As the saying goes: a rising tide lifts all boats. And it’s fair to say this concept is the basis of the Burren Ecotourism Network (BEN).

BEN’s main aim marries two main principals - tourism and sustainability - and the promotion of both in the Burren.

Its purpose is to establish the Burren as a premier tourist destination, while in tandem ensuring the sustainability of the local area - environmentally, economically, socially and culturally.

BEN started off as a group of businesses from the Burren coming together in 2007 to discuss setting up a business network, but with the added element of sustainability. Sustainability is a pretty mainstream concept now, but 15 years ago it wasn’t so much so. BEN was established as an entity officially in 2011.

Initially the group started with 18 members and that number has grown to 70 over the years. The members are diverse, ranging from one-person walking tours to food producers, hotels and the Cliffs of Moher Centre.

Funding over the years was received from various agencies around the country, including Fáilte Ireland, Leader, Clare County Council and Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM).

Around the start of the BEN group coming together, Tina O’Dwyer moved to Kilshanny with her husband Jarlath O’Dwyer, who is from the area, and their young family. She was on extended maternity leave and looking to get back to work, possibly by setting up a tourism-based business.

Her idea was to start an English language school in Doolin. There were a lot of European visitors to the area at the time, mainly facilitated through Shannon Airport flights. So she joined the group of people talking about ecotourism. Then the crash ramped up and a lot of the flights from Europe to Shannon were cancelled. That put paid to that business plan.

Birgitta Curtin (pictured) and her husband Peter opened Burren Smokehouse in Lisdoonvarna. \ Philip Doyle

However, to borrow another turn of phrase: when God closes a door, he opens a window. And although Tina did not get to pursue her language school, the group of business owners she came to know, having formally become known as BEN, had just received funding through Leader for a coordinator at the time.

“That was the role I got,” explains Tina. “It was a one year project from 2011 to 2012. It brought me back out of maternity leave. We had moved there, it was an ideal job because it was flexible, it was part-time and all that.

“The job was to grow the membership and secure funding for an extensive ecotourism training programme. That’s what we did. There were 18 members when we started and we grew that to about 39 in that year. Then there was a huge amount of interest within the businesses in the Burren.”

Further Leader funding was secured for another year to support Tina’s role and then BEN got funding for five years through a conservation pilot programme in the Burren. This was under the EU funded Burren Life Programme, a long-term successful agri-environmental initiative well-known for its farmer-led approach.

Tina now had a good long stretch in which to work on growing the network and help the businesses introduce sustainable practices.

“Above all else,” Tina continues of her BEN work, “it was important to get the businesses working together – building the spirit of collaboration and cooperation around the common denominator. The common denominator, we established, between every business in the Burren was the place – their love of the place.

“They felt very strongly about the need to preserve it for future generations and to have a thriving tourism sector that would also protect the place - getting that balance right. I think they were really very successful in doing that over the years.”

Next chapter

For a couple of years then there was no funding for a BEN coordinator. Tina says it’s a credit to the businesses that they persevered and continued through this time where many groups would have drifted apart. Tina then set up her own tourism consultancy business, Tourism Space.

In 2019 it was recommended to BEN that they take on a fulltime manager. The successful candidate in that role? Jarlath O’Dwyer, Tina’s husband.

Now CEO of BEN, Jarlath is from a mixed farm in Kilshanny, located roughly halfway between Ennistymon and Lisdoonvarna. Jarlath has a strong background in both tourism and marketing.

His grandmother opened the first B&B in Doolin in 1915, Aran View Farm House. This is still operating, now called Aran View Country House Hotel. Jarlath worked there under his uncle for years. He studied marketing in college.

Caitríona and Kevin Considine at Moher Cottage, a coffee and gift shop on the road to the Cliffs of Moher. \ Philip Doyle

As part of his co-operative education module in college Jarlath worked in the Irish Tourism Board in New York and in North Clare Tourism.

“Then, I left college, I joined my brother and we built The Lodge Doolin,” says Jarlath. “It’s a 24-bedroom facility that was built from a greenfield site on a farm belonging to my granduncle that my brother inherited. It’s fully operational still and has expanded into self-catering. They’re members of the network as well.

“After that I joined a multinational, Mars, the confectionary company. I spent about six years with them. After that I worked as a business coach for six years and then I hooked up with the pork farmers of Ireland, the brand Truly Irish. I was working with them on the marketing side of things and getting the brand launched. It was a very exciting time.”

From here Jarlath went on to work as Pat McDonagh’s marketing manager, over Supermacs, SoHo Hotels and The Plaza Group.

