*A demonstration held in memory of Jerry O’Connor. Photograph: John Mangan
ABUNDANCE OF TRAFFIC and recent accidents in North Clare has gone “passed saturation point” with frustration voiced with the ongoing wait for a transport and mobility strategy.
Road safety in North Clare has been in the spotlight following the death of Lisdoonvarna man Jerry O’Connor at the end of July. It has led to a series of demonstrations in Ballyvaughan where he was killed.
At the May meeting of the West Clare Municipal District, Director of Services for Tourism Development, Leonard Cleary in response to a proposal from Cllr Joe Garrihy (FG) on a North Clare traffic and mobility strategy stated, “There is a commitment to get it moving but it is not an overnight flick of a switch”.
He stressed, “there is a will to do it, it is just making it happen and getting the team focused on it. It has moved a good bit in the last three months, particularly driven by Deirdre O’Shea in the tourism department”.
When councillors convened for the September sitting of the West Clare MD, the item was back on the agenda, this time tabled by Cllr Shane Talty (FF) and Cllr Joe Killeen (FF). They sought on update on the progress since the May meeting “in the context of having experienced a very busy summer on the roads of North Clare, with congestion from buses and independent travellers, as well as the tragic fatal road traffic accident in Ballyvaughan”.
In a written four page reply to the motion, Cleary began by extending sympathies to those bereaved following road fatalities. He said the West Clare MD would support the County Council, its road department and physical development directorate on a transport and traffic management plan for North Clare, the preparation of which is to be led by the National Transport Authority. “The immediate practical approach in North Clare is to progress definite projects and actions, that in time will be part of such a Transport and Traffic Management Plan, but in the immediate term could deliver early solutions for transport and traffic”.
Director Cleary acknowledged that the NTA had been “very positive and proactive” in the county and were presently working on a transport plan for Ennis town. “It is acknowledged that there has been calls locally in North Clare that consideration be given to the data that the return of high visitor numbers to all tourism sites post-pandemic may present a unique case for an early Transport and Traffic Plan for North Clare. The important point to note here is that the commencement date for the North Clare Transport and Traffic Management Plan does not prevent the immediate progression of projects and actions locally. This has to remain the key focus”.
Data researched for a study of all ‘pinch-points’ along coastal roads of North Clare which are part of the Wild Atlantic Way will inform the transport and traffic management plan, he confirmed.
Development of a shuttle-bus to the Burren National Park (Mullaghmore) by National Parks and Wildlife Service “seeks to reduce traffic congestion as vehicles are parked in the adjacent village of Corofin. It is acknowledged that there is a parking and traffic challenge at the Burren National Park,” he stated. Environmental and planning challenges exist at such specific locations, Cleary flagged and must be considered in the plan.
Enforcing bus route licences “is a challenge for any inspectorate”, he admitted. The function is held by the NTA and Cleary said there has been calls locally for the inspectorate to be further resourced. “The NTA are the appropriate authority for concerns regarding adherence to route licenses. An Garda Síochána are the authority to report allegations of dangerous incidents. Without reporting, there is no method to quantify such actual occurrences. This will afford fair and just procedure”.
Doolin’s masterplan which has been developed by the Council and is being implemented on a phased basis subject to funding has led to improvements, he believed. Additional parking is part of the plans for a visitor centre in Doolin. “Again, there are major environment and planning constraints here and the parking solution element has taken longer than envisaged,” Leonard admitted. A temporary overflow car park has been made available by the Council and local landowners to relieve the traffic and parking pressure at Doolin pier.
Transport and traffic was also one of the key items raised by stakeholders in the two-year public consultation window for the draft Cliffs of Moher Strategy 2040. The Director said it “has been included as a priority”. While the draft strategy is being finalised, the Council and the Cliffs of Moher are proposing to develop a ‘Park n Ride’ facility on local authority owned land in the adjacent area, this will progress through the planning application process in autumn. A growing use of taxi and hackney services has also been observed.
A shortage of tourism accommodation in the county has led to more day trips in the county, Cleary advised. As a result of the humanitarian crisis “it has rendered large tourism accommodation capacity unavailable to visitors to Clare. This is particularly the case with visitors that may prefer to stay in one location for a number of overnights and sample local hospitality as part of a secondary spend. This accommodation deficit has increased the number of day trips to Clare in contrast to previous patterns whereby visitors may have committed to overnight stays in the county. Consequently, it has reduced secondary spend pro-rata to the accommodation deficit”.
Blake’s Corner was also referenced as an important, he described as “an infamous bottle neck for locals and visitors in North Clare”. Cleary stated, “National Government investment is being committed and the delivery of the new bridge is on track to become a reality as quickly as possible in line with regulations”.
