The Chief Executive and Cathaoirleach of Offaly County Council have welcomed the €68m for Regenerative Tourism business supports and a Tourism Trails Network as part of the €168m Territorial Just Transition Plan for Ireland, 2021–2027.
Offaly County Council’s submission to the draft Territorial Plan in February 2022 had stated that “Support for tourism initiatives through the JTF will generate jobs in communities directly affected by decarbonisation and should be considered as a priority”. The funding announced has potential to deliver on significant elements of two of the five “projects of Scale” proposed in the Council’s submission, namely the Midlands Cycling Destination – Offaly and further development of Lough Boora Sculpture Park.
The funding confirmed will enable the development of a network of trails linked to existing and emerging greenways; provide support to tourism businesses developing tourism infrastructure and experiences; repurpose buildings for small scale tourism developments and support the use of smart technology and digitalisation to the benefit of visitors, businesses and the economy of the Midlands.
Cathaoirleach of the Council, Cllr. Frank Moran considers that potential projects which will arise from these four strands could be truly transformative in enhancing the tourism potential of the midlands. He noted that in terms of a strategic network of cycling & walking trails for the midands, Offaly is quite literally the ‘crossroads’ where the key elements of the network intersect. There is therefore, “massive potential for towns and villages within Offaly to function as accommodation, service and attraction ‘hubs’, supporting communities which heretofore were heavily dependent on peat and power generation for employment”, he stated. He cautioned however that the other strands of the Just Transition Fund must also focus on the areas most affected by the accelerated decarbonisation. He noted that an EU co-funded study by EnvEcon in 2021 found that Offaly is the most negatively affected by accelerated decarbonisation.
The Chief Executive of the Council, Ms. Anna Marie Delaney noted that Offaly County Council’s 2015 Walking & Cycling Strategy called Connecting People - Connecting Places and the subsequent Midlands Cycling Destination – Offaly Feasibility Study (2016), prepared in partnership with Coillte and Bord na Mona, contain many of the key strategic links, intersections and can also accommodate the iconic features which the fund can deliver. “There is wealth of heritage, peatland and waterway-related building stock within Offaly which could be re-purposed for tourism under the fund”, she stated.
Ms. Delaney also said that the scale of this tourism fund has “The capacity to unlock economic opportunities for businesses and communities throughout Offaly. The realisation of key tourism projects will enhance Offaly as a place to live, work, create and invest”.
The Council, in partnership with Waterways Ireland has already developed over 50 kms of the Grand Canal Greenway and hopes to complete the 71km project from Edenderry to Shannon Harbour in 2023. A 14km spur link has also been built from Ballycommon to Kilbeggan in Co. Westmeath along a disused canal branch.
Ultimately, the Midlands Cycling Destination – Offaly could be an international-scale (300km+) cycling destination, mostly on publicly owned lands right throughout Offaly, in addition to approximately 13 inspirational connections to Galway, Westmeath, Roscommon, Tipperary, and additional connections to Kildare, Laois and onto Longford. “While the current funding has a remit over parts of 8 counties, undoubtedly some of the key iconic trails and features of a unique off-road walking & cycling offer can be located within Offaly, and could then be expanded throughout the midlands for years to come”, Ms. Delaney stated.
Because the Midlands Cycling Destination – Offaly can ultimately secure the connections between the Grand Canal Greenway, the Royal Canal Greenway, the Old Rail Trail / Dublin-Galway Greenway (Eurovelo route 2), the Barrow Blueway and the Shannon Blueway, it would facilitate an incredible linked network of off-road routes spanning from north Longford / Roscommon / Leitrim to Waterford and from Dublin to Galway. This would be tourism and amenity development on an unprecedented scale in Ireland and would be a product of major international interest. This regional dimension is very important for scalability of the walking and cycling offer to attract both domestic and international visitors, to ensure significant tourism spend related to walking & cycling and also to enhance both of Fáilte Ireland's Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands and Ireland’s Ancient East regional brand offerings.
Cathaoirleach Cllr. Moran went on to say that the reason why this funding is so important and so welcome is “because it could deliver projects aligned to the Midlands Cycling Destination – Offaly, precisely in the areas most affected by ‘post-peat’ and accelerated decarbonisation, both geographically and in terms of where job losses have been greatest”.
Director of Services for Planning, Economic & Rural Development, Heritage, Tourism and Birr Municipal District Ann Dillon noted that most of the strategic routes and potential iconic features will take place over the routes of the Bord na Mona narrow-gauge railway lines and stated that “The preservation of the industrial railway corridors and securing these routes as public rights of way into the future, is one of the greatest opportunities posed by the post-peat era. It is our hope to secure world class walking and cycling routes across a transforming ’post-peat’ landscape for generations to come”.
Ms Delaney further outlined the expansion of and updates to the already iconic attraction Lough Boora Sculpture Park could be just one focus for the delivery of funding. She noted that the report entitled, ‘Invitation to collaborate – art in the landscape’ by Terre Duffy January 2021, concluded that there is potential to expand the geography of the Sculpture Park, and consider new Art in the Landscape sites along this greenway route as part of the Unique Selling Point (USP) of Midlands Cycling, and along the expanded cycling network within the park.
The funding of strategic trails and iconic features has the potential to significantly strengthen Offaly’s network of tourist and activity attractions such as Birr Castle, Clara Bog, Clonmacnoise, Croghan Hill extinct volcano, Derryounce Lakes & Trails, Esker Hills - Shane Lowry’s home golf club, the Grand Canal Greenway, Leap Castle, Lough Boora Discovery Park, the River Shannon and stopping points thereon, such as Banagher & Shannonbridge, the Slieve Bloom Mountains and Mountain Bike Trails, St. Manchan’s Shrine and Tullamore D.E.W. Distillery Visitor Experience.
Ms. Delaney concluded by saying that she acknowledges the work the Department of the Environment, Climate Change & Communications and the Eastern & Midland Regional Assembly in securing this funding for the midlands, and that Offaly County Council is looking forward to working with Fáilte Ireland, the tourism trade and communities on the exciting projects which will emerge.