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04 Dec 2021

Exciting, bold national tourism plan for Birr

Exciting, bold national tourism plan for Birr

Alan Hill

An exciting and bold national tourism plan has been announced for Birr.
Taking its cue from stunning success stories such as Puy du Fou (a historical theme park in the Loire valley, France) the plan would be a guiding blueprint for the next couple of decades, charting possible ways forward for the town.
The strategy was unfolded by consultant Alan Hill during a zoom meeting on Wednesday afternoon last.
Alan Hill is a leading planner and strategic thinker with over twenty years of experience in the Irish tourism and recreation sectors. His background combines managerial roles, marketing, communications, and award winning TV production.
Being Director of Northern Ireland’s most significant cross-community festival, Armagh Together, was one of his achievements. Another was managing the Shannon Erne Waterway Irelands flagship cross border tourism product.
Alan is known for taking both a creative and logical approach in his consultancy work. He says he appreciates tradition, but also considers himself to be very innovative.He is known for beinga compassionate, qualified and respected trainer/teacher with “irrepressible intellectual curiosity”.
Alan has been mentoring the Birr Interpretive Strategy over the last few months. This strategy is led by Fáilte Ireland under the Destination Towns Initiative, supported by Offaly County Council and extensive local community engagement. As Alan revealed his full report of the Birr Interpretive Strategy during the zoom meeting his creative and logical approach was evident, as was his compassion and sensitivity to the community's wishes and the town's myriad strengths. His presentation highlighted some of the exciting opportunities and initiatives to make Birr a national tourism centre.
Offaly Heritage Officer Amanda Pedlow said the zoom meeting about Alan's report was being recorded and therefore those who missed the meeting would be able to watch it.
She praised everyone who contributed their ideas to the report, particularly Caroline Conway, Greg Smith and Theresa Ryan Feehan who invested a lot of time and effort in it.
"An enormous amount of work has gone into the report," she said. "There was a great deal of talking and listening, of exchanging ideas.
"The project began in a relatively modest way, focusing on the stories and narratives of the town, but it ballooned considerably beyond that and now has become an exciting document which is dramatically refocusing our engagement with tourism in the town. The ideas in this report are ambitious, they are considerably upping the ante. The report is 64 pages long and will be circulated to everyone shortly.”
Alan Hill said it took nearly five months to draw up the Strategy and there were about two hundred Birr contributors. "This report is a starting point, setting out an exciting vision, but it could take ten to fifteen years to realise some of the ideas. This will be a marathon, not a sprint. If these ideas are realised then Birr will have a very strong tourism economy which will be sustaining a number of jobs, and the town will have a reputation as being an outstanding tourism town in Ireland. The experience of visitors will be enriched because there will be a focus on the town's fascinating stories and narratives.
"The aim of the strategy is to lift all boats, to bring about a big improvement to our tourism offering which will benefit everybody not just a minority. It's not tainted by cynical aspirations or cynical projects, but is driven by ideas which will benefit all."
He said Birr has about 1500 years of remarkable history.

