What do we want?

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

IF you happen to live in a town like Westport, it is easy to think that all is well with our economy, even in the aftermath of the coronavirus restrictions. For the last couple of weeks, the town’s streets have been packed again with wide-eyed tourists liberated from their lockdown in concreted suburbia and ready for the salt air of the ocean and the panoramas of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Unlike other tourist towns – say  Killarney – the west Mayo heritage haven is fortunate in the present circumstances not to be significantly dependent on American tourists. That Irish tourism market has been decimated, even though were have not banned them, unlike the majority of European countries (other than the UK).  
On the other hand, the Great Western Greenway has proven its worth since it was opened almost a decade ago as an attractive destination for staycationing families.
Indeed, Westport has long proven to be a model for progressive thinking on many levels. Its policies regarding the architectural preservation and evolution of the town have become templates for other towns throughout the country. The fact that all the hotels are locally owned and co-operate creatively and pragmatically through the umbrella group Destination Westport, coupled with a long-held ethos of volunteerism, means that the odds of surviving the economic catastrophe of the pandemic seem stacked in its favour. Not so though for the rest of the county, no matter what spin is put on it.
Ultimately, all roads lead to Westport from a tourism perspective and no matter what efforts other towns and villages along Mayo’s seaboard and beyond make, they are at an automatic disadvantage because of the tourism honeypot’s all-encompassing attractiveness.
In other words, visitors are happy to fan out into the plethora of beauty spots, wild beaches, heritage sites and quaint villages, but the majority of them stay overnight in Westport, eat their main meal in its restaurants and spend their money in its medley of tourist-oriented shops and galleries.

Branding of heritage
FOR these rural communities, it doesn’t matter that the Fáilte Ireland branding of our rugged western seaboard as the Wild Atlantic Way was inspired. The thing about branding is that it is the cosmetic dimension of nuanced and complex entities or experiences: the icing on the cake, as it were. Isn’t infrastructure needed for sustainable foundations though?  
Which reminds me of a conference on heritage I attended in GMIT Castlebar, in October 2002, during which one speaker, the then Professor of Geography at NUI Maynooth Patrick Duffy, observed how in the Celtic Tiger colour scheme of things ‘heritage’ was being used to sell paint. He told the gathering that such heritage gems as Béal na Bláth, the Ardagh Chalice and Clonmacnoise were no longer significant because of their cultural import – they had also become shades for a leading paint manufacturer.
Perhaps the debate that was ignited after this Government initially failed to appoint a senior minister along the western seaboard needs to focus on a coherent definition of what those who live in the west want themselves, and not what the powers-that-be are prepared to dole out in their bizarre splintering of departments.
As Dr Catherine Kelly, another speaker at that conference, presciently said: “Heritage is not simply about consumption and commodification. It not just about tourism and quick money. It is also about people’s definition of themselves.”
Isn’t it way past time we stop defining ourselves as victims and proactively develop our own cogent solutions – a masterplan for the county, one that is not bogged down in bureaucracy – and present a compelling argument for its implementation to those powers-that-be?