The historic connections of the prizewinning B&B

County View

John Healy

THERE was little doubting the sense of local pride at the success of John and Bernie Walsh when they were declared national winners as Bed and Breakfast of the Year in the Irish Hospitality awards. Their Rocksberry guesthouse on the Westport Road is everything a home from home should be, warm and friendly, yet modern and well appointed, but with the real X factor - the personal touch of its owners.
Now in its twenty-fifth year, Rocksberry has a welcome for everyone, but perhaps with a special soft spot for the angling fraternity. Both John and Bernie have been active, from the start, in the Islandeady/Bilberry Angling Club, and one of their specialities is the provision of boat and angling facilities for their guests. The Club itself plays host each July to the McConville Cup, which attracts competitors from every county in Ireland, and which has especially warm links with fishermen from Northern Ireland.
Nor is this the first time for Rocksberry to be honoured at national level. Fifteen years ago, in the teeth of strong opposition from better known tourist areas, the Walsh family was named as winner of the ‘Welcome of the Year’ award, another blue riband of the hospitality sector.
But perhaps not so well known is that the Walsh homestead has links with the accommodation sector which stretch back well over 150 years. It was here that the legendary Charles Bianconi established, back in 1836, his stables and accommodation for his horse-drawn transport system which would revolutionise travel in Ireland. The Italian had come to Clonmel earlier in the century and, enterprising businessman that he was, recognised the opportunity of setting up a public transport system, this of course before the advent of the railways.
His horse-drawn coaches became famous, even though the early cars were uncovered and passengers were exposed to the elements. He was the Ryanair of his day, offering cheap and reliable travel over long distances. The first small network of routes based in Clonmel quickly developed nationally and in 1836, he introduced his system to Castlebar, the town becoming the centre of three services. One was for mail coaches to Ballina and on to Sligo, a second from Westport to Dublin, and a third from Westport to Tuam. The smaller express coach carried four people, and the larger could carry up to 20.
Bianconi’s system required stabling for horses as well as accommodation for passengers and jarveys, and his chosen location was where Rocksberry is located today. In fact, the fine stone building still stands at the corner of the Walsh property, beside the main Westport road, and has for generations been referred to locally by its old title, the ‘Mail Coach Stage’. The two storey building had stabling at ground level with accommodation on the first floor and, as with all such stopping points on the network, was known as a Bianconi Inn.
Bianconi was an innovator and a visionary, and excelled in the art of providing exactly what his customers wanted. He is particularly credited with the early development of tourism, since his transport system was highly popular with English, French and German travellers
who, for the first time, could experience the scenic beauty of a region which, up to that, had been virtually inaccessible.
And is it not something more than mere coincidence that John and Bernie Walsh are inheritors of the same customer friendly approach to their business, located as it is within 50 metres of where the legendary Bianconi chose to provide rest and sustenance for his customers.