With schools set to close as we head into the summer season proper, thousands of people will be heading to our beaches for a day of sun, sea, and relaxation.
Nothing quite signifies summer more than a trip to the beach, and here in County Galway we are blessed with an array of options, from Kinvara in the south to Renvyle out west.
The natural beauty of our coastline is something many take for granted, and too often we ignore what is around us every day of the week, preferring instead to head to the costas of Spain, cramming ourselves like sardines for seven days on the trot. We tend to dream of far-away places - that perfect, deserted beach in the Seychelles, the dozens of tranquil beaches in Thailand’s Phi Phi Island; 90 continuous miles of golden sand and dunes in New Zealand’s Northland, or the surfing paradises of Australia’s Queensland.
But the perfect beach is more than just sand and waves, and there was heartening news this week that seven Galway beaches have been awarded a Blue Flag : Trá An Doilín, An Ceathrú Rua; Loughrea Long Point, An Tra Mhór Coill Rua, Inverin; Aran Cill Mhuirbthe, Cill Ronan; Silverstrand; and Salthill. While the water may not be Costa warm, these beaches are a real drawcard for tourists and locals alike.
The Blue Flag is an international award for beach excellence which is operated in Ireland by An Taisce with support from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There are more than 3,450 beaches and marinas in 41 countries across Europe, South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada and the Caribbean which have received this “eco-label”.
But the vuvuzelas will not be blowing loudly yet. The disappointing factor is that in Ireland five flags were lost as a result of water quality falling below the stringent guideline standards, those here at Spiddal Pier and Traught, as well as Brittas Bay South, Wicklow, and Killala Ross Strand, and Louisburgh, Oldhead, in Mayo.
The Blue Flag programme in Ireland has grown steadily from 19 Blue Flags in 1988 to 76 this year, but that also represents a decrease of one from last year and the lowest number of awards in 10 years. Given that Ireland’s coastline is approximately 1,500km total and is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Irish Sea on the east, Ireland's beaches should be one of the main attractions. Yet the greatest stumbling block to receiving this coveted award is their failure to measure up to stringent water quality standards, and Eamon Ó Cuív has been quick to recognise “the urgent need for a new sewerage scheme for An Spidéal”. The Mutton Island wastewater plant was the principal reason why both Silver Strand (2005 ) and Salthill (2006 ) have received the Blue Flag for the first time and kept it.
An Spidéal is a vibrant and unique village in the Gaeltacht which attracts thousands of tourists every year, and, like many west of Ireland tourist areas that have outgrown their outdated wastewater schemes, it is imperative it is dealt with sooner rather than later.
The Blue Flag is a strong reference for tourists. But it tells much about the community behind it - a community that recognises the importance of their environment and takes the management of their natural assets seriously.