Every now and then, Northern Ireland springs a surprise as it did for me last weekend right on the border with the Republic.
It was a blissful Sunday evening in the heart of County Fermanagh’s lakeland.
The occasional cruiser rippled the stillness of Lower Lough Erne. Wild ducks disturbed the rushes and reeds by the water’s edge. Tree-covered islands rising from the lough, stood out against the setting sun.
From my vantage point by the lough shore, I could see clearly how the vision of one very determined Fermanagh man had materialised on the manicured meadows all around me.
I met Jim Treacy in April at the United States Masters at Augusta where he was following the progress of young Rory McIlroy. Much to the curiosity of the huge American golfing gallery, McIlroy carried a golf bag inscribed with the words “Lough Erne Golf Resort”.
Born in the border village of Boho, Jim Treacy set off for Dublin when he was 18 and now runs a chain of Supervalue stores in the south. His success enabled him to build up a land-bank of 600 acres of Fermanagh lakeland, near Belcoo, where he and his wife Eileen have raised a family of seven.
Five years ago, the architects, builders and diggers began to shape his grand design for his native county. The Lough Erne Golf Resort was underway.
This is no ordinary development, no modest project. The resort is a massive £25 million investment in a corner of this country which, not that long ago, was more noted for terror than tourism. But times have changed and today wherever you look in the west of Ulster, be it at nearby Enniskillen or the surrounding lakeland, there is an air of confidence born of a sense that the past is really past and the future can be full of promise.
What has been achieved five miles west of Enniskillen is nothing short of breath-taking. Could this really be Northern Ireland, I asked myself, where customer care and service are low on the agenda so often?
You might expect to find such quality in some affluent corner of California or an exotic island in the Caribbean but hardly so close to home. Northern Ireland isn’t used to such ambitious entrepreneurship and I’m sure some sceptics took a lot of convincing, but whatever the difficulties along the way they have been overcome. The dream of one man is about to be shared with many millions of people around the world when the television cameras come to Fermanagh next month.
The Lough Erne resort raises the bar for every hostelry in this country with its standards of customer care, facilities and service. It boasts a truly five star AA hotel with 120 luxurious bedrooms and suites, including separate loughside lodges, a Thai spa and massage centre, and a brand-new golf course, the like of which we haven’t seen before.
The full 7,261 yards 18 holes, designed by Nick Faldo, will open in July. Faldo, who was knighted for his services to golf in last weekend’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, once observed: “I’ve played golf on every continent and I can honestly say that I am overwhelmed by the location and beauty of the Lough Erne project.”
That is no understatement from Europe’s greatest golfer, a man not given to distributing compliments lightly. The fairways are flawless. From the elevated tees, there are panoramic views of the lakeland and the stunning scenery of west Ulster. The waters of the lough lap around the greens. All will be revealed to an international audience when the current Open champion Padraig Harrington plays Rory McIlroy on July 22 in a special head-to-head match recorded for television, screening in as many as 13 countries.
The Lough Erne course with views of the waters from 14 of the holes is being compared to Scotland’s acclaimed Loch Lomond resort.
It is so strikingly picturesque, as well as challenging, that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Faldo championship course joins Royal Portrush and Royal County Down in the world’s top rankings.
Of course, there is also the challenge of attracting sufficient paying guests from not just Ireland, north and south, but also Europe and America. Five stars requires upkeep, investment and manpower on a grand scale, but it is more than worth the journey to Fermanagh to find it.
The resort retains one touching, distinctive link with our troubled past. The library in the hotel is named in memory of Gordon Wilson.
His portrait hangs prominently in the library along with his words of forgiveness for the killers of his daughter, Marie in the Enniskillen Remembrance Sunday bombing. As I drove away from the resort, I passed the spot at the war memorial where she and so many others lost their lives.
The changing face of Fermanagh’s lakeland today is evidence of how far we have travelled since that dreadful Sunday morning nearly 22 years ago.
If you get to stand by the waters of Lough Erne and to admire as I did the vision of Jim Treacy — what he and his team have hewn so magnificently from the lakeland — you will see what I mean. This is a development of which the people of Fermanagh and Northern Ireland should be proud.