TOURISM IN COROFIN – A COMMUNITY PERSPECTIVE
When we think about it tourism as we now know it is a relatively new industry in Ireland. With the economic upturn in Ireland in the late 1950’s and 1960’s and with Shannon Airport well established the possibility of attracting foreign tourists in large numbers to this part of Ireland became a reality. Shannon Development Company was established as a regional development organisation in 1959 with tourism development as part of its brief. The potential of tourism as a driver of economic growth in Clare was identified from a very early stage and the first network or partnership happened as early as 1961 with the establishment of the Clare Tourist Council, a body which is still going strong to the present day.
Of course there was a tourism industry in Clare for more than a century before that, but the visitors to the county were for the most part Irish, the main attractions being the seaside resorts of Lahinch and Kilkee, the lakeside resort of Killaloe and the Spa town of Lisdoonvarna. Lahinch had the added advantage of being a golf resort. The early make up of the Clare Tourist Council, driven by people like Michael Vaughan, was with people who already had experience in the tourism industry but in the following years individuals and community development groups became members in a collective effort to promote Co. Clare to the wider world.
And what was the origin of the community development organisations referred to? The parish of Corofin provides an example of what could be and was achieved by voluntary local networks in rural communities in those early years. Rural development organisations such as Muintir na Tire and the Irish Country Women’s Association had done much to enhance the social and economic lot of their members in rural Ireland in the previous decades and in Corofin it was an initiative from the ladies which saw the establishment of the Corofin & District Development Association in 1969. This quickly became a broad based organisation and set as its goals, economic development, improved infrastructure and village enhancement. (So nothing has changed!) The group did not set out to become a tourism organisation. However it was clear that Corofin was unlikely to become a base for any manufacturing industry, although there were plans at one time to establish a glove factory, which fell through. Instead much of the early effort was devoted to establishing the area as an angling destination. Corofin village has eleven lakes within a five mile radius and the River Fergus runs through the parish. The area also had an established track record in attracting anglers. During the first half of the 20th century when the big houses in the area, such as Clifden House and Cragmoher House were struggling to survive they promoted angling holidays, especially in England, in an attempt to make ends meet. Clifden House and Lake Inchquin was the setting for Barker’s famous publication ‘An Angler’s Paradise’ which helped to attract UK anglers to the area both before and after World War 2. Many photographs survive which reflect on that period.
However the challenge in 1969 was entirely different. How do you go about establishing a tourism industry which will benefit the community as a whole? Firstly there was an issue of accommodation. This led to a need to encourage families to consider setting up guesthouses or bed and breakfast accommodation.
It meant providing the training to enable, in most cases, the woman of the house to run such establishments successfully. Of the original guesthouses established, Fergus View in Kilnaboy still operates more than 40 years on. Boat-building classes were held in the old schoolhouse in Corofin about 1970 where around 12 wooden angling boats were built over two winters. Many of these boats are still in use today. As already referred to, the area around Corofin boasts eleven lakes. At that time however any kind of road access was a major issue. The development organisation took on the role of negotiating with local landowners to buy up strips of land which allowed for new roads to be made and in many cases car-parks provided which opened up these lakes not only for anglers but for other water based activities. The road to and car park at Inchiquin is an example of this type of development. The Inland Fisheries Board was established to manage and stock Ireland’s rivers and lakes. And the anglers came. It gradually brought benefits to the area, accommodation providers, local pubs and restaurants, shops, boat hire, ghillies, etc. However angling tourism in Corofin was badly hit by events elsewhere in the mid-70’s. The escalating troubles in Northern Ireland impacted greatly on the main UK market. A very good example of this was that a group of around 20 Liverpool policemen who had made an annual fishing trip to Corofin over a six year period no longer came.
By the early ‘70’s however tourism had become a buzzword and it was fast becoming a major contributor to both national and local economies. It had become a priority for the government of the time and Shannon Development Company had been making strides to expand tourism development throughout the mid-West region including Co. Clare. More visitors were coming from the US and with growth in European markets there was an increasing demand for self-catering holidays. Visitors were becoming aware of all that Co. Clare and the west of Ireland had to offer and were happy to be based in one location in order to experience this. Corofin’s central location and its proximity to the Burren made it a good choice. Shannon Development launched a promotional campaign to help establish holiday villages in many small towns in the region. This was the advent of the Rent-an-Irish-Cottage scheme.
