As I write from Pearse Street in Ballina, the sun beams in the window. Mayo flags flutter in the breeze. The flowers are in full bloom and the streets are busy and vibrant with visitors wandering, lingering, enjoying a coffee on a street seat or under an outdoor canopy.
The hum of conversation drifts upwards; there is a buzz on the paths below. It feels like a good place to be. It’s fair to say that the last few years have been positive for Ballina and North Mayo. It’s not exactly quantifiable, or measurable, but lots of good things are happening.
There is new development, enthusiasm, and a momentum is building. Right now, it is a really great place to live. And great places to live inevitably make great places to visit.
Regular readers will know that my day job is in tourism development and promotion for North Mayo. As well as doing the obvious things like advertising, or running a website, or inviting travel writers from the media to visit, we also promote the value of being tourists ourselves in our own area. It’s something I spend a considerable amount of my own time trying to do, and happily, I still have plenty to discover.
Having lived away from home for a bit, like most people of my age in Ballina, returning home from a city brought a new appreciation for both rural town living and wide open spaces. Living here offers the best of both worlds. I will never not feel grateful for what’s on my doorstep.
In 2019, we felt we were really making progress on the tourism front. And then – bam! – along came a pandemic. We don’t need to talk any more about Covid, nor its effects – this is a summer series, so let’s focus on the good stuff. When we emerged from the first lockdown back in June 2020, at the back of my mind, I had a quiet sneaking suspicion that the circumstances in which we found ourselves might just work in our favour.
Off the beaten track
And so it proved. Something a little bit magic happened. It turns out that sparsely populated but beautiful areas a little off the beaten track with lots of wide open spaces, are rather attractive to people who want to feel safe on their holidays in the middle of a pandemic.
Last summer, when everyone was trying to find somewhere – anywhere – to visit along the west coast, when the Killarneys and the Kilkees and the Westports filled up, North Mayo was waiting to welcome people here. Ballina has always had a steady, albeit low-level tourist trade, but relies a lot on the diaspora and overseas visitors. Domestically, it’s been harder. Fortuitously, in 2020, people for whom Ballina or North Mayo or West Sligo might not exactly have been on their bucket list started arriving here. They found that there is lots to discover here. Wonderfully, in 2021, we’ve seen many of them coming back to discover more.
At a really challenging time, the people in our hospitality industry have ensured that visitors have felt safe and welcome throughout. But in this area, people mostly come to savour the magnificent outdoor offering we possess, and to discover some of our secrets.
These are the things we as locals take for granted, but they are the things we do ourselves. In some cases, that’s because lockdown forced us to broaden our horizons even as they were forcibly narrowed, and meant we had little choice but to get the best out of our local areas. And now we see what our visitors do.
As locals, many of us now take a little bit of extra pleasure in doing the simple things nearby. Getting into the car after work and going for a dip in Enniscrone across the border, or Ross, or Lacken, or further afield in Portacloy or Rinroe. Taking a Saturday afternoon to breathe in the sea air along the breathtaking cliffs at Kilgalligan, where the Carrowteige Loop Walks bring alive the legend of the Children of Lir. Ticking off one of the other 50 or so marked walks in North Mayo. Playing hide and seek with the little ones in one of the abbeys along the Monasteries of the Moy cycle route. Exploring the ancient mysteries of Blanemore Forest in Moygownagh. Embarking on a day trip to Blacksod, visiting the Lighthouse, and maybe even taking in a magical boat trip to the Inishkea Islands, complete with picnic, to be home by dusk, tired and content. Trekking through the vast silence of Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park. Embracing kayaking, stand up paddling, snorkelling and diving at Kilcummin, Lough Conn, the River Moy. I don’t have enough space here to share the myriad of riches we boast.
Appreciating what we have
These are not things just for tourists to do any more. They are for us to enjoy too. A way in which to forge an emotional connection with our own place, to appreciate our natural and built heritage, and introduce the next generation to our history.
We don’t always need to go on holidays to make memories. Now, we have realised that we can create unforgettable experiences within walking distance of our own homes. There is a real magic in that discovery, but crucially, it also means that when people visit we can share our secrets with them, and act with pride as natural ambassadors and guides for our own towns and villages and our neighbouring ones.
It is communities that in so many different ways have contributed to the visitor experience in recent years. By planning and creating tourism products like walking trails in their towns and townlands, supported by Mayo County Council. By putting that lockdown to use by cleaning, planting and painting, to ensure that from Ballina to Blacksod, Lahardane to Letterkeen, and from Swinford to the Stags of Broadhaven that our places look their very best. By stopping on the street or behind a shop counter to have a friendly word with a stranger. This summer series has shone a light on areas all over Mayo, all with similar tales to tell.
Tourism might be one of the means to building a sustainable future, but what a luxury we enjoy here in Mayo, to be tourists in our own place. And here in North Mayo, we’re luckier than most.