Within this 1500 year span there are several intriguing stories, including: 1) Early Christian and spiritual Birr. 2) Georgian Birr (which is the iconic Birr). 3) Two families have left a lasting legacy - the O'Carrolls and the Parsons. 4) Science and invention (very few towns have this aspect). 5) Birr's military history.
Alan listed a number of “touchpoints” in the town (physical spaces which tell a distinct story) including: 1) the former Sisters of Mercy Convent (now a beautiful library which is “a real credit to Birr”; and houses a facsimile of the Macregol Gospel). 2) Birr Castle Demesne. 3) St Brendan's old church on Castle Street. 4) The Birr Barracks Crinkle. 5) The Crotty chapel (the Crotty schism).
He also listed a number “discoveries”, which would enrich the tourist's experience: 1) The story of women in the town. 2) The very strong hurling legacy. 3) The military graves. 4) The birdlife. 5) The monastic past. 6) The story of the traditional industries.
These discoveries and touchpoints, he remarked, are all tools which can more fully help the community tell its unique and special story. He said he found the doorways of Birr “astonishing”, and we possess some “great statues.” Another strength is the festivals of Birr and their potential to grow into, what he called, “ a significant national festival.”
He talked about the written documents of Birr and the continuously evolving public realm project. He talked about the town's tour guides who possess “incredible passion and knowledge.” He added that a coffee culture is very marked in Birr today which has a number of excellent cafés.
Alan highlighted a number of possible projects which are innovative in concept. It was exciting to listen to them, like a lightbulb of possibility being switched on in the mind's eye. One of these innovative projects would be the creation of a Tourism Hub. This would be more than a traditional tourism office, and would be big in scope. It would be inspired by similar tourism hubs in other urban areas around the world. "There is a need for a tourism hub in the centre of Birr," he said, "which tourists could gravitate towards. It could be quite a large place in the centre of town with a tourism office and a display of artisan craftwork, and a venue for people to meet and hold events.
“Another concept is mobilising inter-county and cross-county initiatives which would correspond to the Birr story, such as the Midlands monastic story.
“A third concept is a Birr Heritage Guiding Network. There are some very experienced guides at the moment but we feel we could expand on that, creating tours which would focus on particular themes such as military history, science, culture and arts, architectural, tours dedicated to children, ghost tours, environmental tours. Also, tours where dogs could come along, on leads (these are very popular).
“A fourth concept is the purple flag night-time economy scheme, which would support Birr's daytime brand offering. The Purple Flag is an international accreditation programme that aims to reward those towns which achieve safe and thriving locations at night for all users. We are underdeveloped in terms of our night-time economy and it would be a big achievement to get a purple flag.
“5) Negotiated pedestrian areas; which would be linked to the Tourism Hub and the Public Realm work. What atmosphere do visitors want?
“6) Birr's mural magic.
“7) Birr's model village, of a 1 in 20 scale, depicting St Brendan's monastery and Crinkill Barracks in their heyday. The model will be built to a very high degree of architectural detail and will be located in the atrium of the library.
“8) St Brendan's viewing tower. This would be put in place of the collapsed section of St Brendan's old Church on Castle Street, which would give significant vistas of the town. The tower will be encased and won't affect the integrity of what presently remains of the tower and would be relatively cost effective.
“9) Enhancement of the festivals. I have been very impressed by the quality and the enthusiasm of the people guiding and participating in the festivals. This energy should be supported. Creating a national iconic festival is a possibility. And the question I ask locals is what would they like their national iconic festival to be in the years to come? Will it be an expansion of the Vintage Festival? Or something new? We have put a number of options down for you to consider, in the strategy report.
“10) Creating a Floral Corridor. Birr has two halves - the castle and the town. A Floral Corridor would entail the planting of trees and shrubs, which would remove the divide which the Castle wall creates, thus bringing about a floral, shrub and tree corridor (partly taking its inspiration from the London Garden Bridge, which, although a failed project that never saw the light of day, was still a good idea).
“ 11) Creating A Living History Academy of Birr; which would entail working with LOETB and Fáilte Ireland to create an academy where you would bring on board multiple local people who could teach subjects such as scriptwriting, costume making, performance, as well as training accredited courses in living history.
“It's possible to transform Birr in such a way that we would be attracting the same number of visitors as Puy du Fou in the Loire Valley in France. Puy du Fou attracts 2 million visitors a year and entertains people with daily heritage shows and spectacles. Something like Puy du Fou is currently not being done in Ireland. A project like this would find great support from Fáilte Ireland.”
Alan said he had been very impressed by the community spirit and the decency of the people living in Birr. “There is a remarkable degree of authentic and quietly self-confident people in Birr,” he remarked. “There is a pride of place. There was very little negative chatter going on in the discussions which I conducted over the last four and a half months. In spite of the economic stresses of the last ten years; and the undervaluing of self-worth, Birr has continued in a positive frame of mind.”
He said it's essential that the future of Birr is a collective and not an individual thing.
He warned against cynicism and putting ourselves down. “We are not inflating anything here in this report. We don't have to inflate anything to be excellent.”
He concluded that the town has the building blocks to “create an internationally significant, authentic, heritage town experience in the next two decades.”
Amanda Pedlow said Alan's presentation had highlighted what we all know, namely that Birr can be a very high player. She said Birr has a positive streetscape. “There's a very high level of dereliction in Cork city for example; this is nowhere near as marked in Birr. It is a pleasure and joy to walk around the streets of the town.”
Salters Sterling said Alan had done an excellent job which will get community attention and commitment.
Cllr John Clendennen said it's bold, ambitious and creative. "It is all achievable and will only take time, but what do we prioritise?”
Alan pointed out that Birr strategically is rudderless. “In the very short-term Birr needs to commit to an integrated tourism plan over the next 15 years or so. It will cost millions of Euros to create this and we will need to submit a very special document in a very competitive world.”
Amanda pointed out that Fáilte Ireland has recently given money towards projects which are infrastructure-focussed, including the Green Street upgrading, and new pedestrian entrance into the castle.
She pointed out that Westport and Kilkenny have their own distinct identities working in parallel with their counties and Birr and Offaly could be similar. “I think Birr's trajectory is a very steep upward curve regarding tourism and the number of visitors. It will be a very sophisticated heritage offering.”
Olive Farrelly, Offaly Tourism Officer, said she loved Alan's ideas and found them inspiring and exciting. “We have never seen these type of ideas for Offaly before.”
Alan said the local authority is the obvious agent to coordinate things. John Clendennen said he thinks a whole new department in the County Council will be needed to deal with the implementation of this plan. Amanda said she agreed.

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