“An authentic slice of Ireland.”
As sound-bites go, the people behind the Munster Vales could hardly have asked for anything better than the one provided by travel writer and broadcaster Fionn Davenport.
Speaking to RTÉ Radio 1, Davenport fondly recalled his brief trek across Ireland’s newest tourism region. Encompassing Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick and Cork, the Munster Vales were only officially unveiled last October and, when striving for a foothold in a sphere as competitive as the Irish tourism market, ringing endorsements from high-profile industry figures are priceless.
More tourists arrived in Tourism Ireland during 2017 than any previous year – the 10.65 million visitors contributed a hefty €5.78bn to the national economy, and Tourism Ireland is expecting the figures to be even more staggering come the end of 2018.
Given the global exposure garnered from the producers of Game of Thrones and Star Wars using the island as a major filming location, their projections would appear to be justified.
However, there are significant pockets of the country yet to benefit from this snowballing tourism boom (70% of tourism takes place in 30% of the country, according to Fáilte Ireland) – and the average tourist itinerary is still likely to feature historically popular ports of call, such as Dublin, the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands and the Ring of Kerry.
It is from this very disparity that the Munster Vales originated. The region’s communities coalesced with the aim of showcasing their localities – and the surrounding areas – to the wider world for the eclectic, exquisite destinations they are.
The entire Munster Vales concept is underpinned by the five mountain ranges – the Galtees, Comeraghs, Knockmealdowns, Ballyhouras and Nagles –traversing the four counties and, according to Destination and Marketing manager Tríona O’Mahony, was the brainchild of industrious residents.
“It all really started from the grassroots level. The small tourism providers, based around the five mountain ranges, all felt that they were being lost and left out. They saw the Rock of Cashel, Cliffs of Moher and the Guinness Storehouse absolutely booming, and felt they had a great offering, but no representation.
“So, they approached their local county councils and Fáilte Ireland, who saw the potential that was there, so they all decided to collaborate and the Munster Vales concept was born. It all kicked off in 2014. Then in 2016, we were lucky enough to get rural economic development zone funding, which enabled us to put marketing actions into place,” she said.
Unlike the immensely popular Wild Atlantic Way, which skirts the Irish west coast, from top to bottom, the Vales does not take a linear trajectory, so clearly defining the region is an ongoing undertaking.
“The reason why they decided on the area, as it stands at the moment, is based on the five mountain ranges, because they’re absolutely spectacular,” Tríona O’Mahony explained.
“They’re untouched and under-utilised, so that was what it was largely based around. Then, we just looked for the best offerings in the surrounding areas, because that’s where the whole idea came from, but it’s still developing.
“But it’s still hard to get people to understand the geography of the Munster Vales because it nips in and out of the four counties, there’s not one clear route to it. So, that is the challenge – to get people to understand where we are.”
Aside from Cork, the counties comprised by the Vales are not, in the strictest sense, traditional tourism strongholds, though the tide is beginning to turn in Waterford. And yet, when confronted by the vast swathes of lush, undulant outback permeating the 1,100km in question, one can only pity the visitors who merely passed through on their way elsewhere.
And that’s the secret for all concerned – compelling people to stay, explore and spend. Even in the absence of Ireland’s famed beaches and seascapes. It’s a great area to explore with a camper van in Ireland.
“It is a challenge in one sense but then, on the other hand, we’re not focussing on the negative side of things – we’re focussing on everything we have to offer inland,” Tríona O’Mahony said.
“Not everyone loves the water or beaches, and with hill-walking being such a prime attraction of Ireland’s at the moment, that’s what we’re going for. Our little region has nine iconic heritage sites so, again, that’s something that we’re playing off – by labelling Munster Vales Ireland’s historic heartland.”
For those with even the slightest interest in how, when and where previous civilisations lived and died on the island, they would be remiss not to take advantage of the myriad castles, ruins, forts, cathedrals, museums, and tours.
According to Tríona O’Mahony, the dovetailing of the two routes not only makes thematic sense but has also worked wonders for establishing the Munster Vales brand.
“Collaboration is really the middle name of the Munster Vales, because that’s what it’s all about. We’re all trying to help each other out by interacting on social media, by email and on the phone. It’s what’s got Munster Vales such momentum and traction – everyone pulling together.”
“We work closely with Ireland’s Ancient East and try fall under some of the themes they have set out, like the castles, conquests and big houses. Waterford has such an amazing array of big houses that have flown under the radar.
“The proprietors run amazing tours of these houses with so much character and a story to tell. That’s what people love and come away remembering, and that’s what we’re trying to build on.”
The synergy does not stop there, however, no more so than in the aforementioned Waterford, where the Vale’s sole coastal stretch can be found.
With Waterford City – the oldest in Ireland – laden with all manner of remnants and constructs from Viking and Norman times, it has emerged as an essential destination on Ireland’s Ancient East.
Leaving the confines of the once formidable citadel, you’ll find the spectacular Copper Coast, which takes its name from the Waterford copper mines that were once the among the most bountiful and lucrative in the British Empire.
Although a mere 25km, the Copper Coast encompasses several paradisiacal beaches, vast vistas and geological records from the Paleozoic Era and the last Ice Age. It was declared a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2004.
The Waterford Greenway, too, has proven a stroke of native ingenuity. The meandering route, built along the old Waterford to Mallow railway, was only launched in March 2017 but has already attracted over 250,000 walkers and cyclist.
Throughout the 46km, you’ll encounter local businesses, tour guides and historians, as well as viaducts, ancient tunnels and incredible vantages to take in the sensational surrounds.
Of course, Tríona O’Mahony is also eager to highlight the considerable edification and adventure to be had elsewhere across the Vales. One such venue was once the seat of power for the ancient and infamous Kings of Munster.
“The Rock of Cashel would be the most iconic. Another one, which is relatively untapped but has fantastic histories and folklore behind it, is the Labbacallee wedge tomb, near Fermoy, in Cork. There’s also Doneraile Park (Cork), which was just awarded €1.6m to do up the old stately house there, so that’s going to be a huge draw.
“There’s also the medieval walled town in Kilmallock, and Lough Gur, in Limerick, also has over 6,000 years of Neolithic history and an absolutely stunning location. We have the Butler Trail, which goes between, Cahir, Clonmel and Carrick On Suir, and there’s huge history and heritage behind that,” she said.
The Munster Vales may soon become synonymous with outdoor exploration and Ireland’s storied past, but there’s also a surfeit of modern comforts and luxuries. Be it accommodation, fine dining or riveting nightlife, you’re unlikely to be left wanting.
“We’re lucky to have some really unique festivals and events on during the year,” Tríona O’Mahony said. “There’s lots of quirky things going on, and there’s far more than camping options for accommodation. There’s over 6,000 bed nights in the region, ranging from five-star hotels to luxury glamping, mountain lodges and hostels.
“We’re also working on producing a food and drinks trail because there’s just so much on offer. We’re hoping to have it out in the markets by April and ready for the summer season.
“Starting in Longville House in Mallow, where they do their own cider and brandy, while there’s cheese producers and craft beer breweries giving their own tours, Cahir apple farm and west Waterford, where they have a huge food offering as well, particularly their homemade ice-creams.”
The Munster Vales are simply too immense and too inextricably anchored to Ireland’s story to be labelled a hidden gem or well-kept secret, but, to date, such has predominantly been their status.
If even a tiny percentage of the untold number of visitors arriving on Irish shores this year find themselves somewhere along the Vales, you can only imagine that the cat will soon be well and truly out of the bag.
By Tom Rooney