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October 16, 2011

The Spirit of Meitheal in Co. Waterford

by Julianne Mooney

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The Irish word Meitheal means ‘work team’ and was used to describe the practice, in rural Ireland, of neighbours helping one another during harvest time. Using the concept that many hands make light work, this communal work ethic benefited everyone involved. Flash forward several decades to the arrival of the Celtic Tiger. Things were good in Ireland, money was gushing in and people were too busy counting their cash to consider their neighbours. A distinct ‘me féin’ attitude prevailed and the spirit of Meitheal retreated into the shadows of the ambitious tiger. Then came the crash that took the wind from our sails, yet, as with everything in life, there is a silver lining to this murky, dismal cloud and that is the return of the community, the return of Meitheal.

Every industry sector has been affected by the recession, including Ireland’s tourism industry. During the boom time, hotels, restaurants and cafes went up at the rate of knots, but it was a time when supply met demand. Empty shop fronts and the closure of hotels lay testament this level of supply is no longer sustainable. Throw in the decline of overseas visitors to Ireland and you begin to understand why there was, and still is, a palpable fear amongst those in the industry. One would think this would fuel the competition between establishments in local areas, however, in many places the survival technique has been that of Meitheal. Local producers, hotels and restaurants are now collaborating to support and promote one another.

Such collaboration between businesses is prevalent in West Waterford. Paul and Maire Flynn opened The Tannery in Dungarvan in 1997, one of the first restaurants of its kind and according to Maire, perhaps a bit before its time. Their focus of using local and seasonal produce set them aside from other restaurants and it took a good few years for the concept to become fully understood and appreciated. In more recent years, West Waterford has seen the emergence of a number of like minded businesses – The Cliff House Hotel opened in Ardmore in 2008, a five star property offering the very best of food, comfort and views, while O’Brien Chophouse opened in July 2009, an attractive restaurant serving rustic, wholesome Irish food. In the past two years the downturn in the economy left the establishments, as with all businesses, feeling the pinch. It was Adriaan Bartels, General Manager of The Cliff House who initiated the relationship with The Tannery and O’Brien Chophouse. Adriaan’s experience working in Kinsale, led him to believe, working together rather than against each other would be mutually beneficial.

This form of ‘meitheal’ meant the three properties could merge their client databases and marketing resources, immediately expanding their customer base. Thus, emerged the West Waterford Weekend (WWW) where guests spend a night at the Cliff House, another at The Tannery and can enjoy lunch at O’Brien Chophouse on either of the days. The package became an instant hit with food enthusiasts wanting to dine at some of Waterford’s finest restaurants. The devotion of all three properties to using local producers means their success filters into other areas of the local economy. As Maire Flynn aptly puts it “The recession has taught us that it’s not all about ourselves. If you help your neighbours, you’re helping yourselves.”

Gary Breen, Head of Operations for Failte Ireland in Waterford believes that not only does this symbiotic relationship benefit the properties themselves, but it also enhances the reputation of West Waterford as a tourist destination. “All three properties provide very high quality services in their own right and together have contributed to an increase in the short breaks business.” He also points out, “Events such as the Dungarvan Food Festival, Sean Kelly Tour and Waterford’s Tall Ship Festival all raise the profile of the region and the success of such events is through the collaboration of local authorities and micro-enterprises.”

Failte Ireland recognizes the benefits of ‘meitheal’ having created the concept Place on a Plate. They encourage producers and providers to engage in a unified goal to raise the profile of an area by offering visitors ‘a unique sense of place through their food experience’.

On a recent visit to a town in West Cork, I was disappointed to find a well-known restaurant closed down. That evening when I questioned the owner of a local restaurant how he felt about the closure, he responded, “It’s a deep loss to the town. When people come to stay for a few nights they want a range of places to eat, not just the one option. So if another good place doesn’t open soon, people will be more inclined to pass through the town, rather than make a weekend of it.”

As society moves forward in life, community spirit often falls to the wayside, but to say it has disappeared completely would be untrue. The image of people in London arriving with their brooms for ‘operation clean-up’ after the riots was flashed around the world, sending out the message that community spirit is alive and well, and it is through working together that progress can be made. Recent statistics show an increase of 25% in the domestic tourism market, with many opting for ‘staycations’. The Irish are rediscovering the island they left behind in the past, in favour of sun drenched European beach destinations. Perhaps we are realizing it is down to us to support our hotels, restaurants, cafes and local producers to help them ride out the worst of the storm.

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