The first two locations selected to participate in this programme were Corofin and Ballyvaughan. The regional authority realised that the only way that this could happen quickly was by working with the local development organisations in each location. It was up to the local groups to acquire the land on which the cottages would be built and the locals were also expected to contribute towards the cost of each cottage. The number of self-catering units built related directly to the amount of investment that could be raised in the local community. The commitment of the Corofin public to making this project a success is evidenced by the fact that while one cottage scheme was planned for the area the amount contributed locally allowed for two schemes, one of eight cottages on a panoramic site overlooking Inchiquin Lake and a second of six cottages in Corofin village. The site acquired at Clifden was substantial and allowed for several acres behind the cottage scheme to be sold for forestry at a later date which helped fund other local development initiatives. Similar schemes followed in towns and villages throughout the mid-west and were the forerunner of the many modern self-catering complexes that followed later. The cottage scheme served the area well for the next thirty years but as more modern developments and other options became available they lost some of their appeal. Most are now in private ownership, with many used as holiday homes.
As an aside the Corofin development group realised early on that it could enhance the visitor experience by providing an element of cultural entertainment and this led to the setting up of the original Teach Ceoil in the village and the provision of a weekly seisiun of traditional music song and dance during the summer season. The original base for these seisiuns was in the single-story building belonging to the O’Sullivan family between the Grotto and the current Teach Ceoil. Now in a permanent home since the mid-90’s and operated by the local CCE branch it is something which has been widely adopted and expanded upon in other areas since.
And it was towards culture and heritage that the voluntary group in Corofin next turned its attention. St. Catherine’s, the Church of Ireland building in the village which was originally constructed in the early 18th century had been disused for many years and was offered to the local community by the Representative Church Body around 1980 for use for some appropriate activity. There had been a move around that time to provide other experiences for tourists by way of ‘visitor attraction’s’ and it was decided that the church building would be very suitable as a small museum. This led to the establishment of the Clare Heritage Centre in the village providing another piece of tourism infrastructure in the area. It was obvious that this would at best be a seasonal attraction and have minimal prospect of providing employment. It did however ensure the conservation and development of this historic building and while modern visitor attractions have been developed using very sophisticated and high tech methods the museum in Corofin which houses a fine collection of artefacts still continues to attract a sizeable number of visitors each summer. The person most responsible for the establishment of the Heritage Centre and the driving force behind the Corofin & District Development Association at that time was Ignatius Cleary or Naoise as he was known to everyone, the retired school principal in the village. He was also a well-known local historian and an expert on family names and place-names.
In this context he continually received visits and written requests from people wishing to trace their Irish roots. He had collected a sizeable archive of reference material over the years but was aware that the main source of family information was to be found in parish records. He managed to convince the clergy at the time that these records should be indexed and in return he would provide a copy index to each parish. And so over the following years the church records of every parish in Clare and St. Mary’s parish in Limerick City pre 1900 were copied and indexed and for the most part computerised. Gerard Kennedy was taken on to supervise and manage the recording process and set up a genealogical service for people with Clare roots. FAS the state training agency supported the initiative through the provision of a youth training programme which also saw the recording of gravestone inscriptions from around the county and the adding of other genealogical resources. The demand for the service grew and space at the museum, where the project was located was limited so it became obvious that a separate centre to house the genealogical research would be needed. The development association acquired the site of the old garda barrack (previously an RIC barrack) close by and with assistance from Clare County Council and Shannon Development Company built the new Genealogy Centre which opened in 1988. In a quid pro quo with the Council an adjoining building was constructed housing a new library for the village. It was around this time also that a small group in Dysart led by Dick Cronn set about the restoration of Dysart O’Dea castle and the development of archaeology trails in the vicinity.
The genealogy initiative in Corofin attracted the attention of community groups in other parts of Ireland and in a relatively short period of time similar centres sprung up in several counties. This led to the setting up of The Irish Family History Society as a national network. The Corofin centre is still very active in dealing with genealogical enquiries and part of the new building now houses an information office for the Burren National Park. It should be remembered also that work on establishing the Burren National Park dates back to this period. There were plans to erect a significant visitor centre adjacent to the park which caused major controversy at the time and which in the end led to those plans being abandoned.
