Fleadh success will attract tourists to region, says Hidden Heartland manager

“They may have come for the fleadh, but they’ll come back for the experience they had in Mullingar.”

So says Fiona Dunne, manager of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands and a native of Mullingar, who says that a number of areas were highlighted during the fleadh, which can be built on to improve the town's future tourism offering.

“Folks are not just looking for that urban experience, they’re looking for something that’s really authentic and there’s nothing more authentic than seeing the people of Mullingar smiling, working together, the kids out, the town celebrating together.

“That really appeals when you’re trying to build a profile of somewhere from a tourism perspective.”

“Hugely important” for the town and business community going forward is realising the potential of the Royal Canal and Mullingar Harbour, Fiona says.

“The Float to the Fleadh really showcased that. It’s the first time so many barges and cruisers were docked in the harbour.

“It was a real spectacle. It gave a clear vision of how we could leverage the Royal Canal going forward.

“Historically, the canal was something to walk along. It was never viewed the same way as folks along the Shannon would identify its potential for cruising and tourism.

“Bringing people to Mullingar by boat not only opened the eyes of the boating folks, but it drew international attention for those interested in taking a barge holiday along the Royal Canal.

“You can travel from Dublin, Maynooth, and into Mullingar, all the way to Tarmonbarry in Longford,” said Fiona.

Fiona Dunne, Hidden Heartlands manager

“A new kayaking business has just opened at the Harbour Bridge and I think we’re going to see more of that. It's something that was underutilised up until now.”

Trad heritage

Fiona says that the fleadh was the first time Mullingar “owned” its traditional musical heritage, bringing the music story of Mullingar full circle.

“We’ve always talked about music being central to the town, but prior to this we tended to celebrate the contemporary music of Mullingar more. We hadn’t thought so much about the history and the connection we have with traditional music.

“That is also part of the musical story of the town. We have that heritage, that history of trad. This is where the fleadh was established, but we also have the excellence of the current bands that you hear in town and, of course, the international superstars.

“The fleadh opened the eyes of people to see that we can own that trad heritage as well, and it has broadened the musical story of Mullingar."

The Hidden Heartlands tourism brand, which Mullingar and Westmeath falls under, was set up in 2018, and Fiona says that the fleadh, and even the “Covid experience” shone a spotlight on the area.

“Waterways, lakes, peatlands and so much more, it’s all on Mullingar’s doorstep. The Hidden Heartlands brand is all about being outside in nature, and that’s something that is very unique which we have in spades in this area.

“I think bringing the fleadh to Mullingar opened up the whole geography to a wider audience. It’s something that really resonates with domestic and international visitors alike, and people are really liking the vibe – it’s authentic , it’s real.”

During the fleadh, Hidden Heartlands teamed up with the council and Local Link, to extend a pilot scheme that saw local buses take in a tourism route, going to Fore, Tullynally, Belvedere. It is continuing throughout the month of August.

“It was a chance for us to show off the area more broadly. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but the fleadh has that profile to attract not just domestic tourism, but international tourism as well. They’re recognising there’s a lot going on in Westmeath.”

Fiona says that the positive publicity generated by the fleadh has "kickstarted us moving to another level".

“It gave us confidence that we can bring in the tourists. We always knew Mullingar was great ourselves,” she said.