“I spent eight great years with Pat and the crew in Supermacs, but it was a lot of driving. I joined my wife then in the Tourism Space in late 2018 and the opportunity with BEN came up a few months after that. The rest is history.

“I went from promoting Clare out in New York on an 1800 number to doing it all from here, in a very roundabout way. I ended up doing a small bit of farming then, as in I work on the family farm at home during the busy season and I’ve a bit of forestry myself.”


In the collaborative spirit of the network, the hope is that raising the profile of each business will have a spin off effect on other businesses and in turn the whole Burren area.

Is this approach successful? The proof is in the pudding.

The Burren was awarded Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2021, where the Burren was described as a “global leader for sustainable tourism” and BEN was noted as “the best tourism project for the year ahead”. This summer the Burren was also named Irish Times Best Place to Holiday in Ireland.

“From the outside looking in you can see that there are great attractions, great accommodation, great night life and great food,” says Jarlath. “The ferry companies and hotels use that to promote their businesses. The whole objective is to get people to stay for longer. The longer people stay, the better everybody does, that’s the whole goal of the network.”

Siobhán Ní Gháirbhith of St Tola Goat Cheese outside Inagh. \ Philip Doyle

To further emphasise this point, Tina adds that the businesses are very good at helping each other: “They want people to stay longer, not just pass through. The businesses really have understood that and that the way to do this is to partner with everybody else around.

“I think there really is that spirit of collaboration and partnership that everybody talks about around the country, but not many places actually do. If you go into any of the businesses here, you’ll find that they’ll refer you straight to the next place.”

Having been involved from the start, I ask Tina was BEN unique and pioneering in what it set out to do?

“You could definitely call it unique and pioneering. Others called it ‘niche’, ‘alternative’, ‘fringe’ and had the EU not have funded it I don’t think anyone else would have,” she laughs.

“It was highly innovative in the sense that you wouldn’t have had a network where businesses were coming together around the idea of eco. We hadn’t anywhere in Ireland at the time where groups of businesses were working together to try and develop sustainability.”

On tourism in Ireland as a whole, Tina feels that an approach similar to what’s happening in the Burren will be the way forward.

“Tourism is hugely significant in Ireland. We’ve only started to uncover its potential. The pandemic will probably change the way tourism develops. It’ll become a lot more like the Burren model, I think.

“Large parts of tourism worldwide and here in Ireland are about driving numbers in through the airports and then you assume everything else it okay. We’ve found that is not always the case. I think we’ll get more of the bottom-up type tourism developing now and that would be a really brilliant thing.”

As it was said in the beginning: a rising tide lifts all boats.

Origins of tourism in the Burren

The origins of tourism in the Burren go back a long way, Jarlath explains: “The start of tourism goes back as far as about 1850, when the first hotels were built in Lisdoonvarna. They were built by the Victorians because in Lisdoonvarna there are waters rich in minerals and they were identified as being excellent for your health.

“All the way to about 1875 or 1880, Lisdoonvarna established itself as a really fashionable resort and people were coming over on boats from Galway, mainly gentry. In turn these people for their day-trips would go down to the Cliffs of Moher.

“While that was happening, you can imagine how local people were living, that was a very tough time in Ireland, just after the Famine and on into the Land Leagues. However, tourism became a part of people’s lives, especially in Lisdoonvarna.”

Bríd and Roger Fahy run Cafe Linnalla in New Quay, where they sell artisan ice-cream made using the milk from their dairy cows. \ Philip Doyle

This spread out to surrounding places. Around the year 1900 Lahinch became established as a resort. The Falls Hotel in Ennistymon was opened towards the end of the 1930s. Doolin then became known as a hub for traditional music and that happened in tandem with the nearby Alliwee Caves opening in 1975.

Over time, Jarlath points out, tourism began to sustain many people in the Burren: “A lot of people who had been in agriculture and farming started to diversify into B&Bs and doing other things, such as supplying restaurants and hotels.

“That really accelerated in the 90s when the season started getting a bit longer. People who would have typically emigrated to the US or the UK started to stay, because there was a livelihood to be had out of tourism.

“Tourism in some little pockets, overtook agriculture completely; Doolin is a prime example. To an extent in places like Fanore and Ballyvaughan tourism would be the primary sector. While there is great agriculture, strong agriculture and great farmers in those areas, the lion’s share of the population would be sustained by tourism or tourism related businesses.”

In BEN all businesses must record their waste, water and energy usage, as well as the meetings and training courses they’ve attended and how many people they employ in the area. In return for this the businesses get marketing collateral. For example, a professional promotional video was shot for each member of BEN, which they can use to market themselves online. The videos were also released through Tourism Ireland.

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