Why Greenways should be called Goldways…
The Westport branch of Clew Bay Bike Hire is a busy shop at 10 o’clock on a weekday morning in August. All three staff members present are diligently dealing with bookings and inquiries on the phones as I enter. One of the men gives me a friendly nod to let me know he’ll be with me as soon as he can. I nod back. I’m in no hurry today. This is one of many bicycle rental shops in Westport. Within a few minutes, he has my rental bike adjusted for my height and ready to go and the phone is ringing again.
Very soon, I’m out of town and heading west on the Great Western Greenway to Newport. I can hear the traffic on the main road as I cycle and occasionally cycle parallel to it. I feel liberated to be away from the road and its dangers. I imagine if I lived in either Westport or Newport and worked in the other, I’d cycle to work every day. Of course, I might feel differently on a dark, cold and wet morning in November.
The people I meet on my journey are splendid. A very small minority don’t say hello or good morning or how’s it going as we pass. The countless foreign visitors smile and salute with their hands or a nod. Everyone looks so happy. The children are bursting with energy and loving the experience. Moms and dads are having fun too but vigilant for any dangers. Just because it’s a greenway doesn’t mean that it’s totally safe. I pass a man carrying a toddler of no more than a year in a trailer and resolve to come back next year when my son is old enough to be brought along.
In Newport, I pass another busy bike rental shop on the way into the village before stopping at a small grocer’s for a drink. I grab a Kerry Spring Lemon & Lime drink from the fridge. The woman at the till points out that I’m about to purchase flavoured water in case I’m making a mistake. I assure her that I know and that all the water in Kerry is flavoured!
“Is that the secret to all the All-Ireland’s?” she asks.
“It is,” says I.
“Well, we’ve been drinking some aswell this year,” she whips back with a smile.
On the way to Mulranny, I pass over many beautiful bridges. Some are old magnificent stone Midland Great Western Railway bridges, some are quaint bridges with beautiful arches on local back roads and some are newly constructed and very tastefully coloured metal bridges, especially designed for the greenway. I pass the many abandoned cottages that dot the old line, many built in the early to middle twentieth century, some being older ruins from the nineteenth century. I imagine the steam trains thundering past the little houses when families lived in them.
All along the route, major efforts have been made to accommodate the needs of local landowners, including the provision of gates, cattle grids, fencing, recess areas, bridges and signage. These people, to their great credit, have consented to their lands being used for the project. Unfortunately, there is just one 700 metre section where the greenway diverts to the main primary road before re-joining the old railway line.
Passing through the vast bogland and the sections that were blasted through stone and dug by hand by our forefathers, I feel a little tired as I cycle. I think how the workers must have tired as they toiled to build the railway. Surely, in every part of Ireland, we owe it to such ancestors to make the most of such wonderful national assets as the abandoned railways. We have inherited gems and we have a moral obligation to put them to good use for all our people.
Near Mulranny, parts of the greenway look familiar from my previous visit in 2010 when it was a fledgling project. It’s much busier with visitors now. I pass a small café on the line, where about twenty bicycles are parked outside. This is another business that seems to be thriving because of the greenway. I don’t remember it being there in 2010.
Beyond Mulranny, outstanding panoramas of the sea open up to my right hand side. I almost fail to see the woman coming towards me on her bike, so engrossed am I by the scenery. Thankfully, she sees the funny side of it as I swerve to avoid her, shouting “Sorry”. This is the peace, beauty and tranquillity of the Hinde postcards and today I’m living it. The only thing to deflate me is the viscous headwind that has grown from the west and is now laden with moisture.
The final leg to Achill is hard work but I get there. I struggle across the windswept bridge to Sweeney’s shop, where I buy a change of clothes. I really should have made provisions for a change in the weather before I left Westport. I contemplate buying a Mayo jersey but given that we might be meeting them in Croke Park in late September, I settle for an Achill Island themed hoodie and track pants. I drop my bike at the Achill branch of Clew Bay Bike Hire and retire to Alice’s Bar in the Achill Island Hotel for a perfect warm meal and some cold drinks. The place is full with visitors, most of us greenway users. In the evening, I take one of the many shuttle buses and taxis back to Westport. They’ve all been busy all day transporting people and their bikes along the greenway.
In Kerry, we have vast lengths of abandoned railways. The most famous of all of these is the Glenbeigh to Caherciveen stretch of the old Farranfore to Valentia Railway. We also have Tralee to Fenit, Tralee to Listowel, Listowel to Kilmorna and Killarney to Kenmare. Efforts are well underway to bring many of these old lines to greenway status like they have done in Mayo but we have a long way to go. People like Joe McCrohan of South Kerry Development Partnership, ACARD in Caherciveen and many others have already done Trojan work on the Glenbeigh to Renard line. In this case, the old line is now in the ownership of the local landowners. Hopefully by pulling together and finding solutions where there are problems, like in Mayo, we can bring this spectacular railway back to life as a greenway with agreement from the owners.
What’s not to say, with co-operation and consent from landowners, in the future that we couldn’t do the entire Farranfore to Valentia line. Imagine tourists being able to get off a flight at Kerry Airport and being able to access a world class greenway at the entrance of the airport. This would be a truly unique tourism product, a special amenity for locals and would create many sustainable jobs for local people.
Kerry County Council and proactive local people have made major efforts with the Tralee to Fenit line in recent years and despite some opposition, this is a project that should come to fruition soon. Much more needs to be done. The 8km stretch from Listowel to Kilmorna, at the Limerick border, which is owned by CIE, remains disused and overgrown, despite the Limerick section from Kilmorna through Abbeyfeale and Newcastle West to Rathkeale having been completed as greenway in recent years. Locals such as Gearóid Pearse, Cllr Tim O’Leary, Cllr. Jimmy Maloney and hundreds more are desperately seeking progress on this line but it’s hard when CIE will not even assert their ownership of the line. This project is almost shovel ready but it needs the support from the very semi-state company that owns it. It’s depressing to travel the wonderful Limerick section only to come to a dead end at the Kerry border. It reflects negatively on the county.
If we stretch our minds a little further, we could literally link up all major towns in Kerry via greenway, using old railway lines, old roads, rarely used country lanes, the spare space at the side of newly constructed national secondary roads and other established trails. Why not? If we don’t aim for this, it certainly will never happen. We have been left a wonderful gift horse, it’s high time we grab it by the reins and start looking it straight in the eyes.
Brendan Griffin TD