There were around 15 young people working on the FAS scheme at the Heritage Centre at any one time and together with the manager worked on an external project, not related to the development association, initially as an experiment, which saw the establishment of the Festival of Finn as a 10-day fun festival in the village around 1987. They involved other local organisations in the festival programme but for the most part it was the same core group which ran the festival every year until 1995. The festival which had a packed programme of both day-time activities and evening entertainment proved a great success. It brought a lot of visitors to the village and it was a focal point for locals living abroad or in other parts of Ireland to holiday at home. While the festival got some sponsorship from local pubs it embarked on fundraising initiatives each year, including a local mayoral election, to fund the promotion and running of the ten-day event. There were two main reasons for the demise of the Festival of Finn at that time. Firstly the festival had operated without insurance from the outset and found that it could not get insurance at any reasonable cost for many of its activities. This was becoming a cause of concern to the organisers and allied to the perception that there was very little input from the business community the main beneficiaries of the festival it was decided not to continue after 1995.
Meanwhile following the expansion of the Heritage & Genealogy Centre in the village the main concern of the original Corofin & District Development Association was in the management and development of that entity in the years following 1988. By the early 1990’s a number of people were concerned that other local development issues such as Tidy Towns involvement, wider tourism development, etc. were not getting proper attention. This led to the establishment of a new development organisation known as Coiste Forborthta Cora Finne under the Chairmanship of Myra English. This resulted in more activity on a number of fronts with the establishment of new sub-groups including a Tourism Committee. The generic Corofin Tourism promotional brochure which many will have seen was an initiative of this group. The Board of Corofin & District Development Association then became the directors of a new limited company Clare Heritage & Genealogy Centre Ltd. required to run that operation on a commercial basis and no longer had use for the old name which was promptly adopted by the Coiste Forborthta group. They had decided to apply for a FAS Community Employment Scheme for the area in order to assist with various activities and in order to do so they had also to become a limited company. Corofin & District Development Company Ltd. was incorporated and has remained as such until recently when it has again reverted back to simply being a voluntary association even though its more than ten years since the FAS scheme finished.
A couple of local initiatives worth mentioning around this period was the fact that Corofin Dramatic Society ran a one-act drama festival over a week-end in November for a number of years which brought groups from various parts of Ireland to take part. There will be the potential to revive something similar when the hall development is completed. The success of the local group in national competitions in recent years has helped to raise the profile of Corofin among a different audience and this contribution should also be recognised. Another initiative, a Percy French week-end, was organised which ran for two or three years and proved popular while it lasted.
The development work undertaken by the Corofin GAA Club during the 90’s should not be ignored either. Having moved from the sports-field beside the hall it commenced the development of the Pairc Finne complex over the next two decades into the excellent community facility which it is today. Having widened the entrance to their property they sold on the building at the entrance to the Corofin CCE who in turn developed the Teach Ceoil which now houses numerous cultural and community activities.
During the 90’s the concept of twinning with a town or village elsewhere in the world was gaining in popularity and most of this activity was happening in Europe encouraged as part of EU integration. And so it was that Corofin decided to twin with Tonquedec a rural village in Brittany towards the end of the decade. Most of the contacts were made through Marie and Jude Neylon, who themselves have been major contributors to local tourism through the development of the Corofin Hostel and caravan and camping site. The formal twinning ceremony took place in Corofin in 1999. There have been a number of reciprocal visits over the years the most recent was to mark the 10th anniversary in 2009 when a group from Corofin travelled to Tonquedec. The Bretons are due a visit here which hopefully will happen in 2014.
The local tourism sub group did a lot of good work for a few years but by the new millennium had more or less ceased to operate. Ireland was in the middle of boom times and everyone seemed to be doing well. Other than a number of minor issues there was a period of relative inactivity on the local development front. Gerard Kennedy took over from Myra English as Chairman around this time with Myra staying on as Treasurer and Kitty Tierney as Secretary. The Corofin & District Development Company continued to meet on a relatively regular basis. Its membership was mainly representatives of several local organisations, most already referred to, but also including groups such as the ICA, Soccer Club, Show Society and Youth Club whenever there was one. It was also open to individuals to attend. The first Corofin promotional website was set up. The twinning process obviously continued as did tidy towns work although with a pretty low level of activity. CCE established the Corofin Trad Festival which has run very successfully at the end of February, early March for the past twelve years and gives a good early boost to local tourism. The Christmas Lights group came together and they have improved and erected the festive lights in Corofin for several years. The new Children’s Playground in the village was developed. Corofin was linked to the Burren Way and a number of loop walks some within the Burren National Park developed. At a general level the village was growing with new housing estates and private housing being developed. This has led in some instances to the setting up of residents associations.
A group looking at the redevelopment of the hall had been in place since 2004 and established CHAF in 2006 which eventually was successful in drawing up plans and securing the funding to proceed with the hall development project, due to be finished by May 2014.
