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Why Graham is West Cork's best tourism ambassador

July 31st, 2017 6:30 PM

By Siobhan Cronin

Eimear O'Herlihy, director of West Cork Literary Festival, with novelist and poet Nick Laird, Graham Norton and novelist Zadie Smith in the Maritime Hotel in Bantry last Thursday night for the West Cork Literary Festival. (Photo: Darragh Kane)

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THE Wild Atlantic Way has certainly boosted local tourism in the past three years, but one man has done more to promote West Cork than any slick Fáilte Ireland ad campaign ever could, and that's Graham Norton.

The BBC TV presenter, who chooses to make Ahakista his home for several weeks each summer – and several winter weeks too – never fails to take an opportunity to spread the word about his adopted peninsula.

Speaking at last week's West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, where he is a regular visitor, the Bandon celebrity summed up why he keeps coming back ‘home'.

‘London can be stressful,' he said, ‘but the most stress you have in Bantry is driving around the Square trying to find a space!'

It echoed his wonderful response, at the same festival two years ago, when a young girl asked ‘what's it like being famous?'

‘It's like this …,' he began, in that wonderfully intimate manner of his, even in a hotel ballroom packed to the rafters, ‘you know when you are in SuperValu in Bantry, and you see someone you know … and you think “Oh no, please don't let them see me”? Well, it's like that all the time!'

That's Graham's charm. Everyone can relate to him. He was supposed to spend a strict ‘30 minutes' signing copies of his book after his Maritime Hotel public interview, but when I left, much, much later, he was still there, chatting and giggling like the rest of us.

When I told my sister I had a spare ticket to his annual sold-out quiz night in Ahakista last August, she didn't hesitate to drive down that morning from Clare. 

She never expected to get close to him, let alone get a photo with just the two of them, as he mingled with the crowds outside Arundel's beforehand. It made her year.

His willingness to be accessible to West Cork's adoring public is a true gift. Nobody would deny Graham his beautiful Georgian home behind those high gates, but when he is on this side of them, he certainly seems to revel in being the centre of attention – but in the nicest possible way, of course.

For those of us blessed to live here, it's easy to be nonchalant about his presence, or look smugly at his gorgeous social media photos of Dunmanus bay and other locations we know so well.

But we shouldn't underestimate the power of his endorsements. Graham has 1.29m followers on Twitter – and 180,000 followers on Instagram. That's a hell of a lot of people he is potentially reaching with his gorgeous snaps of dogs lolling on West Cork shores, friends sipping wine in his coastal garden, and Kilcrohane sunsets.

The West Cork Fit-Up Theatre people must have been pretty chuffed when he recently tweeted a major thumbs-up for one of this year's plays, Sharon, to his fans.

 ‘Congrats to @FitUpFestival for a great start to the season in Kilcrohane #Sharon #laughed/cried,' he tweeted  – to almost 1.3m people.

And last Thursday night he revealed that Bandon was the inspiration for a plotline in his major debut novel, Holding. 

It was prompted by a walk he took with his mother, Rhoda, when they discovered an overgrown house and Rhoda recalled a story about the woman who used to work as the housekeeper there. The lady thought she had a rock solid romantic relationship with her somewhat older employer, only to find, when opening the newspaper, that he was engaged to a woman ‘from the other side of Bandon – who had land.'

The story goes that she cleaned the house one last time, then locked up and left, and nobody ever went back there, he said, adding another element of intrigue to the already curious West Cork-located novel, which many believe is set in a village not unlike Durrus or Kilcrohane.

Holding was the third best selling book in Ireland in 2016, making €620,000 in sales, and selling over 51,000 copies. It was an even bigger hit in the UK and the rights have been sold for a UK TV series, which is being made by the company behind The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and In Bruges. His next book is also set in Cork, so the local inspiration goes on.

Scouts for the TV show were in West Cork recently to chat to Graham about it, he told the Bantry audience, but he wasn't forthcoming about whether any filming might take place here.

 But with all the positive publicity Graham has brought his beloved West Cork, it's hard to even contemplate that they wouldn't have fallen in love with us, too.

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