The untapped tourist potential of Tyrone…

Having recovered from being effectively a no-go area for tourists for the best part of three decades Northern Ireland now has much to offer the discerning visitor.

Although I seem to be one of the few people on the planet who have never seen Game Of Thrones, the show seems to have worked wonders for the local tourist industry now that places like the Dark Hedges and the Giants Causeway have become popular must-see destinations.

There are of course the Mourne Mountains, the lakes of Fermanagh, Derry’s walls, Armagh’s cathedrals and planetarium and the spectacular Antrim coast which will all feature on the typical tourist itinerary. Right, that’s five out of the six counties ticked off so far….

Isn’t there one missing?

Writing a short travel piece in the Guardian in about NI’s newfound potential for tourism, a relatively well-known journalist from Belfast in 2006 made the following controversial observation:

“Places to avoid include almost all of Co Tyrone, which has so many non-descript, grim one-horse towns you can hear the collective hooves clop from across the border in Donegal. I have found next to nothing to see or visit in that county.”

Words like these should no doubt provoke a furious reaction from embattled Tyrone folk. But some of us might grudgingly concede that maybe he’s got a point. Or has he?

The more reasonable response would be that he obviously didn’t look hard enough in the right places or had a preconceived notion about the county that would seem to be backed up (rightly or wrongly) by the lack of coverage in the mainstream tourist literature. But it’s fair to say that the red hand county does have something of an image problem.

I once had a road map of Ireland which had a supplementary section in the back pages listing 90 places of interest on the island. 7 of the 32 counties did not feature in the list. This included a cluster of four landlocked counties in the midlands, plus Carlow, and puzzlingly Wexford – despite its spectacular beaches (including Curracloe which served as a location for the film Saving Private Ryan due to its apparent resemblance to the Normandy beaches), towns of great historic interest and picturesque fishing villages). Unsurprisingly the seventh county was Tyrone.

It would be more accurate to say that NI’s largest county has the least to offer in terms of well-known visitor attractions

There certainly are places worth seeing in Tyrone. But the problem is that few of them are unique or merit travelling long distances to see in comparison to what other counties have to offer.

For example, Tyrone has mountains – but Down has better mountains. Tyrone has lakes but Fermanagh has better lakes. The glens of Tyrone don’t quite match up to those in Antrim. And unlike Derry or Armagh, Tyrone has no historic cathedral or walled cities. Unless you count Clogher whose Church of Ireland cathedral St Macartans is located in the village – one of two to be precise, with its sister Cathedral in Enniskillen. For historical reasons which I won’t go into, the cathedral of the Catholic Diocese of Clogher is in Monaghan.

But the grim reality is that for many people from east of the Bann or south of the border, their only experience of Tyrone will have been passing through it on the way to the more tourist-friendly destinations of the Fermanagh Lakelands or the Donegal coast. Or (perish the thought) attending a match at Healy Park.

However in a remarkable coup for the county “among the bushes” the coffee table book The Most Beautiful Villages in Ireland includes a chapter on Plumbridge, gateway to the spectacular Glenelly valley situated amidst the Sperrin Mountains. The area has never really been touristy – but then I’m sure many of the locals would prefer it to stay this way and remain something of a hidden gem.

Tyrone does of course have other places of historical (and pre-historical) interest – it has Neolithic standing stones, it’s the ancestral home of two US presidents Grant and Wilson, it can lay claim to the longest widest street in Ireland (in Cookstown – which has other claims to fame other than sausages and nightlife), and the Ardboe High Cross dating back to the tenth century.

So if there’s ever another series of Game of Thrones it wouldn’t do any harm to use the Bronze Age Beaghmore Stone Circles site or the Gortin Glens as filming locations.

Similarly, now that Foyleside’s biggest tourist attraction these days seems to be the famous Derry Girls mural – a film or TV adaptation of Michelle Gallen’s acclaimed novel Big Girl Small Town (well worth a read by the way) could maybe put Castlederg on the map.

Or if there was ever a film made about Scots-Irish emigration to colonial America, the Ulster American Folk Park outside Omagh would make an ideal location.

There is much to see and do in Tyrone. You just need to look in the right places. Or in some cases – the wrong places.

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