Thanks to funding, primarily by the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund in the Department of Rural & Community Development (part of Project Ireland 2040), a multi-partner partnership, and 10 years of heroic volunteer work, the Joyce Country and Western Lakes aspiring geopark project is underway. The €1.19 million project, led by Geological Survey Ireland, recently employed 3 full-time staff to work on the project. Michael Hegarty (Geopark Manager) and Dr Benjamin Thébaudeau (Geopark Geologist) will be based in Tourmakeady, while Amrine Dubois Gafar (Project Geologist) will be based in Geological Survey Ireland in Dublin. Dominic O'Morain (Tourism Officer, funded by Údarás na Gealtachta) joined the project team shortly after and is also based in Tourmakeady.
Left to right: Dr Benjamin Thébaudeau (Geopark Geologist), Dr Siobhán Power (Project Manager), Amrine Dubois Gafar (Project Geologist), Michael Hegarty (Geopark Manager) and Trish Walsh (Geo Enterprise) at their first meeting in Tourmakeady.
The aim of the project is to develop a geopark in the area surrounding Joyce Country on the Galway-Mayo border, and Loughs Mask, Carra and Corrib, with the intention of applying for full UNESCO Global Geopark status. Geoparks are places of internationally important geology which are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and economic development. UNESCO Geopark status carries no additional legal status or planning restrictions to those already in place by local, national or EU legislation.
There are currently 3 UNESCO Global Geoparks on the island of Ireland; Copper Coast in Co. Waterford; Burren & Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare; and Marble Arch Caves in Co. Fermanagh and Co. Cavan. We hope that Joyce County & Western Lakes could achieve UNESCO status in the next few years if the work progresses as anticipated.
Throughout the project, there will be events and activities run by or in conjunction with the aspiring geopark and details will be posted on this page and on the Joyce Country & Western Lakes geopark website for those of you who want to be a part of this process. An Education Programme for all levels and all those interested is being developed.
Some of the geological features seen in the area:
Bencorragh pillow basalt
Dringeen eggbox pitting
Cornamona schist outcrop
Derryclar marble quarry
Finny pillow basalt
Questions prepared by the students at Cloonliffen National School for the school visit by the Geopark and Project Geologists:
1. How many Geoparks are there in Ireland and in Europe?
There are currently over 140 geoparks worldwide. 75 are in Europe and 3 are on the island of Ireland. The ones on the island of Ireland are: Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark in Co. Clare, Copper Coast Geopark in Co. Waterford and Marble Arch Cave Global Geopark in Counties Fermanagh and Cavan.
2. When do you think it will be a confirmed Geopark?
We plan on submitting the application to UNESCO by the end of 2021. The assessment process, which includes a visit of international assessors, then takes about 18 months and so we are currently expecting to become a UNESCO Global Geopark in the second half of 2023.
3. Can a Geopark no longer be a Geopark?
Yes. Following a successful application, an aspiring Geopark becomes a UNESCO Global Geopark (UGG). After 4 years, every UGG has to be revalidated and goes through a similar process as during the initial application. This ensures that there is an international standard of quality for geoparks and that a geopark is a living and evolving project throughout its existence.
4. How will our Geopark be different to other Geoparks and why do you think this area qualifies as a Geopark?
Our region is unique in its range of geological and landscape features as well as rock types. Additionally, most of these are easily visible and recognizable in the landscape from the roads or in easily and publicly accessible areas, like Coillte owned forests or lake shores. This makes our region a perfect place to learn about Geology and Geography. Our Geopark has the great advantage of having two contrasting landscapes of the uplands of Joyce Country and the lowlands of the Western Lakes. This contrast corresponds to a rich geodiversity or a wide range of rock types (like limestone, sandstone, basalt, quartzite, marble and conglomerate) that tell a very long geological history of over 700 million years. Within our territory, we have Ireland's only Fjord,the world famous Connemara Marble and one of the very few Marl lakes still in existence at Lough Carra. We are also 5th in the world in terms of spring flow at Cong.
Because of this contrast, our geopark offers a range of environmental habitats for many species of plants and animals and for different agricultural practices and outdoor activities offerings. The diversity in the landscape and the rich historical and current culture of the area make it a perfect place to visit and spend a bit of time.
Finally, our geopark is the only one situated in a Gaeltacht area which is a great opportunity to support the language and use it in our educational offerings.
5. How many acres/hectares of rocks are there in the Geopark project?
The current project covers an area over 1000 km2 which corresponds to about 100,000 ha or about 250,000 acres.
6. What is the oldest feature in the Geopark?
The oldest rocks in the geopark formed about 700 million years ago as sediments of various sizes (sand, gravel, mud) accumulated in shallow coastal waters. These deposits became sedimentary rocks that were then subjected to massive heat and pressure and metamorphosed or transformed into other rocks like Quartzite, Schist and Marble. We can now see these rocks in the mountains of Mount Gable and the Maumturks.
7. What animals are in the Geopark? Will the Geopark project help endangered animals? Are sprays used in the Geopark that would endanger animals? Will you erect bat boxes in the Geopark?
There are a wide range of animals in the geopark. The most common are the domesticated sheep and cattle but there are also many wild animals living here. You can find many small mammals (like badgers, pine martens, squirrels) and birds in hedgerows and woodlands in particular. Some are protected like the Horseshoe bat and a large number of gulls and terns that nest in islands of the lakes. The rivers and lakes are also home to many species of fishes (trout, salmon, pike) as well as otters.
The geopark does not specifically aim to protect endangered animals as the designation does not bring any new regulations to the region. However, the management of the geopark would quite happily support and promote any actions by groups like schools and associations that plan actions, policies and infrastructure that would help the local biodiversity; like erecting bat boxes or limiting the use of sprays that are harmful to pollinators. All these actions would have to be designed and implemented in agreement with the local community.
8. What would happen if you owned land there?
Nothing unless the owner would want something to happen. UNESCO Global Geopark status does not carry any additional legal status or restrictions above those already put in place by local, national or EU legislation. They are outside the remit of local authority with regards to restrictions. The creation of a geopark is just a way to label an area for its geology, landscape, environment, food products, crafts and culture. People live, farm, work, go to school, create new companies and build houses and infrastructures in a geopark.
But someone owning land in the geopark could decide to seize the opportunity to develop some activities for tourist or school groups or to use the brand of the geopark to help sell its products.
9. Does it cost money to go into the Geopark? Can you just walk in?
The Geopark as a whole is not a park, it is just a region that has a special name, like Connemara or Clew Bay. People live and work there, there are towns and public roads in it and so it doesn't cost any money to go into it.
However, that doesn't mean you can just walk in into somebody's land. As in any other region of Ireland, people's private property is fully respected and visitors can only walk the land after getting prior approval from the landowner.
To see more FAQs from various 'Joyce Country proposed UNESCO Global Geopark' public meetings, please click here and go to pages 61-72.