It’s now five years since the Waterford Greenway was officially opened – but the path to success wasn’t smooth as members of the voluntary Déise Greenway Group know only too well .
Last week marked five years since the official opening of the wonderful Waterford Greenway. Saturday March 25th 2017 was a glorious day in the Déise as communities basked in beautiful weather and the warm glow generated by the completion of this ambitious project.
Kilmacthomas was the centre of activity on the day and has been truly transformed by the Waterford Greenway. As a local from Faha, I am well aware of the immense work involved in bringing the Greenway project to fruition.
Many obstacles had to be surmounted to make this dream become a reality. While we are now celebrating a landmark birthday for the project, it’s worth pausing to remember those locals who worked diligently and quietly in the background to ensure Waterford obtained a world class tourist attraction.
A farmer’s vision
Liam Connors was born and bred beside the Waterford Greenway at Adramone near Lemybrien. He has farmed there ever since and the rail line has always held a special place for him.
In January 2014, I wrote an article about Liam and his views entitled, ‘A Farmer’s Greenway Vision’ in which he spoke about growing up beside the railway. He outlined his support for the development of a Greenway – something which would not have been the most popular opinion at the time, particularly amongst some in the farming community.
In the article, Liam outlined his special interest in the rail line. As an enthusiastic walker and cyclist who has travelled to many similar routes worldwide, and as someone who has been involved with community initiatives over the years, Liam was well aware of the positive knock-on benefits which could arise from such a development.
Liam Connors pictured on his farm in 2014.
I vividly recall Liam’s passion and unwavering commitment to this project at the time, but was also very much aware that he was putting his head above the parapet by wholeheartedly backing the project in such a public manner.
“I admired the viaducts and tunnel and thought about those great people who toiled in the 1870s making this railway and all those who worked on the railway line down through the years. Passing through places in West Waterford, I noticed the lovely cut stone bridges in the middle of fields and everything bulldozed around them. I did not want that to happen here in Mid Waterford. Thinking of the massive health and leisure benefits it would give our communities and the tourism it would bring, I decided it was a no brainer to get involved.”
When the Déise Greenway Group formed in 2013 and were looking for volunteers, Liam knew that a farmer supporting the Greenway would be very beneficial to the campaign. Following the publication of ‘A Farmer’s Greenway Vision’ in The Munster Express, Liam had well and truly nailed his colours to the mast!
“The late John Fitzgerald, the then County IFA Chairman, rang me one day and joked with me that I certainly had ‘put the cat among the pigeons’,” says Liam. “It was great to have support from such a genuine community man. John gave me his support despite it not being such a popular thing to support in farming circles at the time but that is the mark of the man that he was.”
Liam continues: “I was aware that back in 2004 this very newspaper had an article about the potential of the railway line becoming a walkway with Waterford County Council hoping to progress the development. I got a letter from the Council in 2006 which was sent to all landowners along the line but then nothing happened. It was as if it was just left there. I thought ‘who in the Council has responsibility for this and why has it not progressed?’ It was not until a few years later I learned that an injunction was put in place around 2007/08 preventing any work on it. This was brought by 13 litigants who were landowners adjoining the railway line. That was it – another five years went by and nothing was done. The dream was well gone at this stage.”
An idea grows
The aforementioned Déise Greenway Group was instrumental in ensuring the Greenway project was put back on the agenda. Their formation in July 2013 was undoubtedly the catalyst for change which brought the Greenway project to the next level.
Liam cites another Munster Express article from 2013 as being the spur for the formation of this group which sought to attract wider publicity for the idea of a Greenway. The article in question was an interview with Cllr Ger Barron (Labour) who was an advocate for the project. I had spoken with Ger on the then overgrown Kilmacthomas Viaduct where he reiterated his vision for the route.
“Ger, at a personal cost to him, had campaigned for many years for the Greenway but the Déise Greenway Group decided to go a different route of campaign to complement what Ger had done,” explains Liam. “I suppose I got involved out of frustration that since the letter I had got as a landowner in 2006, seven years later it appeared nothing had progressed. Action of concerned people was needed. Also, with the amalgamation of the two Councils in Waterford and the installation of Michael Walsh as CEO, it was well known that he was a man of action and that things were going to happen if he had a mandate from the Waterford public.”
Regular meetings were held and the group enlisted voluntary expertise from different sectors.
