Industry members noted that the project, spearheaded by Waterways Ireland, is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to develop a high quality multi-activity leisure trail, with the ability to give the River Barrow and Barrow Way route an elevated status among Ireland’s inland waterways.
Mark O'Brien, board director and owner of the Old Grain Store Cottages and the Mullicháin Café in St Mullins, said: “For many years and in many reports the River Barrow and the unique features of the towpath which runs alongside it, has been identified as a key tourism asset, but also as a completely under-utilised resource in this regard.
“The key to unlocking the tourism potential of Co Carlow is in no small way rooted in the further development of the River Barrow and Barrow Way route. As has happened along the Great Western Greenway, this project will be the important influencing factor for visitors in their decision to travel to Co Carlow.”
Eileen O'Rourke, chief executive of Carlow Tourism, added that the project “will inject much needed jobs and revenue into Carlow's rural communities, sustaining them to keep local people in their local area.
“Research undertaken by Fáilte Ireland and Mayo County Council in respect of the Great Western Greenway in Mayo, whose length is much shorter than the Barrow Towpath, highlights its noticeable impact on business to the area, contributing €7.2 million annually to the local economy, creating 38 new full-time jobs and sustaining another 56 jobs.”
Board members also noted that “misinformation” is being circulated about the project, such as suggestions that the route would comprise a three-metre-wide tarmac path fenced in from the waterway.
The proposed development will use clean stone and compacted quarry dust to a maximum width of 2.5 metres, similar to that already in use along some stretches of the towpath in Graiguenamanagh, Goresbridge, Leighlinbridge and Bestfield, and in keeping with the standards laid down by the National Trails Office and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) for walking and cycling usage – and will not be of interest to speed cyclists.
Only the existing access roadway downstream from St Mullins Lock, already prone to erosion, will be resurfaced with reinforced concrete, says Carlow Tourism, which promises that the “unspoilt nature of the towpath will be maintained, but with better facilities for the visitor to enjoy.”
Industry members on the board of Carlow Tourism reportedly view the project as responding to a strong market demand by domestic and overseas visitors alike.
James Kehoe — owner of the Lord Bagenal Hotel, whose property fronts onto the River Barrow — notes the increasing emphasis on activity based holidays.
"Currently Co Carlow is not benefiting from this trend, which would be facilitated by completion of the towpath development project. The planning upgrades proposed will increase the year round accessibility of the Barrow towpath to people of all ages and physical ability for a range of activities.
“[At present] visitors are unable to use the towpath at certain periods of the year due to its poor state. It is also very difficult to gauge with reasonably accuracy the state of the towpath in other areas following periods of poor weather.
“The proposed surface will allow us to attract visitors to walk the Barrow towpath, in greater numbers, which will also give greater security to those walking the towpath as single users. I am in no doubt that a range of facilities will accompany the development of this project, which will foster new jobs for the local area."
The proposal has received a warm welcome from Arthur Keppel, president of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland’s Barrow branch and chair of the Barrow Awards judging panel.
"The Barrow Awards are designed to reward towns and villages along the River Barrow for maintaining and enhancing the wonderful natural resources of the river,” he said. “Year on year we see excellent projects implemented by groups, in an entirely voluntary capacity who are keen to ensure an enjoyable experience for users of the towpath in their respective areas.”
Industry members of the board were strong in their praise for Waterways Ireland and their level of engagement and consultation with the public.
They also noted that the proposal forms part of a larger strategy for the River Barrow, completed by Waterways Ireland in consultation with a number of key partners, with the goal of ensuring higher visibility and recognition for Ireland's second longest river as a special area with strong heritage values.
The strategy recognises the potential of the river to become a busier waterway, as in years gone by when the river was a commercial hub, with benefits for both locals and visitors.