Popularity of the Burren and North Clare “attracts large volumes of visitors” and “is unlikely to change in the immediate term” requiring “a comprehensive transport and traffic management plan”, he felt. “There will be no quick fix, but there is a commitment to introduce a number of actions, projects and measures”. He continued, “the immediate practical approach in North Clare is to progress definite projects and actions. Those in time will become part of the Transport and Traffic Management Plan. The key point here is that in the immediate term these projects and actions could deliver early solutions for transport and traffic and remains the focus of Clare County Council”.
Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Talty recalled that it had been “an emotive and difficult July and August in terms of traffic, transport and pressure in North Clare. It has gone right back to 2019 and pre-COVID with the volume of traffic and issues it brings to the area”. He sought clarity on the commitment given by external agencies to the roads in the area. “The case in North Clare is unique, it’s not that if this is acceded to that there is an immediate call for a strategy for Kilmaley and Lissycasey”.
Ballyvaughan has hosted some very sensitive meetings in the past two months, Cllr Talty noted. “If you say cut the road hedges you will have ten people jump up and down. Danny Healy Rae was on the radio recently saying cut back all verges in the country for road safety, it’s not entirely ludicrous but it will meet backlash from environmentalists”.
Insufficient progress has been made, Cllr Killeen maintained, “Sometimes you are better off not trying to say anything, I’m trying to keep cool on this one”. An increase in traffic was easy to predict prior to the summer season, “we’ve had a fatality in Ballyvaughan and road traffic accidents in West Clare, there is a wearing of patience for the people on these roads, I think we’ve gone passed saturation point, the abundance of traffic has surpassed their enjoyment of country living, they are crying out for someone to do something”.
Killeen added, “I am delighted Ennis will get a strategy but I’ve been asking for one for North Clare for the past four years. We need to grasp the nettle and do something about it. The fact that a bus will go to the Cliffs and stop at another place, does it justify the buses coming because they are coming to two places, is it reason enough to say we can let X amount of people into North Clare”.
Over 1m people visit the Cliffs of Moher annually, in Clare “the next most visited place is Bunratty at 400,000,” Cllr Garrihy pointed out. “It is really welcome because we supported the work going into Clare County Council becoming owner and operator of those Shannon Heritage sites, our motion was primarily about the extension of the Greenway and the plan with it but at the moment there isn’t one. We’ve been asking and talking about this for the last four years but nothing has happened, it has been kicked from pillar to post. Our credibility is shot if we don’t get action”.
Greater focus must become visible, Cllr Garrihy stressed. “If we’re going to be the flagship and marketing tool then this has to be prioritised, North Clare, the Cliffs of Moher and the UNESCO Geo Park if that is to have credibility then it needs sustained and focused plans, we might convince ourselves in this room and a Chamber full of councillors who don’t give two rats about North Clare as long as it is bringing numbers into the county”.
Lockdowns reminded the people of North Clare of the beauty of the area, Cllr Cillian Murphy (FF) commented. “People got used to living without the volume of traffic and they actually liked where they live again, it behoves us to represent the areas”. He added, “Coaches and buses are one of the most sustainable ways of getting visitors around that is correct but we need to get them around”.
Responding to the elected members, Cleary said they are seeking support from the NTA to prepare the plan. The next step is the preparation of a terms of reference for the plan, he advised. “It is all fine preparing a plan but there needs to be projects happening in parallel. The Cliffs of Moher will contribute to the transport plan but the Cliffs of Moher’s function is to manage the site not the roads”. He emphasised that there is a commitment to deliver the transport plan.
Cathaoirleach of the West Clare MD, Cllr Ian Lynch (IND) observed, “There isn’t a bob there, if this project is so important, this should be on a National Development Plan, the whole network has to be re-laid and redone but we haven’t a bob to do it. This is a huge investment. We’re saying the only way our county can become sustainable is on tourism but we can’t invest it in”.
An accommodation audit will soon be presented to the elected members, Cleary replied. “The tourists can’t stay in the county and the buses can’t stay overnight for a very good reason, the humanitarian need is increasing the amount of day trips”.
This poses challenges but also opportunities, Cllr Garrihy remarked. “Hotels in Lisdoonvarna are now taken by the humanitarian response. It was an easy decision for those hotels because tourism was not an economically viable piece because they were nearly falling down. Thankfully, they have all been retrofitted, when this crisis ends they can be viable and sustainable from a tourism perspective, if I owned one of those hotels I’ve no doubt what I would be doing from an economic and humanitarian perspective”.
Garrihy’s comments prompted Cllr Murphy to reference a recent article in The Clare Echo which detailed that a number of hotel operators in the county shared out a €21.27m (all figures 23pc VAT) bonanza from accommodating Ukrainians in 2022. “That is what they are worth and that is the challenge,” he stated.