“My most difficult days would be Mondays and Tuesdays. You’ve got the litter after the weekends if the weather is fine…and sheep coming down from mountain areas if walkers leave gates open” he later adds. Such are the challenges for John O’Donnell, caretaker of the Great Western Greenway, the longest off-road cycling trail in Ireland. Largely following 42km of disused railway between Westport and Achill Sound in County Mayo, the route passes through pleasant rural countryside, devoid of the hectic crush of modern living and freely accessible to all but the most unfit. “The most enjoyable aspect of the job would be meeting people and surveying them” O’Donnell confides. Weather aside, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding job.
Arthur J Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1887–1891 (and later Prime Minister of the UK), authorized the construction of a network of narrow gauge railways in rural Ireland at the end of the 19th century. Development of road traffic sealed the fate of the line, bringing an end to the railroad a mere 42 years later in 1937. Known by the nickname “Bloody Balfour” for his enforcement of the Perpetual Crimes Act aimed at suppressing the land rights of Irish, Balfour’s legacy has since been subverted by local landowners who gifted their modest plots of countryside for the establishment of the Great Western Greenway. O’Donnell makes a point of letting me know that the Greenway would not have happened, “only for the goodwill and the buy in with the local authority and the landowners. 80 to 90 percent of them [landowners] don’t benefit from the Greenway directly”. Nevertheless there are wider benefits for the surrounding community with an additional forty to fifty full-time staff employed by hotels, cafes, and restaurants in the area. “You’ve got six or seven bike hire companies between Westport and Achill and they’re all employing 3-4 people,” he also adds.
The trail surface itself consists of compacted gravel and follows a largely flat route between Mulranny and Achill, just one of three sections in my home county that I recently had the pleasure of visiting. The ever-changeable West of Ireland weather meant several stops along the way to swap T-shirt and shorts for anorak and pull-ups; it’s all par for the course and adds to rather than detracts from the overall experience. Leaving Mulranny, the cyclist coasts downhill through welcoming woodland and a sea of ferns before the countryside opens up to reveal an inlet of the Atlantic with bogland and mountain strung out on either side.
I happened upon Mr. O’Donnell at a well-known viewing point – the Blue Bridge – as I stopped to take in the exhilarating scenery on my return journey. “So who typically comes to the West of Ireland to cycle the Greenway?” I enquired, once pleasantries had been exchanged. “The majority of our visitors would be Irish nationals. After that, in the last year, it would be the USA and parts of Europe…mostly Germans and French…and Austrians. The UK market wouldn’t be as strong as the first year…I’ve noticed a big drop in UK visitors this year”. I was struck by the number of young families cycling along the route and said as much. “You can use the tag-alongs [a small canvas-covered trailer] if the children are quite small. Its very safe for families to cycle along as it’s 97% off road”. In fact the only section that still forces cyclists and motorists to share a main road will soon be segregated. “We have secured the funding (€360,000) and hopefully that’s going to happen in the second part of the year or early next year”, John assures me.
But it’s not just tourists who walk and cycle the trail. “There’s a lot of people using it to go to work…when the weather is favourable” he cautiously adds. “Children in the schools in Westport right through to Achill, on a Wednesday in April, May and June, they have a cycle-to-school day and a walk-to-school day”. An impressive 550 visitors a day use some or all of the Greenway on average in the high season, although this can drop to below 100 per day in the dead of winter. I relayed to Mr. O’Donnell that I had met an older man by the name of Patrick J Sweeney further back on the trail as he loaded turf into a high trailer for the long winter ahead. “Oh, that’s my father-in-law. We were talking about you at dinner!” We both shared a laugh at the small world rural living affords.
The Greenway website does not make any explicit mention of eco-tourism (nor did our conversation) but this must surely be a prime attraction and key opportunity to open up new markets. The land in the West of Ireland may be boggy, hilly and largely suited for little more than grazing sheep but the landscape has a value that deserves far greater recognition and investment by the State and local government. At a local level, plans are afoot to develop a cycle rest area and hub called the Great Western Activity Centre, if funding can be found to renovate the old railway station in Mulranny. More pressing concerns are installing toilets, water-points and shelters from the often-inclement weather. “We don’t have any funding at the moment. Based on the surveys that I’m gathering for the last two years that will strengthen the case for funding”, he says optimistically. Other counties are looking to Mayo for inspiration to redeploy their own sections of abandoned railroad. “We’re getting delegations here from various county councils in the country. We’ve recently just had West Cork; they’ve got a lot of disused railways. The biggest issue challenging any other county council to actually go ahead with this is the occupation [sic] of landownership”.
Exactly twelve months previously, I was fortunate to visit New York City and stroll along another stretch of disused railway infrastructure – The High Line. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting locations, each with their own unique sense of drama. The elevated views framed by towering skyscrapers and warehouses were now to be replaced by vast cloud-scudded skies and generous vistas confined only by the heather-covered mountains. The livestock freight train running through the Meatpacking District of busy Manhattan and the tourist express train chugging through rural West of Ireland have a shared sense of history. Both have embraced change to find an exciting new meaning in life. Reborn, repurposed and above all relevant to a more sustainable way of living in the modern world.
View a slideshow of my recent trip here – Green infrastructure
Visit the Great Western Greenway website for route maps and more information
Mr O’Donnell would like to point out that Southwest Mayo Development provide much needed support to Mayo County Council in maintaining the Greenway through activities such as strimming and weed control.