Paddy Mathews, Fáilte Ireland.

‘Serious money’ available for tourism projects in midlands

“Serious money” is being made available for tourism projects in the midlands in what has been described as probably the broadest scheme Fáilte Ireland has ever run, and €38m is available to be awarded as soon as possible to deserving businesses and community enterprises.

Paddy Mathews of Fáilte Ireland says the money has to be spent by 2026, so they are looking for “low hanging fruit”, projects ready to go.

A list of potential projects was put forward by members of Westmeath County Council at their May meeting. Mr Mathews, Grainne Cornally and Fiona Dunne from Fáilte Ireland attended the meeting.

Mr Mathews told the councillors that the money is intended to help develop tourism in areas affected by the closure of Bord na Mona bogs. A total of €68m has been advanced to Fáilte Ireland for the purpose, €30m of which will go directly to Bord na Mona for the development a trail network through cutaway bogs, using the existing railways for conversion into greenways, and anchoring them to existing towns and villages where the tourism regeneration can happen.

There will be €25m rolled out in August for tourism businesses and community enterprises to avail of funding of up to €2 million. Fáilte Ireland hope to be able to award any grants of €10,000 or under at a rate of 100%. They will also be looking at projects that can be delivered through the local authorities.

There is €3m available for low carbon accommodation – glamping sites mainly. The maximum grant is €275,000, and it is hoped it will facilitate a number of glamping type projects or the adaptation of heritage building for use as tourism accommodation.

There is another €10m for a range of smart solution developments which will allow for the appointment of a tourism activator in each county. The activator will work with communities and businesses to get good quality projects into the scheme and once they are funded, to work with them to create strong networks and clusters of tourism businesses. The activator will be appointed by the end of the year to encourage cross promotion and cross selling within the tourism industry.

Fáilte Ireland held a drop-in clinic in Mullingar recently to hear what projects people had in mind. Mr Mathews said that such consultation will continue and they will be receiving applications for the next 18 months. They will be encouraging applicants to take their time with their applications. “We have made the mistake in the past of having deadlines that are too tight and we get hurried, poor applications,” Mr Mathews said.

Cllr Aengus O’Rourke, cathaoirleach, asked why greenways were more successful in other counties. Mr Mathews said the success of other greenways is due largely to local businesses – they take the marketing initiative and cross-promote each other’s businesses.

Mullingar is the only town in the country that has two greenways, so really, we should be seeing it as a real hub of greenway activity, he remarked.

Cllr Denis Leonard called for loop walks giving all the towns and villages access to the Royal Canal and the greenways and he called for walk- and cycleways along the light railway lines.

Cllr John Dolan said a pilgrim trail from Athlone to Clonmacnois was a “no brainer” for the funds and that an active volunteer group had been pushing for that for years. Mr Mathews agreed that it was a good idea and said they would be exploring all options.

Cllr Dolan said there is a planning issue regarding log cabins. He asked how glamping would be facilitated, and whether planning for a glamping site would be forthcoming when planning for a log cabin for someone to live in is refused.

Cllr Mick Dollard said he advises people to put up log cabins and say nothing because if they go looking for planning permission, they get a blank refusal. He wondered if log cabins would be provided at the lakes and if so, who would maintain them, pointing out that anti-social behaviour is a problem at lake shores.

Mr Mathews assured the meeting that where planning is required it will be a prerequisite of getting any funding. He said that at the consultation sessions in Mullingar, there was a lot of interest in the accommodation grants. People had some great ideas about what they could develop, and Fáilte Ireland informed them all that planning would be required and it didn’t faze them, he said. He added that it will be a condition of the funding that the any glamping accommodation remain in tourism use for at least 10 years.

Council official Barry Kehoe said building regulations make it difficult for log cabins to get through the planning process because they don’t meet the specifications to provide good quality, residential development for people to live in at all times of the year.

Cllr Frank McDermott welcomed the funding and anticipated huge public interest. He warned that the tourism activator would not get to sleep because there were so many groups available and active and willing in this county.

Cllr Frank Keena called for a greenway link between the old rail trail in Athlone and the Royal Canal greenway in Ballymahon, which would include Ballykeeran, Glasson and the Goldsmith countryside. He said Athlone is crying out for bike rental and kayaking businesses.

He also called for a mobile tourist office for Westmeath, to go to festivals and shows to promote what is on offer.