“We were lucky to have a website designer, a photographer, a legal researcher etc. and a farmer who happened to be me and many more with different talents,” explains Liam. “All these talents and experience created a very effective pressure group. We conducted a consensus based campaign and we only sold the positives of a Greenway to the people of Waterford. We never mentioned the forces who were objecting to prevent what would be named ‘Ireland’s Best Visitor Attraction’ by the Irish Independent.”
He continues: “Our main means of getting the message out was through many different forms of media hitting different age groups. We wrote numerous newspaper articles for local media which also filtered into national media. Some of the members were on TV programmes such as ‘Nationwide’ and numerous travel programmes on national TV – you couldn’t buy this kind of publicity and exposure. We used social media massively and we met many political figures including Taoisigh and Ministers. We contacted most Councillors within the county to get them on board as they would be voting on the Part VIII process. We also did a campaign encouraging people to make a submission supporting the Part VIII process and this resulted in an unprecedented 600 submissions with 94 per cent in favour of the Greenway as opposed to years earlier when the vast majority of the only 50 submissions made were negative.”
Ger Barron pictured on the Kilmacthomas Viaduct in 2013.
One of the key objectives the group identified was the need to approach business owners who would ultimately benefit massively from a future Greenway. However, this was not their most successful venture.
“Many of the businesses in Dungarvan that we contacted initially were reluctant to support the campaign as they felt many people would be against it,” Liam explains. “Ironically, the same businesses are now benefitting massively. On the other hand, two businesses which really went out of their way to support our petition gathering initiative were Brian Wickham of Cairbre House and Paddy Morrissey of Cycle Sports. There were a couple more but in general most didn’t want to get involved. Undeterred, we went a different route and set up a petition to be signed by the general public.”
The group did not want an online petition and favoured a petition which would allow them to meet people face to face and explain the concept to people and get them to sign if they agreed.
“We attended the Sean Kelly Tour registration days with up to 50 people gathering signatures from 6am in the morning; the Surf and Sea Festival in Tramore; spent time on Barronstrand Street in the City; and at the excellent Trail Run organised by Benji Whelan in Kilmacthomas so we got to the main centres of population in Waterford,” explains Liam. “We even produced 400 t-shirts which we sold to fund the campaign but in general we funded the campaign out of our own pockets and there was no guarantee it was going to succeed. That sounds crazy now but, at that time, we felt there was only a 20 per cent chance that we might get the Council back on board and get agreement to get a Greenway built.”
Liam says the group’s members were taking big risks as the Greenway was being presented in certain quarters as “a type of monstrosity that would bring untold damage to our communities”. The intense opposition to the project can clearly be seen in a report from a Waterford County Council meeting published in The Munster Express in 2007.
In the report, objectors chastised the Council saying: “shame on you and double shame on you for pretending that tourists will come to view the fields and fences of Faha and Durrow from a railway line”.
Reflecting on this, Liam says: “The tourists who have come from every county of Ireland and further afield obviously love the fields and fences of Faha and Durrow!”
He continues: “If it didn’t go ahead, we could have been in many ways criticised in our communities as people who were trying to impose this ‘awful thing’ on our communities, while those objecting to it would be heroes who stopped it. But we ploughed ahead to overcome all these twists and turns for the good of our communities and county.”
The lack of unanimous support from Waterford Council originally is perhaps surprising given the universal backing which the Greenway project now appears to receive. Liam says it’s ironic that some of the Councillors who initially opposed the project have gone on to act “as though they were proponents”.
In contrast, he says there were some councillors who, along with the aforementioned Ger Barron, passionately backed the project and put their necks on the line.
“We had people like Tom Higgins who recalled attending a meeting at Crotty’s in Lemybrien which was attended by a large group of objectors,” says Liam. “Tom recalled how he said to his wife that they would sit near to the back door in case they had to make a quick escape. Mary Greene, another brave woman, stood up for the Greenway against a lot of opposition in a rural area. Damien Geoghegan was very actively supportive of the proposed Greenway way before the motion to proceed with it. And there are a few more who were supportive consistently but many who were indifferent have now a new found interest in the Greenway…poacher turned game keeper comes to mind!”
As already mentioned in relation to attracting support for their petition, the Déise Greenway Group also encountered opposition elsewhere.
“In relation to the business community in Dungarvan, we were a bit disappointed in the lack of support for a project which would benefit them massively as has been proven over the past five years,” states Liam. “Many seemed to be afraid to support this controversial project. We made a decision not to proceed with trying to get business support on board as I mentioned already. Another example was a business person with a prominent business in Dungarvan who offered us a donation for our campaign but could not be seen to support us publicly. We didn’t take the donation. Meanwhile, another prominent tourism advocate appeared unable to see how a walkway/cycleway would bring tourists to Dungarvan. I could go on but I don’t want to sound negative. However, it certainly is humorous now looking back. I approached another group to ask for support and while some members were supportive, they felt they couldn’t give support as an organisation. One member at the meeting declared that ‘it wouldn’t ever go ahead as the farmers are against it’ and here was I, a farmer, trying to get everyone on board to support it.”