The need to refresh certain areas of community activity and develop others was highlighted at meetings of the Development Company in recent years. This led to a greater level of activity in relation to Tidy Towns and a re-involvement in the national Tidy Towns Competition for the first time in several years. It also saw more volunteers getting involved. Great credit is due to the group as a whole which has seen the marks for Corofin increase by 12 points over the past two years. The effort needs to be sustained and supported. The need for a new tourism sub-group, youth club and a new community alert organisation were the other areas identified. The Tourism Association has been established with great success and in less than two years has made its mark in helping to promote the tourism potential of the area. It has produced new promotional literature, revamped and improved the Corofin website, successfully campaigned for better promotional signage for the area and revived he Festival of Finn, initially as part of The Gathering 2013, but which is now set to become an annual event once more. It has seen the re-establishment of a Farmer’s Market in the village. Most importantly it has brought tourism interests in the area together with interested individuals’ intent on promoting Corofin as a tourist destination. Corofn Youth Club was re-established in 2012 and a Community Alert organisation has just been set up.
So where is tourism now in the Corofin area? There are many positives. Corofin is no longer a one-trick pony as it was in the beginning although there is an apparent pick-up in relation to angling tourism in the area. Other types of activity holidays are also on offer with walking an obvious choice. The proximity of the Burren National Park and the location of the information office in Corofin village is a major plus. Corofin is still an ideal centre for touring all of Co. Clare and farther afield such as Galway and Connemara. It has seen the restoration of Cragmoher House as an accommodation base and a cookery school established at Inchiquin House as well as the Life-Balance retreat centre in Killeen. There are many self-catering houses available in the locality with some pretty unique options uch as Richmond House and Ballyportry Castle. The hostel and caravan and camping facility offers another option. While the area has lost most of the original B & B’s many others of very high standard have come on board over the years. The Pot Shop in Church Street has always been a big attraction for visitors and a new gift shop is also open in the village. We have seen the establishment of The Farmyard as a visitor attraction adding to the other local attractions at Dysart O’Dea Archaeology Centre and the Heritage Centre at Corofin, while several other small and large visitor attractions are within easy driving distance including Fr. Ted’s House, Dromore Nature Reserve, The Burren Perfumery, the Michael Cusack Centre and Caherconnell Stone Fort.
The natural and built heritage of the area including the flora and fauna is a massive resource. It is not restricted by seasonality or weather conditions and has the potential to be packaged and promoted further. Corofin has been the pioneer in relation to community based genealogy in Ireland and there is a huge market for this service.
As for events there is now the Trad Festival, the Festival of Finn and the annual North Clare Agricultural Show and perhaps needs the revival of a Drama Festival towards the end of the year to complete the programme?
There are however reasons to be concerned. It is sad to see two of the finest residential houses in the village and which are now in State ownership, adjacent to the local hall, in a state of dereliction. Originally intended as offices for the staff of The Buren National Park successive administrations have failed to develop them as planned, resulting in their current unacceptable condition. Services available to visitors have also become very limited in recent years. Corofin has the shops and the service stations and the availability of an ATM machine in the village is a big plus. It is in the area of pubs and restaurants that the biggest changes are taking place. Over the years there were many excellent restaurants with the first being at Caherbolane House which was also one of the original guest houses established in the area. In more recent year’s there was the Petit Bistro where the take-away is now located in the village while it also had Maryese & Gilbert’s restaurant at Baunkyle. At Market Street where a Chinese Restaurant was the most recent occupier, was at one time The Gairdin Restaurant and later La Catalina which gave alternative eating out options. Teach Ui Dalaigh also offered restaurant facilities for a number of years. There was the closure of The Station Bar outside the village as well as the closure of Cahir’s Bar in Corofin. The village also lost the Corofin Arms as a bar and restaurant very recently. Other bars only provide a limited service with at least two not opening until late evening. Bofey Quinns is the only full time bar and restaurant in the village while the Inchiquin Inn/Anne’s Kitchen provides day-time eating. From a Tourism Association’s viewpoint it is hoped that increased tourism activity will present the opportunity to develop new and improve existing services in the village in the coming years.
This brings it up to date and gives a perspective on the work which was started 44 years ago and which a current group of community activists are now helping to continue. Community development never rests and can be a difficult process as it depends almost entirely on volunteers to maintain momentum. It can also be difficult in that most of the effort falls on a relatively small number of people. But there is also great satisfaction to be gained from the visible progress made in improving the lot of a community both economically and physically and in the communal effort involved in achieving that.
Gerard Kennedy November 2013.