Meet the remarkable women of Irish tourism

Eimear Flanagan, Away A Wee Walk.

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In honour of International Women’s Day, we chat to a range of inspiring women who’ve helped make Ireland the world-class tourist destination we know it as today.

Away a Wee Walk

Eimear Flanagan has a knack for seeing things a bit differently than others do.

This trait allows her to find the beauty in the often overlooked or to quickly get to the heart of who her clients are, find out what they’re looking for and how she can make their experience with her an unforgettable one.

It also allows her to draw parallels between things that initially seem wildly different. For example, early into our chat she tells me that “The Giant’s Causeway is a bit like the Grand Canyon.”

“I’d say 90% of people who visit the Giant’s Causeway only see the stones, without realising that there’s a gorgeous five-mile cliff view walk there that’s as good as the Cliffs of Moher,” she continues. “It’s like the Grand Canyon, most people who’ve been haven’t seen most of what’s there!”

Since 2013, Eimear has been striving to change that. Her tour company, Away a Wee Walk, focuses on the entirety of the Causeway Coast and Glens, offering bespoke guided hikes along the amazing coast and cliff paths at the Giant’s Causeway.

Many people who visit the Giant's Causeway leave some of the best parts unexplored.
Many people who visit the Giant’s Causeway leave some of the best parts unexplored.

Now a full-time business armed with a team of freelance tour guides supporting Eimear to meet demand, Away a Wee Walk has come on leaps and bounds from its humble beginnings. The project was initially just a blog that Eimear ran while walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain back in 2012, but shortly after returning home to Belfast from her five week trek there, Eimear had a “light bulb moment”.

“It was a minging Wednesday morning back in March 2012, just wet and miserable. I was stuck in traffic near the International Wall here in Belfast when I noticed there were so many coaches and black taxis around, all carrying visitors. I couldn’t believe how packed the place was with tourists, especially on such a horrible day well outside of peak season. It really was like a light bulb went on for me.

“At that point, I was still doing talks around Belfast about the Camino and trying to put groups together to go out and walk in Spain. I just thought, ‘what on earth am I doing, bringing Irish people all the way to Spain for hiking when we already live in a walker’s paradise, and this is the number of international visitors we have here?’

“I’m really proud of the service I can offer those visitors today. I’m going into my eleventh season now with about five different products available, including private day tours. I pick people up direct from the cruise ships in summer, or from central Belfast, and take them up to the Causeway. We visit the Rope Bridge and all the other main photo stops, but I include the full cliff hike as often as possible.

“I also recently launched my newest product, a series of women’s winter walking weekends. It’s not as popular as my day trips to the Causeway cliffs or my private tours quite yet, but I fully believe that I can build on it, as we’re running loads of those weekends at the moment for the British and Irish domestic market.”

If Eimear’s reviews are anything to go by, she’ll have no problem at all drawing more women in for her walking weekends. The testimonials for Away a Wee Walk couldn’t be more positive — with many international tourists citing the Causeway cliff hike as the highlight of their entire trip to Ireland.

“It’s always staggering to get feedback like that,” Eimear shares. “I just see myself as a middleman of sorts, I handle the logistics so that people can experience a stunning piece of scenery that already naturally exists. I feel very privileged to be able to earn my living like this, and to honestly say that I love my job.

“I lead people along the same hike at the Causeway so often, but it never gets boring. Everyday you get to meet new people, and you often fall in love with them. Ireland is a big bucket list item for a lot of international visitors, Americans in particular, so they have this almost infectious excitement and enthusiasm about them. They’re predisposed to have a great tour, the odds are stacked in my favour from the moment I meet them.

“I call those days where I’m tour guiding my “outdoor office days” but there are so many other parts to the job. I’m rebuilding my own website at the moment, for example. Other days I could be doing market research, making sure the tours are at the right price point, renegotiating contracts with suppliers who sell my tours and so on. My work is quite varied and I love that — I’m on career change number seven, thereabouts, and I learned a long time ago that once I’ve mastered anything I get bored very quickly and want to move on. I’m eleven years in with Away a Wee Walk and I can’t see that happening!

“Weirdly, pre-covid I did feel that slightly. I had built the business up to where I was really happy with it and things were going well, but I found myself missing the initial challenge of it all when I’d first started the business. Of course, then along came Covid and just swiped all that out from beneath me! The business still hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic — as in financially I still haven’t turned the same annual profit the last few years as I did in 2019, but…” she pauses, smiles, “I just think ‘okay, time to start building it from scratch again’!”

Festive Kilkenny

Marian Flannery is an undeniably impressive woman. The 57 year old Kilkenny native is the manager of not just one, but four, of the county’s biggest festivals — Savour Kilkenny Food Festival, Kilkenny Tradfest, St. Patrick’s Festival Kilkenny, and Yulefest, the highlight of Christmas in the Marble City.

