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HALL OF FAME: James was well ahead of the (walking) curve

October 3rd, 2022 8:00 AM

By Emma Connolly

Hall of Fame winner James O’Mahony in Kilcrohane. (Photo: Andy Gibson)

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SO many people discovered the joy of walking during the Covid pandemic.

But James O’Mahony was well ahead of the curve – almost 30 years in fact.

He was a key player in developing the hugely successful and award-winning Sheep’s Head trail in 1996. With over 265km trails now mapped out extending from Bantry towards Kealkill, the Mealagh Valley and Drimoleague, and 250 property owners involved, he’s certainly done that – and more – making him a worthy winner of our Hall of Fame award in this year’s West Cork Farming Awards.

Gerard Burke his neighbour nominated him and said: ‘I find it difficult to think of anybody more deserving of the Farming Hall of Fame award than James.

‘While his name has become synonymous with the Sheep’s Head Way, he is a very humble man who shuns the limelight and prefers to work quietly behind the scenes for the benefit of the people of his area.’

James and all our other winners will be presented with their awards at a gala lunch in the Celtic Ross Hotel on October 7th.

Some tickets are still available (€30 for adult; children €16.50). Tickets include a three-course lunch, with goody bag.

To attend call John Joe Walsh on 028-21200 or email [email protected].

HALL OF FAME WINNER | JAMES O’MAHONY - Award Sponsored by Hodnett Forde Property Services

IN 1963 at the age of just 13 James O’Mahony became secretary of the first IFA branch in Kilcrohane.

In the intervening years, and now aged 88, James was never found wanting when there was a job to be done for his community on the Sheep’s Head peninsula.

But he was far more than just a ‘do-er,’ he’s better described as a visionary, who was well ahead of his time with his ground breaking ideas.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the role he played in developing the award-winning hiking trail, the Sheep’s Head Way.

His neighbour Ger Burke explains: ‘James had an ambition to establish a walking route along his native peninsula which could be used by locals and visitors to explore historic sites and enjoy the beautiful scenery which this part of Ireland has to offer.

'He had the vision to foresee that walking trails were about to become a major sector of the tourism industry with a potential to boost the economy of a remote area where employment prospects were limited.’

A modest James insists he simply had a natural interest in archaeology and the history of the area, and wanted to preserve the peninsula’s old school, church and bog paths.

With this in mind James, and his friend the late Tom Whitty, embarked on the project in 1995.

Tom, originally from Philadelphia, ran the Tin Pub in Ahakista, and the pair secured a personal loan of £10,000 to get their plan off the ground.

They were also inspired and encouraged by Dubliner Jim Leonard, a lifelong walker and mountaineer, who could also see the potential in the area.

In 1995 they put down the first marker and began the task of mapping out a viable route and obtaining the permission of hundreds of farmers and landowners to allow the walking trail to cross their property.

Ger recalls: ‘It seemed a mammoth undertaking at a time when there was little financial incentive for farmers or land- owners to grant public access to their private property. But the respect in which James was held by his local community was instrumental in winning the trust of his fellow farmers.’

By the following year the trail was up and running with a complete loop of the peninsula, 60 miles in total, marked off. It began in Bantry town and wound its way to the tip of the Sheep’s Head peninsula, along Bantry Bay, before returning to its starting point along the Dunmanus Bay side.

July 10th, 1996 saw President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, officially open the Sheep’s Head Way. The new trail soon gained recognition, winning awards such as the Waterford Crystal Trophy for Best Walk in Ireland, and improvements continued.

Tragically Tom died in a road accident aged 44 in 1998.

‘I suppose we carried on the work in his memory,’ said James.

Different loop walks, connected to the main route, were developed and car parks were put in place to facilitate walkers. In August 2000, the US Ambassador to Ireland, Michael J Sullivan came to Ahakista to officially open a memorial in memory of Tom.

James was determined to see that his fellow farmers would receive recognition for their willingness to allow the public to have access to their land.

For over a decade, he and his hardworking committee lobbied and campaigned for the establishment of a scheme which would achieve this aim.

With the assistance of Neilie O’Leary of Coomhola, who was national chairman of the IFA Hill Farming Committee, this became IFA policy.

In March 2007, the IFA president, Pádraig Walsh, and his top officers brought Minister Éamon Ó’Cuív and his officials to Kilcrohane to meet the people concerned and to walk the Sheep’s Head Way.

Following this, detailed discussions began and the Walks Scheme was announced the following year, with the Sheep’s Head Way being used to pilot its introduction.

Pádraig Walsh returned in August 2008 for the official launch of the scheme, and James was appointed the first rural recreation officer.

The year 2009 brought another achievement when the Sheep’s Head peninsula won the Eden award, making it a European Destination of Excellence, with the hon- our being presented at award ceremonies in both Bantry and Brussels.

In more recent years, new mapboards have been developed and erected at various points and a new website has been designed, and the trail has also been extended eastwards from Bantry towards Kealkil, the Mealagh Valley and Drimoleague.

James was also instrumental in improving the local road net- work,and worked closely with the County Council to remove dangerous bends and widening narrow stretches.

The route now comprises 265km trails mapped out, with 250 property owners involved.

Having got two new hips and knees in recent years, he enjoys walking the trail himself.

‘But none of it would have been possible without such a good group behind me,’ he said.

Married to Eily, he’s father to Finnien and Gerard, both farmers on the peninsula, Helen, a psychotherapist, and Sarah, an art therapist.

He’s a grandfather of four, and says they bring him great joy.

Crucial for the future of the area, he feels, is to protect against depopulation.

‘I remember when I was going to Kilcrohane creamery in the 50s with my milk on the horse and cart and there were 78 suppliers and now there’s only four and the whole landscape from Bantry to Sheep’s Head has changed.’

He also has a great love of the sea and feels there’s greater marine activity potential on the peninsula.

‘We don’t have sandy beaches, but we have beautiful coves here and in particular I think there are great kayaking opportunities here,’ he said.

His next project perhaps?

Why we support West Cork Farming

HODNETT Forde Property Services, based at Emmet Square, Clonakilty, has built a reputation as one of the leading property services businesses in West Cork.

Founded by John Hodnett and Ernest Forde, and incorporating Matt O’Sullivan’s auctioneering business (est. 1957), together they have in excess of 40 years’ experience of selling a comprehensive range of residential, commercial and agricultural properties all over Munster.

The current principal, Andy Donoghue, joined Hodnett Forde in June 2013 having gained valuable experience working in the residential, commercial and industrial property sales, letting and management in Cork city for six years, and also from a young age with his family’s estate agency business.

The team of licensed auctioneers also includes Frank O’Driscoll, Mark Kelly and Liam Hodnett, and in addition to the sale and rental of property, advice and appraisals are provided for property transfer, and arranging of finance through all the major lending institutions.

With a unique perspective on the agricultural industry, the company is one of the few to manage a large portfolio of short and long term land leases, plus a depth of knowledge regarding forestry plantations, and is in a position to offer consultations to clients locally and abroad.

In relation to the negotiation of leases of agriculture lands, Kathleen Russell heads a dedicated team and can offer a complete end-to- end administrative facility for clients.

The company provides a professional and efficient service to vendors and purchasers, landlords and tenants, and prides itself on its confidential and personal attention at all times.

‘We look forward to serving all your property related requirements for decades to come,’ said Andy.

• Andy O’Donoghue is an auctioneer with Hodnett Forde Property Services.

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