The normally serene sandy shores of Derryounce Lakes and Trails in Portarlington were abuzz on Friday, April, as crowds gathered to play music, exercise, swim and to cheer on a major upgrade to the bogland amenity.
The enhanced walks now can be enjoyed by both Laois and Offaly communities of all abilities thanks to new entrance gates and walkways.
It was officially opened by Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys TD on Friday, April 22, as her department funded the upgrade with €152,000 through the Outdoor Recreational Infrastructure Scheme.
"I'm delighted to be here at this wonderful facility. Well done to everybody involved. Thank you to the community, you came forward with the proposals. You know what you want here at this wonderful park, you had a plan, worked with the local authority and local councillors. You looked for funding and it was over to Oireachtas members, we have Pippa and Charlie here and they keep the pressure on me because they want these wonderful projects on the ground," she said.
Derryounce now boasts wheelchair accessibility, and the first ever activator pole trail in Ireland, a 4km walk for people using the hugely popular Nordic pole walkers or "fitsticks".
Portarlington Community Development Association chair Aidan Mullally welcomed the Minister and guests and the community to the 355 acre amenity, noting that their work to develop the town and amenity since 1998 has secured €11 million of funding.
"All of this work would not be possible without the dedication of our committee and volunteers. What you see today is only the tip of the iceberg, a dedicated team of volunteers give up their time freely and continously to improve the lakes and trails so that visitors from near and far can enjoy the great outdoors of Portarlington's bogland, something we are all very proud of," he said.
Mr Mullally thanked both Laois and Offaly county councils, for their work to win funding, and the PCDA committee.
He is ambitious for the trail amenity's future.
"The PCDA has a clear vision for Derryounce Lakes and Trails, to establish it as a major trail head linking with the Grand Canal Greenway in Offaly and the Barrow Blueway in Monasterevin, providing access to outdoor leisure and recreation activity in Ireland's rural heartlands," he said.
Members of the Laois branch of Irish Wheelchair Association attended the launch, as did open water swimmers and Trilogy triathon club in Laois, Laois Sports Partnership who funded the fitsticks trail, with an uplifting outdoor drumming session provided by First Edenderry BP Scouts.
Ciarán Cushen from Stradbally is a wheelchair user and an assessor of accessibility in Laois, and he tried out the new sliding gates.
"This is actually perfect. We were consulted by Colm Powell from the PCDA on what they needed to improve on. We would love to get a tarmac trail for people without powered wheelchairs. It would also be good to have a Townlink service that is wheelchair accessible so we could come here on our own. Only for the IWA we would not be able to go anywhere. Emo Court is not accessible. This could be a good blueprint for all future projects. The PCDA should be commended," he said.
The fitsticks trail is expected to attract pole walkers from all over Ireland and beyond as the inclusive activity continues to grow in popularity.
Laois Sports Partnership offer the sport to groups all over Laois including people who are older and have disabilities, balance problems or Parkinson's Disease, and they part funded the new trail with a €7,000 grant.
Catriona Slattery is the Sports Inclusion Disability Officer at Laois Sports Partnership.
"It's very exciting for us, after investing in activator poles and instructors through Healthy Ireland funding in 2019, to see this rolled out now. The walk goes from the Marian Hill entrance 2km out and then back, with exercises and activities written on signs along the route. The PCDA did all the surfacing with their volunteers, Donie Molloy is a huge volunteer and deserves a lot of credit," she said.
Ironman swimmer and professional baker Eimear Mathews was on hand with refreshments, after swimming with Trilogy triathlon club on the day.
"It is a fantastic amenity, and the PCDA are brilliant to accommodate us. Swimming is possible for us because we provide our own lifeguards and swim as a group, so we can swim here seven days a week, 365 days a year. It is always user friendly with no waves and we are acclimatised to the temperature. We are also now taking the Pirhana swimmers out here for open water training and Trilogy train here and did an Ironman event last summer. It's just brilliant to swim here, it puts us all in good humour. All we need now is a sauna, changing room and jacuzzi," she said with a smile.
The Minister was on a tour of Offaly projects including the Slieve Bloom Mountain Bike Trails new Kinnitty base, and a rural regeneration project in Edenderry.
The projects were funded under the Rural Regeneration Development Fund and the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme administered by the Minister's Department.
Minister Humphreys’ Department has also funded the preparation of a 10-year development plan for Derryounce, currently at tender stage, which will set out a blueprint for further amenity, sporting & tourism development, potentially utilising various funding streams available over the coming years.
The Chief Executive of Offaly County Council, Anna Marie Delaney, complimented the voluntary work carried out by the Portarlington Development Community Association in co-operation with Bord na Mona and Coillte in developing, promoting and maintaining Derryounce Lakes and Trails over the past number of years and committed to supporting this amenity into the future.
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