IT was one of the first features that appeared in The Mayo News in 1892: the year it was founded by brothers William and PJ Doris. And unlike these high season summer days – even in the midst of a pandemic – visitors were a very rare sight on Clare Island during the 19th century. The unnamed writer was a well travelled man who had become weather-bound on the Clew Bay outpost and while waiting on the seas to becalm he wandered its boreens and byways, clifftops and coastal paths.
One afternoon as he admired the spectacular natural beauty all around him from the vantage of the storm beach at Kinnacorra, just down from the landlord’s lodge, he was startled by a sharp voice below him.
And this is how he recalled the conversation:
“I see, sir, you are admiring the scenery and it is worth looking at, though few strangers see it nowadays.”
“I almost envy you, the privilege of living here and always enjoying it.”
“Ah! sir, if people could live on scenery we would be alright, but unfortunately scenery will neither support us or pay our rents.”
Almost 130 years later and all we have to do here in west Mayo is look around us and see how much scenery pays.
Drive past Croagh Patrick carpark at 9.30am on an August Saturday morning and it is full already, as thousands of visitors holiday in the nearby hotels and B&Bs, eat in the restaurants and spend money in the shops and supermarkets. Head on out the road to Bertra or Old Head beaches and there is gridlock with car registrations telling the tale of how popular Westport and the Wild Atlantic Way has become.
So while Liam Horan, last week’s columnist in this series, reiterates the notion that that ‘you can’t eat scenery or fresh air’, he was addressing a very different west of Ireland than the one portrayed in the 1892 feature.
Indeed, it is a very different world to the one I embraced when I moved from Dublin to Clare Island in the 1980s. The potential dividends from tourism were still in their infancy 40 years ago with visitors to the island still being called Praegers by older people, in memory of the Edwardian naturalist who led the famous Clare Island Survey of 1909.
I had grown up on the edge of the capital city in a leafy Lucan, where the meandering river, and its dramatic weirs still dominated, while the suburban explosions of grey concrete awaited the arrival of the cranes of the Celtic Tiger during the 1990s.
But back to the present day and the absolute success of such branded experiences as the Great Western Greenway and the Wild Atlantic Way as the liberating getaway destinations for families encased by corporate, gridlocked lives. Never has this been in more focus than this summer with the whole emphasis on staycationing. Neither has it ever been more realistic for rural counties – and, moreover, offshore islands – to explore and highlight the advantages of rural living due to the now tested practicalities of remote working caused by the pandemic. Surely it is an opportune time for frustrated city dwellers to take up sticks, move west and benefit from the smell of the ocean, rather than suffocate from car fumes on the Red Cow Roundabout.