The Great Western Greenway is a cycling and walking trail laid on the bed of a disused railway, that aim to improve recreation, health and job opportunities by tapping into Ireland’s love of the outdoors, whatever the weather.

Share story

WESTPORT, Ireland —

On a quiet country path in the west of Ireland, about a mile outside the charming County Mayo town of Westport, walkers and cyclists pass a strange wayside sculpture.

Two crumpled suitcases, cast in bronze, sit under a hedge by the pathway, a crushed-gravel trail that stretches 26 miles from sheltered Westport harbor to the wind-blasted rocks of Achill Island on the wild Atlantic coast.

This is the Great Western Greenway, a cycling and walking trail laid on the bed of a disused railway, and one of a growing number of country routes that aim to improve recreation, health and job opportunities by tapping into Ireland’s love of the outdoors, whatever the weather.

The whimsical suitcases, put there to mark the Greenway’s completion in 2011, are a nod to a custom from the early 20th century. Before the rise of the automobile killed off the old branch line, its little steam locomotives puffed by so slowly that passengers would toss their bags out as the train passed their homes.

After the railway was closed in 1937, its route was sold off to adjoining landowners, mainly small farmers who grazed sheep and a few head of cattle on Mayo’s picturesque but rough pastures and hills. To revive the route as a leisure trail, the local council had to persuade 161 landowners to allow hordes of strangers to traipse through their properties — without paying them a cent for the privilege.

Pat Kelly, a local sheep farmer, said he was skeptical when the council first approached him.

“At the best of times it’s hard to get Irish farmers to agree to things, particularly to do with crossing their land,” he said. “They are very edgy about letting people in.”

That reluctance, 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.

“We were in a bad place back in 2009,” 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 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 rentals and other tourism-related businesses, the council said, and more than a quarter-million people now use the trail each year.

The Greenway concept, already proved 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.

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, 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,” Madigan said.

There is a rueful saying in the west of Ireland that “you can’t eat scenery,” but it’s only half true: During the summer, tourism is the lifeblood of the beautiful Atlantic seaboard. Some hope that new walking trails and greenways can extend that season into the rest of the year.

On a recent weekend, a weather app gave the following forecast for western Mayo: 10 a.m. broken clouds and sunshine; 1 p.m. overcast with drizzle; 3 p.m. overcast with extreme heavy rain; 4 p.m. fog; 5 p.m. overcast with regular heavy rain; 7 p.m. drizzle; 9 p.m. snow. Temperatures ranged from 39 to 45 degrees.

Yet this did not deter Ann O’Connor and Terence McGrath, a Dublin couple, from trying to cycle from Mulranny to the village of Louisburgh and back, a 60-mile round trip, most of it on the Greenway.

They made it to Louisburgh and then back as far as Westport, 18 miles short of their hotel, before putting their bikes into a taxi amid driving rain and hail. (To be fair, the forecast hadn’t mentioned hail.)

“It’s so breathtaking,” O’Connor said, in no way deflated by the ordeal. “Even when it was raining, there was so much to see.”

McGrath added, philosophically: “It’s a different scenery in the rain to what you see when it’s sunny. It has a different beauty then.”