Liam explains that the Déise Greenway Group also approached a local sports club to discreetly collect signatures of support at one of their open events.
“They felt uncomfortable allowing us to do that as they felt it was too controversial,” he says. “But, and I say this in jest, the tarmac was barely gone cold on the Greenway when their members were out training on it. We had felt if we got the support of clubs involved in health and wellbeing, it would be great but it wasn’t to be at that time.”
Members of the Déise Greenway Group collecting signatures in Kilmacthomas in 2013. Included are Mayors John Cummins and Damien Geoghegan.
Looking back, Liam is heartened by what has been achieved despite all of the obstacles which the Déise Greenway Group encountered.
“Kilmacthomas is a new village full of colour, vibrancy and positivity. Dungarvan is blooming and thronged during the summer with the hospitality establishments flying and a Mediterranean feel in the evenings down on the Quay and in Grattan Square. The Waterford Suir Valley Railway has upped it figures considerably as the Greenway has made people a lot more aware of the railway there. Mount Congreve has got a facelift and is due to reopen this year with record numbers. Places such as the Workhouse and the Railway Cottage have brought new vibrancy to areas outside the villages and towns and when the link into the city and the connection to New Ross are completed, the city will get the benefit enjoyed by the areas in Mid and West Waterford. It’s all good. Accommodation providers and bike hire operators and other activities are buzzing. I even notice some businesses are calling their businesses after the Greenway and are really buying into it. The health benefits are massive. But the most impressive aspect is that the towns and villages on the Greenway are part of the big Greenway community.”
He compliments Council CEO Michael Walsh and his team on delivering this project for Waterford.
“Michael Walsh decided it would be built ‘come hell or high water’ and he has delivered. We were so lucky to have Tom Rogers in Waterford County Council at the time. He delivered on the Smarter Travel Scheme whereby he beat off a lot of entries from towns throughout the country to get Dungarvan selected as one of three towns to be awarded €7 million over ten years ago for Smarter Travel which led to Dungarvan to becoming a very cyclist friendly town with cycle tracks on the approaches to Dungarvan years before anyone else. He drove the Greenway initially to a point where there was no stopping and led to the delivery of the Greenway. He got the Department Officials down, sold them the Greenway and got the initial grants to get it going. This man needs to be recognised. Waterford’s loss is Cork Council’s gain. A lesson to be learned for any organisation or society as a whole is that you should always be grateful of talent and excellence when you have it.”
He believes another valuable lesson to be learned is that those in authority, such as Councils, should be appreciative of voluntary groups who “get the ball rolling and give the Council a mandate to proceed”.
“This would definitely encourage others in the future to do the same,” says Liam.
While all are heartened by the success of the Greenway, there remains a tangible sense of disappointment at how members of this community campaign group have been treated.
“Many businesses in Dungarvan and Kilmacthomas and others places have benefitted massively. They create a great buzz and employment but it would be nice if they were appreciative of the major efforts that volunteers put in to get the Greenway going,” says Liam. “Eaten bread is soon forgotten. But our goal as volunteers was to get a Greenway across the line and that was achieved.”
He adds: “We have Councils, journalists and Greenway campaigners from all over the country contacting us for advice and asking us to speak to their groups – but I’m not sure if our own Council appreciate what we have done. We are kept well away when the plaudits are being thrown around. On the day of the opening in Kilmacthomas, the few of us who got invites had to walk past some of the objectors in the VIP seats on our way to stand in the car park and the Tánaiste and Mayor spoke and there wasn’t one mention of us. You would swear in some quarters that the former objectors paved the path for the Greenway and built it such is the praise they get. I sometimes wonder if being an objector gives one more leverage to get a better deal than being a supporter. But we are so happy that our goal of a Greenway has been delivered for our communities and county and that we had some small part in it despite the ‘selective amnesia’ of the authorities and some local Councillors.”
The fact that every part of the country now wants a Greenway is certainly testament to the hard work of the Déise Greenway Group. All of the volunteers involved with this group are owed an enormous amount of gratitude for ensuring Waterford obtained an amenity which is the envy of all.
*The above are the personal opinions of Liam Connors