When I ask her to tell me a bit about herself, however, career titles and accomplishments all come further down the list of descriptors. First and foremost, she identifies herself as a mother (to two adult children) and grandmother (quite a recent, wonderful change to her life).

It’s this work-life balance, and an ability to see the bigger picture — where being passionate about her work doesn’t mean it should become the be-all and end-all — that perhaps explains just how Marian manages it all.

A freelance project manager working on any number of things at any given time, she’s kept plenty busy with those four flagship festivals — which draw in about 200,000 visitors to Kilkenny collectively.

While such huge numbers would be intimidating for many — especially when putting together festival programmes that will have sufficiently wide appeal — for Marian, they’re a big part of what motivates her in her daily work.

Ignacio Peregrina, manager of Smithwick's Experience Kilkenny, and Marian Flannery, Savour festival manager.
Ignacio Peregrina, manager of Smithwick’s Experience Kilkenny, and Marian Flannery, Savour festival manager.

“I love the impact these festivals have on the city I grew up in,” she explains. “Each person that visits Kilkenny for one of our festivals is significantly contributing to the economy of the city and county. I grew up in a small family hotel, less than 300 metres from Kilkenny Castle, with my late mother and brother who did huge work to promote Kilkenny as a tourism city, long before it was the mecca it is now. I hope I’m carrying on a little bit of their legacy.

“I lived away from Kilkenny in Dublin, Kerry and London for over 20 years. I saw the city through different eyes when I came back and I’m still discovering new things about Kilkenny every day! Apart from its wonderful medieval built environment, the blossoming food scene, and art and design scene, deserve to be fully celebrated. There aren’t many cities with a population of 30,000 people that are home to two Michelin star restaurants! Kilkenny can also claim to be the home of Irish design, through the wonderful legacy of Kilkenny Design Workshops for over fifty years. The compact nature of the city, where you can walk or cycle anywhere within fifteen or twenty minutes makes it a special place. The towns and villages of the county are teeming with history and life too.”

The many wonderful qualities of Kilkenny are, of course, not enough on their own to draw visitors in each year. Those same qualities need to be nurtured at local level, while also being showcased to national and international attention — tasks than can take a village, as Marian has found.

“Savour, Tradfest, Yulefest and the St Patrick’s Festival are all a mix of community-organised and municipal events. Each have their own committee/board of directors who, along with myself and our team, oversee their successful delivery. I am really lucky to have a smashing group of other freelancers who work with me including marketeers, graphic designers, PR agents, health & safety advisors, engineers, builders and producers — with some located as far away as Como in Italy!

“I love the variety of festival work and the number of people I interact with on a daily basis; successful events require extensive collaboration with a broad range of organisations including local businesses, community groups, Kilkenny County Council, state agencies, tourism organisations, sponsors, funders etc.”

Marian credits the great team she works with for helping steer her — and Kilkenny’s beloved festivals — through the dark times of recent years. “[During the pandemic] we found ourselves cancelling a whole festival, arranging refunds, soothing artists’ grief at their losses and all else that went with the dark days of March 2020. We managed to present our festivals online, for Savour in 2020 and Tradfest in 2021, and were very proud of those difficult events. That made it easier to return to real, live events. We found that the public were absolutely delighted to be back on our streets and in our venues and hostelries as soon as things opened up again. Now it’s like it never happened!”

To experience the unique and lively ambiance that’s been restored in Kilkenny, you’ll have to come see it for yourself, Marian says — with plenty of recommendations for your time there.

“The must do’s are a visit to Kilkenny Castle, the Medieval Mile Museum or Rothe House. For spectacular views of Kilkenny city, head to St. Canice’s Cathedral and climb the only round tower that is open in Ireland. Grab a breakfast, coffee, lunch or fabulous evening meal in any of the dozens of eateries in the city. We have fantastic fashion outlets too — for us ladies and the lads!

“Take your time and enjoy a slower pace of life than the big cities. Visit the Butler Gallery or the National Design and Craft Gallery, walk the river bank to Bennettsbridge if you have a few hours, or take a ramble in the newly opened Dunmore Countryside park or Kilkenny Castle Park.”

Aillwee Experience

The last few years, understandably, made many people fall out of love with the hospitality industry. The on-and-off again relationship many workers had with it — as recurrent lockdowns forced businesses to close and reopen again at a moment’s notice — proved to be too much for significant numbers of people, with many opting for a career change promising more predictability and job security.

But while she’s the first to admit that the pandemic was a challenge to hopefully never be repeated, Nuala Mulqueeney not only still has an abundance of love for the industry, but gratitude.

Nuala is Managing Director of the Aillwee Burren Experience in Co Clare, which incorporates the Aillwee Caves and its surrounding 26-acre site, including their Birds of Prey centre and Burren Gold Cheese Farmshop.

