny summer’s day you glide over Sheeaune hill on the approach to Westport and suddenly Clew Bay appears. Clare Island is like a great sleeping whale rising from the ocean and pyramidal Croagh Patrick stands like an ancient centurion guard protecting the dwarfed human population that nestles in the pretty nearby hamlet. Welcome to Westport, The Irish Times Best Place to live in Ireland. Multi-award-winning tidy town. Heritage haven. Tourism honey-pot.
No wonder English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, extolling its beauty, likened the setting to ‘a world wonder’. In 1842, he visited the town and wrote: “The most beautiful view I ever saw in the world. It forms an event in one’s life to have seen that place so beautiful that is it, and so unlike other beauties that I know of.”
Of course, it was the resplendence of the land and seascapes that Thackeray referred to; as we all know the fate of the majority population of Westport and its environs in 1842 was teetering on the edge of mass obliteration – disease, death and emigration – due to the repeated failure of the potato crop. Indeed, the landlords of the town, the Browne family of Westport House, were forced to abandon their stately home during the 1840s and live in relative penury in a town house because they could not afford to pay the rates.
Even one hundred years ago the quality of life and economic circumstances of the townspeople still remained precarious. At the time Urban District Councillor Charles Hughes was persistently fighting a campaign for the provision of labourers’ cottages. “It was an intolerable state of affairs that compelled human beings to live in such hovels,” he remarked at a meeting on September 28, 1912.
Ironically, during the same year there was a major internal spat in the chamber after six councillors resigned over the terms of a new sewage scheme, for which Lord Sligo had extracted extra rate payments from his tenants. Coincidentally, as reported in last week’s Mayo News, the present generation of town councillors are not beyond political rancour either, albeit in this case on the rather more facile matter of the appointment of a leas-cathaoirleach.
SUCH political posturing and opportunism is a reality of any town council. It is part of the dramatic game that is played when you have a public stage. With its latest accolade, the town of Westport is not only on the national stage, it is on a global swirling merry-go-round. With the omniscience of the worldwide web, it can literally be examined from every angle. With the tabloidisation of the media monster, the town and its citizens are now fair game for dirt-digging, as it were. What lies behind ‘brand Westport’? Surely, it is not only rose-scented alleyways? Surely, it is not only happy hordes of volunteers pirouetting at dawn onto the streets?
One Irish Times judge worried whether the town might be a bit ‘retirement-homey, hanging-baskety, Stepford-wifeish’. While they decided it was not that, they concluded the town was not perfect ‘but it comes close’. Westport’s success, says The Irish Times, is ‘a product of careful planning, an innovative approach to voluntary work and a triumph of public spiritedness’.
DR Mark Garavan, a GMIT sociologist, agrees that the town’s success in winning the competition, which attracted 563 entries from all 32 counties, ‘is undoubtedly an achievement’.
Dr Garavan observes: “It reflects the positive impression and vibrancy conveyed by the town.
However, there are risks in winning such recognition. In being tempted to define one-self as the ‘best’ there are the dangers of blindness and complacency. Being the ‘best place’ can become an article of faith which dares not be questioned. In this way, the full reality can become obscured or even denied.”
He argues that just like all other Irish towns, Westport too has its challenges in regards to poverty, unemployment, emigration and social exclusion.
“Almost 2,000 people are registered as unemployed in the immediate area. There are therefore many inhabitants who cannot readily access its various shops, restaurants or attractions. Anti-social behaviour and excessive alcohol use is a feature also in common with all towns in Ireland. These problems
remain and should not be rendered invisible,” he says.
He notes that for Westport to really be ‘the best’, it must also confront the challenges of both social sustainability and ecological sustainability. Citing the ‘Transition Towns’ initiative, he observes that tidiness and prettiness are not the criteria for being genuinely sustainable.
Concluding, Dr Garavan says: “While acknowledging its well-deserved achievement, there is therefore the risk that, in attaining such a recognition, Westport people may feel compelled to maintain a front for outsiders and themselves and become somewhat blinded to the lived reality of all of its inhabitants. Becoming the ‘best’ means not sitting on one’s laurels but striving further to bring about a truly sustainable and resilient environment for all.”
MARK Garavan’s colleague at GMIT, Dr John Mulloy, says there is ‘a myth about the cosmopolitanism of Westport’.
“In reality, I would say that Castlebar, Kiltimagh and Ballyhaunis are more truly cosmopolitan. In Westport, if you are well-educated, and, for example, come from France or Germany it is okay, but for people coming from other places and with different socio-economic circumstances, it is different. You could say there is a tidiness to the range of nationalities that live in Westport,” says Dr Mulloy.
He also cites the fact that there are significantly less Travellers per capita of population, than in any other town in Mayo.
“This is also symptomatic of the lack of real difference in Westport,” he says.
Regarding facilities for the youth, he praises the great work of the Family Resource centre, the establishment of the Cove Café and the development of the Skate Park. However, he says that resources are generally limited for young people, particularly in their late teens and early twenties.
Dr Mulloy, whose family were leading business people in the town over the decades, is a former community artist, who now teaches Art History and Critical Theory.
“I find that the frontage of the town’s building is much blander than it was back in the 1980s or in comparison to contemporary Clonakilty (County Cork). Many of the upper storeys are white, cream, yellow or grey stone. Traditional sign-writing has all but disappeared also,” he adds.
FOR Dublin native, Edel Hackett, ‘the one thing you miss when living in a small town, as opposed to a city, is anonymity’. Ms Hackett has lived in Westport for almost 12 years and, along with her partner Fergus McAllister, has raised her family here.
“Lack of anonymity can be quite stifling about living in a small town. I think another common thing to small towns is there is a realisation that actually you are never going to have a meaningful part in shaping a town. You can be a volunteer on lots of organisations but ultimately it is the locals who make the decisions. Perhaps this is one’s own sensitivity about being a blow-in,” she says.
Edel Hackett works for Persuasion Republic, a communications company that provides services for leading charities and campaign groups. Her work schedule means she commutes to Dublin for two days each week.
“As somebody who travels to and from the town a lot, there is always a sense of relief to come back. I love Westport and know that by bringing up my family here they have had a better life than in Dublin. Fergus and I have a great social and cultural life here too and love the fact that the town attracts such a diverse population,” she says.
Appeal of town
FOR award-winning photographer, Michael McLaughlin the appeal that writer Thackeray wrote about almost two centuries ago still exists.
“If Thackeray could look at that view today again from Sheeaune hill he would see that its integrity has remained and that the quality of life has greatly improved for people. Throughout the Celtic tiger years the town could easily have become a Costa del Sol of the west coast, but planners and locals ensured it did not,” says Michael McLaughlin, who is also a Fine Gael town councillor.
“In many ways the town has always had to fend for itself and that’s why the volunteerism of such groups as the Tidy Towns committee and Destination Westport excels, he says.
Michael McLaughlin agrees though that ‘when you are put up there on a pedestal, however, you are an easy target’.
He suggests that if there was some major criminal incident in Westport, it would have a much bigger impact than if it occurred in another town.
Speaking about the inclusivity of the town, he observes: “Yes, there is a lot of poverty and youth unemployment here. There is social exclusion too, and these people can be invisible, but it’s groups like Westport Social Services who make sure their needs are met.”
He also urges that the positive branding of Westport be used to attract new industry to the town.
“From a human resource point of view, a happy workforce is paramount to the success of any business. The proven quality of life in Westport is perfect for this.”
HAVE YOUR SAY email firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments