WILD AWAKE This watchful grey heron is such a regular visitor upstream to the south mall on the Carrowbeg river Westport that it has become known simply as The Mall Heron. Pic: Conor McKeown
Nature and rewilding
In 1767, the first Earl of Altamont commissioned the planned town of Westport, not only to make way for the new gardens of Westport House Estate and create a place for his workers and tenants, but also, at great expense it’s said, to dissuade the notion that any of his descendants were inherently from some backwater with only trifling prospects.
Lord Altamont might have given us a beautifully laid-out town, but many would contend, that in modern times, it wasn’t until we first won overall winner of the National Tidy Towns competition in 2001 that Westport was resolutely put on the tourist trail.
Some time in between 1767 and 2001, on my way home from school, I happened upon some French tourists chattering away, pointing en masse in various directions. Thinking the best of course, I imagined they talked of their lovely holiday and the beautiful scenery – until all stopped suddenly to tut tut, each looking like they were chewing a lemon and pointing at an accumulation of litter over a low Quay Hill wall.
After that, it wasn’t easy to unsee the litter almost everywhere, but thankfully we had people like Bridie Moran, Elsie Higgins and Frank Dolan, who were on to the problem – and are still with Westport Tidy Towns to this day. The connection between tourism, pride of place and community was made. If you stood still for long enough around the town, you’d either get painted or handed a pickers and a shovel.
That sense of community is something which the Irish people have in spades, unmatched by any other country that ever tried to emulate the Tidy Towns spirit, it really is very unique to us.
For me, the best example of this is our very own Pat Scahill, out at all hours, multiple times a day. If a visitor is looking for directions, their keys are lost down a gully or they just want a chat, Pat’s your man, all while helping to keep the town spic and span.
For a long time, most visitors to this country just stayed on the east coast, and the vast majority of them just stayed on the literary tours around Dublin. The Great Western Greenway has brought visible benefits to visitor numbers around here. Backwaters using forward thinking to bring people into the Wild West and its natural beauty.
Not long ago I recently spotted our resident heron, so used to an audience, a selfie isn’t out of the question. Like the other wildlife on the river, he’s often the highlight of someone’s day. This time, he was tussling with a big eel on a sand bar across from the library, with the entire length of Doris bridge watching the spectacle.
Over the years, many tourists have made the journey here to climb Croagh Patrick, see our planned town and enjoy the flowers, and now finally they’re here to appreciate our mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, and the flora and fauna on the Greenways. What was once seen as a backwater is now something unique in the world, and this means so much to so many people.
They’re not here to see our widest road or our tall buildings. That heron is part of the story of Ireland, and those sightseers will make it so.
Come back chattering continentals! Community is our watchword; we’re sure you’ll like it here now, and doubly sure you’ll like our Wild Wild West in this ever-changing world.
Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.