The Co Mayo town came out the victor after a final session in The Irish Times offices last Friday, when judges had to select from a shortlist that included Cork city; Ardara, Co Donegal; Westport, Co Mayo; Killarney, Co Kerry; and Rathmines in Dublin.
As the five judges pitched for their choice, Dr Maureen Gaffney said: “We have the very happy dilemma of discovering that Ireland is just a great place.”
The competition attracted 563 entries from all 32 counties, following an invitation from The Irish Times for members of the public to nominate the place in which they lived and explain its appeal. All kinds of habitats were eligible – “a town or city suburb, a village or remote rural spot, a tiny community halfway up a mountain, a street, a road or a housing estate”.
“It became not just a search for a pretty place . . . but an examination of living in Ireland today,” said Irish Times Features Editor Conor Goodman, chairman of the judging panel.
John O’Callaghan, who nominated Westport in what a judge called a “lyrical pitch”, was standing in the town’s Octagon yesterday morning when he heard the news. “I’m just thrilled for the town . . . but to be the first place in Ireland . . . is a really wonderful boost,” he said. “This competition is deeper . . . It goes to the heart of how rooted the people are, of how much of a community they have.”
Mr O’Callaghan, a senior chemist with Roche in Clarecastle, Co Clare, and who has lived in Ennis for many years, returns to the old family home in Westport on most weekends.
“The pull to come back is so very strong,” he said, before adding mischievously: “And I’d just hate to have lost out to Kerry.”
Even through last week’s lashing rain, Dr Gaffney said Westport “looked so beautiful . . . without a single piece of litter”. The town has solved the most consistent problem facing nearly every community, she said: getting people to work together. With a population of 5,500, it has 97 voluntary associations, each working “hand in glove”, creating “fantastic” facilities for its young and even providing a “colour service” for local business frontages.
The five judges were: Dr Gaffney, adjunct professor of psychology and society at University College Dublin; Paul Keogh, founding partner of Paul Keogh Architects and former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland; Gerard O’Neill, chairman of Amárach Research and a co-founder of Hireland.ie; Irish Times Environment Editor Frank McDonald; and Irish Times journalist Edel Morgan.