As it’s a family business, the Aillwee Burren Experience has been part of Nuala’s life for as long as she can remember. While her role there has evolved and changed drastically over the years, Aillwee’s own role in Nuala’s life, meanwhile, has remained constant — in short, the business has been a lifeline for her.

“I’m from North Clare, born and bred here, and I firmly believe that if it wasn’t for the family business, I — like tens of thousands of others — would have been forced to emigrate,” Nuala explains. “I’m in my early 50s now and did my Leaving Cert in the late 80s, at a time when everybody was leaving North Clare or leaving rural Ireland in general. They had to, out of necessity, so I’ve always felt absolutely blessed to be part of the second generation of my family business back home, supporting a fairly robust tourism industry in such a rural region. I did my primary degree in Galway and then my postgrad in Limerick in Tourism and Business so the writing was probably always on the wall that I would come back to the family business someday, but I’m so lucky it was here for me to come back to.”

As well as allowing her to return to her hometown after university, and to build a life of her own there, Aillwee has also taught Nuala a huge array of skills which she relies on to this day. “Before my MD role, I did anything and everything at the caves. I was picking up litter, making coffees, taking people into the caves and giving them a tour, I was selling Aran sweaters — all sorts! I think that’s what’s so wonderful about working in tourism, is that it really sets you up for life and it’s a great grounding for people. My one gripe is that I think [working in tourism or hospitality] can be seen as a transient thing, or something you only do when you’re young and starting out. I’ve had a lifelong career in the tourism industry here in rural Ireland and it’s still hugely interesting and full of variety. I’d hate to be in a job doing the same thing everyday.

Nuala Mulqueeney, MD of Aillwee Burren Experience.
Nuala Mulqueeney, MD of Aillwee Burren Experience.

“There’s no ‘typical’ working day at Aillwee, I could honestly be doing anything! While we’re open all year round, our season ebbs and flows, pretty much in line with the school calendar. At this time of year I could be helping to train up guides in the caves, or just the other day I was vacuum packing and wrapping our cheese in the farmshop. If we’re down a staff member and an order comes in or something else pops up, you never know where you might need to step in. I also spend a lot of time representing not only Aillwee, but Clare in general, to various associations [and stakeholders]. I love that side of it, because I think people like the family ethos of our business and they engage well with a story like ours and with somebody like myself. If there’s anything we need to attend as a business I’m happy to be the one who puts on the uniform and off I go! I’m very proud and privileged to do so.”

The reasons why Nuala is so proud of Clare are tenfold — namely, she believes the tourism offering there is among the best in the country. At the Aillwee Burren Experience alone, the scope is endless, with cheese making, birds of prey attraction and even an annual Santa’s grotto all available thanks to constant innovation from Nuala and her “excellent team”. To fully understand all that Clare has to offer though, you’ll have to see it for yourself.

“There are so many lovely hidden gems in Clare. A lot of people don’t know that we make our own cheese at the caves, for example, or that there’s so much else to do on our site. Just up the road from us is Caherconnell Stone Fort and their sheep dog demonstrations make for a lovely half-day experience. Down in west Clare, there’s the stunning Vandeleur Walled Gardens and of course Bunratty Castle & Folk Park is always a great family attraction.

“For people interested in food, you’re in another mecca again. The Burren Food Trail offers a lovely itinerary, where people can spend six nights in six different villages and sample the finest food and drink in each one. We’re very lucky to be so close to the Burren Smokehouse and they have a lovely visitor center. Hazel Mount Chocolate is also nearby there.

“Cliffs of Moher are, of course, an iconic attraction that bring so many people to the region but if they want to find spots that are a bit more off the beaten track, then places like the Burren perfumery are always a treat. Wherever you look, there’s something for all ages.”

Galway Food Tours

Sheena Dignam is a woman who relishes a challenge.

While she’s encountered many since founding Galway Food Tours in 2015, it was a lifelong one that first inspired her to work in the tourism industry.

Originally from Wicklow but raised in the Loire Valley, France, Sheena says growing up there often left her frustrated by common misconceptions of Ireland.

“Having spent my youth in France, I often heard people assuming that there wasn’t anything good to eat in Ireland, or that there wasn’t much of an Irish food scene,” she remembers. “That was the prevailing reputation at the time, there was so much people just didn’t know about Ireland. I think a lot of the French saw Ireland and England as one big block — there was no separation or distinction between the two. Which is fair enough, there’s probably plenty that the Irish don’t know about France! For as long as I can remember, though, I really wanted to show the French the things I love about Ireland and change their minds in a way.

“I’d studied culinary arts in France and was always fascinated by the food culture there compared to in Ireland. The Irish food scene was getting very exciting at the time, with new collaborations and new ideas from Ireland reaching France thanks to the explosion of Ryanair travel and people like Myrtle Allen always flying the flag for Irish produce. I really wanted to pursue my career in food and wine studies and I knew that Ireland was the place to do it, so once I’d finished my degree I moved back for the first time since I was a very small child.”