Mr Mathews said that stands are taken at festivals to promote tourism in the midlands, but most of the business is done online. Fáilte Ireland spent €1m on improving the websites of 40 tourism providers in the midlands and there will be more funding for such work.

Cllr Louise Heavin said a network of food producers in Westmeath needs to be developed, maintained and supported, particularly vegetable growers – who are struggling.

She’d love to see a trail going past dairy farms with milk vending machines, cutting out the middleman and reducing carbon across sectors. She suggested that Coillte should be asked to keep their ancient woodlands for people to visit.

Cllr Heavin said projects should be within easy reach of cycle routes or some sustainable transport option if the low carbon ambition is to be achieved. She also asked that museums and art venues remain open in the evenings to encourage the evening tourism economy.

Mr Mathews said food is an area in which they are active but need to do more. They work with Coillte and will have opportunities to fund projects with them. He agreed that the evening economy needs to be developed.

Cllr Tom Farrell said there should be trails from Uisneach to the greenways, a racing festival at Kilbeggan Racecourse and promotion of agricultural shows. He called for walking trails and loop walks at “our famous lakes”.

The trails that are funded must be on peatlands, but Fáilte Ireland may be able to dovetail some funding with ORIS (the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme) to insure there are joined up areas between peatland parts and non-peatland, Mr Mathews explained.

Cllr Liam McDaniel, who worked for 42 years with Bord na Mona, felt the Kilbeggan to Mullingar greenway should be given priority and that the Athlone to Clonmacnois loop should get serious consideration.

Cllr Paul Hogan added his “weight” to the pilgrim route idea. He said it was a perfect project for this funding stream.

Cllr Paddy Hill said that there were 1,000 people working at Coolnagun at one time and 250 when it closed. He felt that the areas that were affected by the closure of the bogs, the likes of Coole, Finea and Multyfarnham, should benefit from the funds. If this scheme creates even a dozen jobs in those areas, it would be welcome.

In an impassioned address, Cllr Hill said he wanted to send it out loud and clear, the rewetting of agricultural land is not going to be tolerated. “Get that message quickly. There’s people who, like the Bull McCabe, carried out restoration works with their bare hands on those lands, and I don’t want to see them flooded. There’s enough water in the country without flooding good agricultural land.”

Cllr Hazel Smyth, “another proud bogger”, said it was fantastic to see us taking pride in our bogs. We know that rewetting bogs helps them to reform to their peat forming condition, which is incredibly important from a climate action standpoint. Irish peatlands are the Amazon rainforest of Europe and vital to the environment as well as providing rare and varied biodiversity, she said.

She called for a Mullingar to Cavan greenway as proposed by “a resident of Castlepollard who is an environmentalist, educationalist and cycling enthusiast”. She said the plan is to connect the former railway line between Mullingar, at the Inny junction, to Cavan town. The infrastructure is already there, and it would provide a wonderful amenity, she suggested.

Cllr Smyth called for more ecotourism and more guided tours.

Cllr Vinny McCormack said we need to convince people to stop here rather than pass through, and said more signs on the greenways would get people to visit towns, villages and attractions. He said links to attractions such as Uisneach would enable visitors to get to them.

Mr Mathews said that the council are working on the Kilbeggan to Mullingar link and Fáilte Ireland would be keen to know the outcome and what the opportunity is. He agreed that there is great opportunity in the pilgrim route from Athlone to Clonmacnois.

In reply to Cllr Hill, Mr Mathews said the whole purpose of the scheme is to provide jobs where jobs were lost and to regenerate communities in rural areas. Tourism reaches parts of the economy that other economic sectors don’t reach, he stated.

He said sustainability must be the future of tourism and that in future, people might be taking fewer short breaks and spending more time and money in an area.

He agreed that there are not many guided tours and that ecotourism is ripe for development in the midlands. “We aim to be one of the top 10 leading tourism regeneration destinations in Europe in 10 years and having a good network of walking and cycle ways is a good base,” he said.

In response to Cllr McCormack, Mr Mathews said that rather than arresting people on their way through, they want to build up the midlands as a tourism destination in its own right.

Regarding the Mullingar to Cavan link, Mr Mathews said it had come on his radar and if it is across peatland, it should be picked up on this scheme.

Finally, Mr Mathews said that all ideas would be considered under the scheme and urged people to put forward proposals.