Success of Irish Trail Shows That Maybe You Can Eat the Scenery

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That reluctance, Mr. Kelly said, is partly “on account of the struggle for land in the past, the hard times we came from, the British Empire running the country,” when landlords, who were predominantly Protestant, rented to tenant farmers, who were mainly Roman Catholic.

This passion for land is deeply engraved in the Irish mentality, as evidenced in literary works like Patrick Kavanagh’s epic poem “The Great Hunger” and John B. Keane’s play “The Field,” said Terence Dooley, a historian of land reform who is a professor at Maynooth University. “And rights of way on Irish land are probably the most contentious and controversial issue you can deal with.”

But the timing of the Greenway development was propitious.

The local council had long been interested in using the old railway as a walking and cycling route based on similar initiatives elsewhere in Europe. And when Padraig Philbin, the senior county engineer who pioneered the Greenway, got started on the project nine years ago, the global financial crisis had left Ireland in need of ideas that would bring in revenue.

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Pat Kelly, a sheep farmer, gave up part of his home’s driveway to the Great Western Greenway.

Credit
Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

“We were in a bad place back in 2009,” Mr. Philbin said. “The recession had just begun, and this area was hurt worse than most. Most people knew it was for the well-being of the entire area, and there would be jobs and other benefits.”

There were still many obstacles. Landowners had to be assured that they would not face lawsuits by anyone injured on the trail, and that they would retain full ownership of their land and be able to withdraw permission to cross it at any time. In some places, diversions had to be made where the old line passed too close to newly built houses, or where landowners could not be persuaded to come on board.

But the response to the Greenway’s opening has been highly positive.

The local council reckons that the trail had already generated enough new tourism to make up for most of its cost of 7.5 million euros, or about $9.3 million, only a year after it officially opened in 2010. At least 200 new jobs were created in pubs, hotels, bicycle rental and other tourism-related businesses, the council said, and over a quarter-million people now use the trail each year.

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The Westport area has seen an increase in tourism-related business since the trail opened.

Credit
Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

The Greenway concept, already proven abroad, has been emulated in other parts of Ireland, too. Walking and tourism groups like Mountaineering Ireland are relying on the same principle of “permissive access” to develop new foot trails and improve existing ones in other scenic but privately owned shore and mountain areas.

Mr. Kelly, the farmer, likes the Greenway concept so much that he lets one section follow part of his house’s driveway. There, he built a wooden shelter for tired passers-by, with water on tap for humans and dogs.

“I’ve met people from all over the world right on my doorstep,” he said.

Dermot Madigan, the general manager of the Mulranny Park Hotel, said it was a no-brainer to let the Greenway pass through the hotel grounds. Built in 1897 as a seaside resort that depended on the railway, the hotel now sees its old branch line delivering customers once again. “Our bar business alone went up 13 percent in the first year, which is a big jump,” Mr. Madigan said.

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