Last weekend I hosted a gathering of friends and family at an old farmhouse known as McClure’s that’s located in the shadow of the Sligo-Leitrim mountain range.
My father bought it back in the eighties and up our way it has become something of a renowned location for hosting such hoolies. There is an aura there that is conducive to letting go and an intimacy with nature that you only get by being surrounded by ancient trees and mountains, without a sign of any other civilisation.
The house and sheds, over 200 years old, are nestled in the middle of five protective oak trees at the bottom of a hill that creates a natural amphitheatre.
Directly in front of you is Ben Whiskin, to the right the Horse Shoe range and Ben Bulben. From the top of the hill you can see Mullachmore and Classie Bawn castle and right across Donegal bay. Arroo and the Dartry Mountains draw the eye to Fermanagh. It never fails to blow people away.
Some friends and I decided to get as many of our old college buddies together as we could in this year of the Gathering. They came from New York, Paris, London, Canada, Wexford, Limerick, Clare, Galway, Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Lurganboy. For some it was their first trip to Leitrim. They left seriously impressed and eagerly awaiting their next visit.
I have never taken Leitrim for granted and each time I return it continues to awake in me a joie de vivre. We have at our disposal one of the most appealing natural landscapes I have seen anywhere in the world. Our mountains prompted a number of comparisons with Middle Earth from my weekend guests.
Our coastline borders two counties with the best surf in Europe. Our lakes and rivers teem with life and opportunities. A starry night in Leitrim is guaranteed to make you wonder. A bicycle in Leitrim is akin to a time machine that can take you away from the modern world in minutes flat. A pair of shorts, runners and the company of your dog on a mountain trail can make an hour’s run feel like a week’s holiday.
The reason I bring all this up is not just to wax lyrical about the beauty of Leitrim - something most of you are already well aware of. What I’d like to do is stimulate some thought and discussion on how we can best utilise this stunning natural resource for the betterment of the local economy and potentially to generate a home-grown industry that will put Leitrim on the map for all the right reasons.
I had a very interesting conversation with a man called Alan Hill recently. Alan, a Monaghan man, has worked in community development for years and was aware of my keenness to promote Leitrim as a leisure and activity destination - something I have touched on in this column on a number of occasions. He recently won a tender to produce a comprehensive strategic plan outlining exactly how Leitrim could marketed and developed as a destination for all things recreational.
Along with some other like-minded people we bounced ideas about for a couple of hours in a brain-storming session that threw up many exciting possibilities.
I believe we have the potential to create in Leitrim a market that will stand apart from the rest of Ireland and attract those seeking something unique, be they high-end thrill seekers looking for a mountain bike trail that would make most of us weep or chilled-out water babies seeking to leisurely paddle down our rivers and lakes in a beautiful old Canadian canoe, camping as they go. This in turn will develop our need to provide a wide and varied menu of accommodation and associated hospitality services.
Those of you who have travelled to South East Asia will know how successful that part of the world has been in selling every last opportunity you can imagine - from tubing down through Cambodia’s rivers to biking your way through Vietnam to rock climbing on the islands off Thailand.
Every hostel you arrive at in that part of the world has a menu of activities ready for you, and they can book you in as soon as you take a room.
For something like this to take hold it would have to happen from the ground up, with a lot of help from the top down. There would have to be buy-in by a critical mass of people willing to turn their ideas into working enterprises in order to make things happen. There would have to be support at all stages from the relevant authorities - from the County Council and our politicians through to the planning department and community groups.
There would be a need for assistance in business development, marketing, strategies and training. Collaboration amongst various vested interests would be required. There would need to be a willingness to fail in order to eventually succeed. But we’re good like that in Leitrim.
You can say there’s no point in comparing Leitrim to South East Asia because they are worlds apart. For one they have the weather for outdoor activities and a ready market. Well you should try that part of the world during rainy season.
Anyway, people who are fond of outdoor activities don’t let the weather bother them. It’s just another part of the adventure. And we have proven successful small enterprises in this space already. Just check out Teapot Lane Glampsite or the burgeoning surfing economy in Bundoran on our doorstep.
We have also seen how Carrick-on-Shannon can come together as an entire community to create a year-long festival to celebrate its 400th year. And whatever you feel about Carrick becoming a Mecca for Hen and Stag parties, there’s no arguing with how successful local clubs and pubs have been in marketing themselves in that space.
I’ll return to this topic in more detail again in the not too distant future. This column was an attempt to get your creative juices flowing and maybe generate a few ideas and conversations around the topic. Lots of people quip about Leitrim being the mythical county. That could be our starting point right there.