Above: Glenmalure House in Wicklow. You need to cross a river in a car (if your beat up old jalopy can handle it…) to reach the place and it once played host to the likes of Yeats who wrote a poem about it.
Tomás Lynch takes a look at the dwindling number of An Oige hostels throughout the country. On his rambles he stumbles across issues of privatisation, a fall in volunteerism and evolving holiday needs.
Glenmalure Hostel lies hidden in a remote valley in the depths of the Wicklow Mountains. Inaccessible except by fording a mountain river, and without electricity or hot running water, it is a relic of older times in tourism. Originally built as a hunting lodge, it was later sold on to Countess Markiewicz, and played host to such characters as Yeats, who wrote a poem while staying there – though as Billy Duffin, the warden of the hostel puts it, “It wasn’t his style, he was a bit of a city gent.”
Synge’s play The Shadow of the Glen is set at the lodge, and other figures from the Irish revolutionary period also stayed there. Markiewicz in her turn later sold it on to Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine French-Mullen, the lesbian couple who were active in 1916 and in social struggles throughout the following decades. Lynn held onto it until her death in 1955, before giving it over to the nation, when Dev decided to give it to the youth hostelling network to keep it accessible to the public.
Like the three other hostels in the An Óige Irish hostel network, it is still run by volunteers. The group of volunteers who maintain the Glenmalure Hostel call themselves Friends of Glenmalure. Billy tells me what they do: “We maintain it ourselves, we look after it, we paint it, we clean it – we do it because we love Glenmalure. We’re doing it to keep it open for the enjoyment of people who want to see a piece of history.”
The other volunteer-run hostels in the network are Ben Lettery in Connemara and Trá na Rosann in Donegal, a listed building that was built as a private hunting lodge by Sir Edward Lutyens, architect to the Royal family and a drinking buddy of Lord Mountbatten – the British aristocrat who was later to meet his demise off the coast of Sligo at the hands of an IRA bomb (along with two children, unfortunately). The warden told us the tale of how Mountbatten and Lutyens put in the tiling themselves one night after a few jars.
These historic buildings which have traditionally provided generations of young people with access to the wilder parts of our country are becoming a rarity. Roy Murray, marketing director of An Óige tells me that in it’s heydey the network had 55 hostels, but now only 24 remain open. Among those that have vanished from the network are the hostel in Aghavannagh, an old British barracks built along the Old Military Road in Wicklow to control the rebel populace in the wake of 1798, and Traenlaur Lodge, a lordly building in Mayo. Many of these have now become private residences or holiday homes.
Billy attributes this to young people’s changing tastes. “As people became more affluent they stopped going to hostels, because they could afford to stay in a hotel or in a guesthouse.” Roy points out that changes in the way young people travelled played a part – instead of walking and hitchhiking around a network of closely-linked hostels, young people prefered to drive down and have a hub to explore from. Ryanair played a role, says Roy. “It’s so easy to go abroad, young people don’t think of staying in Ireland.”
The concept of membership has changed too – An Óige is theoretically a youth organization, but the majority of its members are elderly people who became involved during hotelling’s heydey. “Young people today are thinking ‘what’s in it for me?’ Membership in the past was something where you gave service.”
However, perhaps there is a way to keep these hostels open. I chatted to Jackie Warnock of the Benwiskin Centre, a hostel in Sligo that is also a community centre. As well as bringing tourists into the community, the centre provides basic facilities and services for the local people, including a community garden, evening classes, weekly card games, laundry facilities, basic office services such as printing, a local bulletin, and a space for social events. “We’ve had a post office close down, the local co-op creamery closed down, a pub and a shop closed down, so we’re a resource centre for people in the local community.”
The hostel is recognized as a Green Hostel. It was opened in 2000 by the Ballintrillick Environmental Group, a local group set up in 1992 as a response to illegal dumping in the area to organize local clean-ups, took over the building – a derelict Vocational School. “We do composting, rainwater harvesting, recycling. We won in 2008 the EU eco-label to show that we have these standards in place. Also Katherine Mack voted us Number 1 Ecohostel in Europe in an article for the National Geographic.”
Another historic hostel that I stayed in as a child was the Mountain Lodge, formerly an An Óige hostel in Tipperary that has since fallen into dereliction and abandonment. Breeda Fitzgerald of the Burncourt Community Council, an elected local community group that organizes social events and runs services for the elderly, says that losing the hostel was a big loss to the local community. “It has been a landmark in the area for years, and it’s so architecturally important – it’s one of the few remaining Nash-designed buildings in the country.”
Now, that community is fundraising to do up the hostel and open it up again. Breeda says the state has a responsibility to keep these buildings open to the public. “I think there should be a state intervention to help preserve these buildings and to help reopen them, because they do have a purpose, even to provide a limited amount of employment in an area.”
Roy rejects the suggestion that many of these hostels were sold off as a result of debt built up by the refurbishment of a few hostels during the boom. “Hostels were being sold every year before the investment in Errigal (2005) and Knockree (2007). It was because those hostels were not breaking even.”
Instead he says that with the fall-off in interest from individual travellers, An Óige has shifted its attention to catering for youth organizations. “When An Óige originally started they were aimed at individual travellers, and as we developed our focus was mostly on youth groups, scout groups, things like that, rather than the individual traveller. A lot of the older hostels weren’t suitable for that type of market. The older hostels are beautiful and traditional, but youth groups don’t use them. So the membership decided if we were to stay focused on the youth, we have to build custom-built hostels for young people … You get a lot of individual travellers who come to Dublin, they just want to go to Temple Bar, they want to party, and that’s not what we offer. We offer affordable accommodation as close to the outdoors as possible, and that suits youth groups much more than young individual travellers who want to party and have fun in the cities.”
We must campaign to keep these historic buildings – which were often gifted to the state or to the hostelling association – in the public sphere, rather than privatized as private holiday homes. Hostelling networks like an Óige offered people young and old access to the wild at cheap, fair prices, and now brings private and exclusive manors and lodges of the nobility into the public sphere.
When these are privatized, it’s akin to the loss felt if the National Gallery were to start privatizing its collections – the skies and the stars are as much or more our collective inheritance than the doodlings of the idle rich.