‘Forward-looking local thinking’ was how Minister for Rural Affairs Ann Phelan summed up her visit to the Connemara West campus in Letterfrack last month.
The minister arrived on February 17 to gain a better understanding of the positive impact the community-owned organisation has had in its 50 years working in the area.
During a tour of the Connemara West centre, the minister talked with staff and students, before being interviewed for Connemara Community Radio. She then travelled to Tullycross to learn about the organisation’s new focus, education-based tourism.
Founded in 1971, Connemara West has spearheaded many of the activities based at its campus, including GMIT Letterfrack, Connemara Community Radio, Conservation Letterfrack, Forum Connemara, Youthreach, the Further Education Centre, and Tigh Na N’Óg community crèche.
Organisations at the campus employ 134 people, making it one of the largest sources of employment in the region. There are also close to 500 students engaged in education on the site, from early childhood through to third level.
Minister Phelan said: ‘There is an impressive cluster of local development activity in this remote rural area.
‘It is a good example of what can be achieved with forward-looking local thinking, put into action with voluntary input and appropriate public sector support.’
The company is now working on promoting North West Connemara as a location for US colleges to base their study abroad programmes, building on its successful long-term partnership with Aquinas College, Michigan.
In Tullycross, Minister Phelan had a questions and answers session with students and professors from the college, which has been working with Connemara West for 42 years. Students come to the village each year from January to May, studying Irish history, culture and literature while living in the Renvyle Thatched Cottages, which are owned by Connemara West. The students make a significant economic, social and cultural contribution to the local community during their stay.
During Minster Phelan’s visit, Connemara West Chairman Dr Kevin Heanue signed a Memorandum of Understanding between Connemara West and Aquinas College. The two organisations have pledged to work together to promote Tullycross and North West Connemara as a location for US colleges to base their study abroad programmes. A key part of the programmes will be to ensure that students and staff get the chance to integrate into the local community.
Over the past three years, two new US colleges, Lourdes University from Ohio and Kirkwood Community College from Iowa, have started study abroad programmes based in Tullycross.
Dr Heanue said: ‘We have a long partnership with Aquinas College, and they have been critical in helping us develop our education-based tourism strategy.
‘The visit is a great opportunity to show Minister Phelan what our community has achieved in the past, and more importantly, outline our plans for the future. What this community is a good example of best practice local-led development.’