OFFICIAL OPENING John Gormley, TD, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, officially opened the new visitor centre at Ballycroy National Park ten years ago. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
In the decade since John Gormley opened the Ballycroy National Park Visitor Centre it has has exceeded expectations
Almost ten years after the Ballycroy National Park was first established back in 1998, Denis Strong was finally about to set his eyes on the plans for the new visitor centre, to be located above Ballycroy village.
The Crossmolina man had worked on the establishment of the Ballycroy National Park in various roles within the National Parks and Wildlife Service since the early ’90s, and the visitor centre was seen as the final piece in the jigsaw.
The OPW architects’ drawings did not impress him
“When I saw it on paper I thought it looked terrible, to be honest,” he laughed, recalling the story to The Mayo News. “I thought it should be something on the Dublin docklands … But I grew to like it as time went on. I am particularly proud of it now, from where we have come. What we have been able to achieve – it has been phenomenal.”
Perched on a hill above Ballycroy, offering panoramic views that stretch from Mulranny across Achill and towards Blacksod, the Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park Visitor Centre has not just grown on Denis but also on the local community and the thousands of people who visit it every year.
Thursday, April 30 last marked ten years since John Gormley, then Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment, officially opened the €3.5 million centre – after earlier being greeted by a 100 or so angry farmers and local landowners.
Despite the inauspicious start, the centre has thrived, with the number of visitors growing from 12,095 in its first full year to a peak of 28,502 in 2017. The park to which the centre is attached has also since been renamed the Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park.
Denis, who is the Senior Divisional Manager, recalled that they were faced with making a success of the centre in the middle of a recession with very little funding.
“This time ten years ago my biggest challenge was to try and get a foot on the tourism map and that was challenging. This was all brand new and the next challenge was getting people to a €3.5 million visitor centre in a remote village in Ballycroy which wasn’t on the tourism trail. We had a lot of work to do in marketing and promotion and as time went on the country was getting deeper into a recession.
“We have done remarkably well, when you consider we started on a clean slate with a heather-covered hillside for the centre and we were in the midst of government austerity at the time. The growth of it has been phenomenal when you factor all that into it.”
Denis places much of the success in the centre’s growth in the last decade to the work of the team in the centre, who he said helped market and promote the national park.
Margaret Flaherty, Superviser Guide at the centre, explained that while their Ginger & Wild Café’s ‘amazing cakes’ and stunning views have certainly been a draw, the public’s ever-increasing interest in biodiversity and sustainability is also working in the park’s favour.
“I guess a lot of us are from an environmental and ecological background, but we have a passion for the promotion of the national park. We run a lot of free events and educational programmes and target a lot of different people, making them aware of how important the park is. All of those things combined helped to promote the site and attract people.
“In the last ten years there has been an increased interest in sustainability and biodiversity, and that interest always draws people out to learn about the landscape and the habitats they have in their own area.
“We have international visitors who come to Ireland to experience wild landscapes and natural places. We have the largest extent of Atlantic blanket bog in western Europe, so that habitat is rare internationally. Even though we have a lot of bog in the west of Ireland this a 15,000 hectare site dominated by this type of habitat. For an international visitor that is not something they will experience in a lot of places,” Margaret explained.
In the last ten years there has been a number of developments both on the site of the visitor centre and in the park inside, including the Claggan Mountain boardwalk along the N59. Denis explained that in a time when budgets were tight, Mayo County Council often came to their rescue to fund projects.
“We have got really positive support from Mayo County Council in those ten years. That was half the battle. I put proposals to Peter Hynes [Council Chief Executive] and Pádraig Philbin [Head of Tourism], and they supported them and funded them when money was really scarce.
“The Claggan Mountain Boardwalk is there for all to see, and there was significant signage [installed] along the Bangor Trail and Western Way – that was all funded by the county council.”
In February 2018, the NPWS and Coillte agreed a major transfer of land which saw 4,600 hectares of Coillte own forestry land incorporated into the national park, increasing its size to over 15,000 hectares.
Denis explained that as well as a major conservation project, they also plan to develop walking and cycling trails through the park as well as ‘wild camping’. He said the concept has worked well in other parks around the world, especially in their twin national park of Terra Nova, in Newfoundland on Canada’s east coast.
“I was there this time last year, and it is so similar. We were along the coast in the Bonavista Peninsula [in Newfoundland] and you could be standing on Erris Head, the geology is almost identical. The coast looks almost identical, with the only difference being the shape and colour of the houses. It is incredible. It is one of the sites I would be modeling the future of Wild Nephin on from a wild camping and recreation point of view.”
Future economic boon
The relationship between local farmers and the NPWS has at times been strained over the years, with the farmers concerned that development of the park would deprive them of a livelihood. Denis acknowledged their concerns but stressed that ‘pushing’ farmers off their land was never their intention. He feels the majority of local people see the economic benefits of the park in the locality.
“There is a big spin off in the local economy where there is a national park. The visitor facility has four full-time workers there from the parish of Ballycroy, who started out as temporary workers, and there is four seasonal guides, two of which are local.
“In a normal day, when things are up and running, up to nine are working in and around the national park. And as the Wild Nephin conversion develops we will be taking on more people. I’m confident in saying that because they will be needed.”
Having worked in the NPWS for over 30 years, and having been involved in the Ballycroy National Park project for much of that time, Denis says that one thing that is required in the job is patience – patience to see things through. He jokes he might not be around to see all his plans come to fruition, but he is excited about the next ten years of the national park’s life.
“We have set out a road map for the next 15 years, which will see me out, but someone else will deliver. I see it as a new chapter and an exciting chapter. Post the coronavirus, national parks will be a great catalyst to kick off the rural economy again.
“There is great potential, and the next ten years will be an exciting time in the evolution of the Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park.”