Plane crazy... or a tourism idea that will really take off?
Undertaker David McGowan attracted global headlines when he brought a 767 jet to a Sligo seaside town. But will the revival of cross- border tourism post-Troubles bring new visitors to his odd idea for a glamping village? He's paid a visit by Kim Bielenberg
I first catch a glimpse of the towering 767 jet through a fence opposite the caravan park on the road out of Enniscrone. There it is in front of me, a Russian jet airliner with its white and blue body, gleaming in the twilight.
Visitors to the Sligo seaside town who have not heard the legend of the vast aeroplane in a 'back garden' must do a double-take as they pass through the resort on a sunny afternoon.
They must wonder if the seaside town, famous for its wide expanses of sandy beach and its genteel Edwardian seaweed baths, has a little-known international airport across the road from the caravan park in the dunes.
Or if there is no airport, why is there is a Transaero jet that used to fly all over the world out of Moscow peeking out over the top of a fence?
And why is there a tank and an armoured personnel carrier next to it? Has there been some kind of invasion?
In 1,000 years, archaeologists who find the aircraft may be mystified about how it arrived in this remote corner of Co Sligo.
They will speculate that the 21st-century natives of Enniscrone must have had special aeronautical powers.
I am here to meet the visionary figure who succeeded in bringing the jet to Enniscrone by ferrying it on a barge to the nearby beach and transporting it by truck through the town.
David McGowan, a local funeral director and embalmer, bought the plane for around £18,000 to be the centrepiece of his now long-awaited Quirky Nights Glamping Village.
When it finally opens, the unconventional destination will enable guests to sleep on board the jet and enjoy the entire aviation experience - apart from the flying bit, of course - even down to using the aircraft bathrooms.
Alternatively, if sleeping on board a 767 is not their idea of a perfect holiday, guests might choose to spend the night in an armoured personnel carrier, a tank, a vintage train, a double decker bus, a yacht or in the back of a London taxi.
Long term, McGowan is also looking at plans to acquire the train used in the film Murder on the Orient Express and the truck from the movie Black Dog, which starred Patrick Swayze and Meatloaf.
David is a hard man to pin down for a rendezvous. He apologises politely, having warned me in advance that the duties of an undertaker - and the need to soothe bereaved relatives of the deceased - must always come first. The dead must be buried - and that is only fitting and proper.
He reschedules a couple of meetings with me at the planned glamping village, as he has to attend to funerals.
So I have time to amble along the nearby beach, and visit the Edwardian seaweed baths where visitors bathe in vast ancient tubs with solid brass taps. The seaweed is collected in sacks along the shoreline every day by the Kilcullen family.
Enniscrone is the sort of town where kids wander up and down the street in their bare feet, carrying buckets and spades and eating ice creams.
A local man by the pier tells me that having suffered a period of decline during the Troubles, which curbed cross-border traffic, Enniscrone has been revived by the emergence of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Through the dunes, there is a trail of youngsters heading to the golden sands to surf.
When I eventually meet up with David McGowan at the entrance to the future glamping tourist attraction, he conveys a passion for his project - despite many obstacles that have been put in his path.
First, he had to bring the plane to Enniscrone two years ago. He says of that monumental feat: "Everyone in the marine world and in aviation said that it could not be done."
Then the undertaker turned novelty-tourism impresario had to get planning permission for his Quirky Nights Glamping Village. Despite some bureaucratic hiccups, he has succeeded in winning approval, and he is gratified that there were no local planning objections.
But now David has to raise the finance to complete the project, and transform the train, the plane and the rest of his vintage collection of oddball vehicles into comfortable accommodation.
David explains the project will cost a further £4m to complete and he says the banks want his house and his two funeral homes as security if he is to borrow the money to finish the job.
The businessman is now looking for an investor. Now that Facebook is out of fashion, surely this an opportunity?
Taking me up the staircase to the plane, David is still keen to outline his vision of the future, and it knows no bounds. In the hollowed-out shell of the aircraft, which he plans to have refitted, he tells me that he hopes that couples will be able to get married in the cockpit - and kids will be able to slide down the safety chute.
Looking out on one side of the aircraft, I see the dunes behind Enniscrone Beach and Killala Bay in the distance. On the other side of the plane are the rolling hills of Sligo.
While the front of the plane will be like a normal jet with the cockpit and rows of seats, there will be bedrooms at the back for those with a hankering to have a Boeing as their holiday abode, having tired of the humdrum apartment in, say, Ibiza.
The new glamping village will be like a recreation of a transport hub. "The concept is to turn all types of transport into accommodation," says David.
The undertaker has planning permission to build an airport terminal next to the plane with a coffee shop, cinema and education centre. The control tower at the top of the terminal will be a bridal suite. What better way could there be to embark on married life?
Around this airport scene there will be double decker buses, the train and five London taxis.
Proudly sitting atop his armoured car, the glamping supremo tells me he has always had a passion for vintage vehicles. He claims to be the owner of the oldest car in Sligo - a Model T Ford that was used in a bank robbery during the Irish civil war.
So what has actually motivated McGowan to bring his quirky facility to Enniscrone?
He says one of the motivations was that the high-profile arrival of the plane had given him an opportunity to change his profile in the locality, from just being an undertaker.
As a funeral director, David says that when he went out socially he was often the target of pranks and banter. People make jokes, like asking him if he brought his measuring tape.
"I realised that I must have been known as the grim reaper, and it would send a shiver down your spine. But now it has changed. I am now known as the plane man," he says.
Now, David is happy to be renowned as the man who brought the 'big yoke' to Enniscrone. Thousands of people gathered in the town two years ago as the plane was lifted ashore and transported through the streets to its unlikely resting place.
At the time, the chairman of the community council said of the hero of the day: "David McGowan is to Enniscrone what Monsignor Horan was to Knock!"
McGowan says he was not just motivated by a desire to shed a funereal image as the 'grim reaper'. He says he has learned from his trade that there is no point in being the richest man in the graveyard.
"I did it to promote Sligo, and put where I live on the map. We are neglected for services in Sligo. When you look at all the promotional stuff that is done by Failte Ireland, you are still looking at the Ring of Kerry and the Cliffs of Moher. Anything that Sligo has got, it has come from Sligo people themselves."
He says he wants to create a magnet that would draw people to Enniscrone. "What better thing can you do than land a plane in your back garden?"
McGowan became an undertaker after his father bought a pub in nearby Easkey and it came with a small funeral business attached.
"As I was growing up, I became interested in the funeral business. When I was young I went to Chicago and trained to be a funeral director," he says.
Bringing the 767 to Enniscrone has not been the Sligo businessman's only innovation. He says that after training in America, he developed Ireland's first purpose-built funeral home.
He also set up the Deathcare Academy of Ireland, offering courses in embalming and other skills associated with being an undertaker.
When it comes to his glamping village, he is still brimful of ideas about additions to it, including adding to his eclectic collection of vehicles.
The effusive undertaker bought an ambulance used in the filming of the hit 1970s comedy M*A*S*H, which was set in the Korean war. David plans to recreate the mobile medical unit from M*A*S*H in the corner of his glamping village in order to deliver a message about the futility of war.
Such is the scale of his glamping plan that some local sceptics might wonder whether his pipe dream will ever be completed. But by ferrying a 767 jet along the Atlantic Ocean from Shannon, bringing it ashore and having it transported to a field, David has proved his doubters wrong before.
It may be many months before the glamping village finally opens, but it is already an attraction for passers-by as one of the wonders of the west.
As I leave the site, a woman and her family gaze in awe through the gate at the jet airliner and the other vehicles. "How on earth did that get there?" she asks. How on earth indeed.