Sheena’s first few years back in Ireland are ones she remembers very fondly, not least because they took place during the Celtic Tiger era. From working in new concept restaurants, to managing a popular chocolate shop in Dublin city centre, Cocoa Atelier, she came across a huge variety of characters and realised just how interested people were in the stories behind their favourite foods.

“Eveleen Coyle, of Fabulous Food Trails, would always come in with her groups to Cocoa Atelier. She was probably the first person to start food tours in Ireland and I just really loved seeing that side of tourism,” Sheena recalls. “It was slow-paced, it celebrated community and it introduced visitors to places that they wouldn’t necessarily go to otherwise. For me running the shop, it was great to be able to showcase what we did and explain how Cocoa Atelier came to be, because organically people connected with our story and would come back to buy something.

Sheena Dignam leading a group on Galway Food Tours.
Sheena Dignam leading a group on Galway Food Tours.

“I brought a lot of those lessons with me when I came to Galway. Chefs here have a wonderful talent for translating what local producers are doing on to the plate. I started working in Kai where suppliers were always popping in and out with beautiful colours of vegetables, different types of cheese and all sorts to experiment with in really fun, collaborative ways.

“I knew it was exactly the kind of atmosphere that I wanted to show people more of, and so I decided to set up Galway Food Tours. Even as I was setting it up, I really wanted to create an experience for the French but of course I hardly run any tours for them these days! It’s mainly American tourists who do our tours, which is fantastic. We’re nine years in now and demand is still there — we’re running tours seven days a week, up to two or three tours a day.”

It was after making a name for Galway Food Tours amongst visitors from all corners of the world, however, that another challenge reared its head — one that not Sheena, nor the rest of the world, could have ever seen coming.

“When we shut down during the Covid pandemic, I was very fortunate and probably one of the rare business owners in tourism that didn’t have any major overheads. I didn’t have any rent or rates to pay, because we’re a walking tour with no fixed base. What I actually found toughest during the lockdowns was those times of reflection when you were forced to wonder whether things would ever be ‘normal’ and okay again. I really wanted to cling on to hope. I love my community here in Galway, especially the food community, so I knew that I wanted to keep supporting them and working with them however we all could. That’s partly why we did our big pandemic project, a self-guided pocketbook.

“It was a beautiful concept, where we got a local artist to draw the people and places that would traditionally feature in an in-person Galway Food Tour. We wrote a nice little backstory about each place and then included vouchers in the book that people could redeem in any of the venues we’d featured, whether it was to buy food or a drink. The main storytelling element of it was a small QR code that you could scan to listen directly to the chefs, producers, business owners etc that took part, telling the story of their business and their produce. The pandemic was obviously terrible in so many ways, but in hindsight I’m really proud of how it made us become more creative and try something a bit different.”

While pent-up demand from the pandemic is still serving Galway Food Tours well, Sheena fears the city itself is still a long way off from fully bouncing back. “The economy at the moment is a really difficult one for restaurants to survive in, between high rents, VAT rates and the cost-of-living crisis making people eat out less. We’re finding it quite difficult to find venues to include in the tours. We’ve sadly seen a few people close to us shutting down their restaurants, bars, cafes… New places are opening too, of course, but we’re very strong about the story we tell through Galway Food Tours, it has to tell people something new or interesting about the Irish culinary scene, so we’re not just going to bring them to a Bubble Tea place for example. It has to make sense and people have to experience the culture of Irish food through the places that we visit. It’s really sad to see places that did that really well closing around Galway.”

Supporting Irish businesses like these, at risk of closure, is one of the great reasons to opt for a staycation this year. Though, as Sheena points out, you’d be hard pressed to find a reason to not visit Galway!

“I’ll never get sick of people saying how amazed they are by what we’re doing in Galway, that they had no idea about the standard of food and drink we have here. If you just take a stroll along the Galway Markets you’ll see it, there’s so much to eat and drink there and some real characters to talk to. I really love our wine bars too, we’ve got Daróg, The Lane, Sheridans, to name a few. There’s nothing better than having a glass of wine while overlooking the Long Walk, or taking a stroll out to Salthill where you’ll find beautiful coffee shops such as Ré.

“The bakeries that we have at the moment are world-class, you can’t beat Hapi Bakery or Magpie. Head to Éan for lunch then ArdBia for dinner, or there’s Kai, of course! The Universal is also great for light bites and cocktails.

“The atmosphere in Galway is really special during the summer when they open up the streets along the West End so they’re pedestrianised and you can just walk along the banks of the river going up to the University. It’s just stunning, and an incredibly cultural space — there’s always something good on in the theater, or chances are there’s a cool festival happening!”


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