John Ward, of Donegal town, trained and worked as a solicitor before discovering that his true vocation was to be found using the latest technology to promote tourism, culture and heritage in his native Donegal.
John Ward, now aged 40, is the youngest of four children born to Johnny Ward, a solicitor who was originally from Raphoe and Marioin Ward (née Sharkey) from Castlederg. The family home is located at Drumcliffe and John’s brother Peter still lives in Donegal town. His sister Kathryn is a solicitor living in Dublin and his other sister Ann is married to John Garvey, a doctor in Bundoran, and lives in Kinlough.
John went was educated at Scoil Aodh Rua and the Abbey Vocational School before studying law at what was then UCG (now NUI Galway). He went on to complete his professional qualification as a solicitor in Blackhall Place and worked for a time in his father’s practice in Donegal town.
Very soon, however, he found himself “caught up on the whole internet/IT craze that was developing in the mid to late 90s.”
In 1997, John went to London. “What was especially interesting was that the company I first worked for, VCG (Visual Communications Group), was in the top three picture libraries in the world, and there was a big battle on between Mark Getty of Getty Images and Bill Gates of Corbis to take us over.
Getty won out and John worked as European Counsel for Getty Images from 1998 to 2001. He laughingly recalls: “It was a big change from Donegal District Court! Working with Getty Images really helped me develop my Internet and IT skills.”
From 2002 to 2008, John worked with a number of companies as in-house lawyer, mainly to do with commercial law and intellectual copyright.
Then, in 2008, he decided it was time to go back home to Donegal.
“I was working down in Hampshire for a company called Parametric Technology, and I suppose it came to the point where I was ready to come home. “I’d been in England for 10 years and I’d been talking about coming back home for some time. It was simply a matter of me saying to myself: ‘Right, I’m here 10 years now. Do I want to stay another 10 years or come home and do some of the projects I’ve been talking about?’
“I’ve always had a very deep interest in heritage and culture. Paddy Meehan and myself had done a few projects together over the years, I wrote the material for and helped set up the town’s first website in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, for example in 1995-1996.
“In 1997, I was asked in 1997 to help organise the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Donegal town and we added some different things to the celebrations - historical talks in the Court House, Opportunity Knocks for kids down in the Pavesi (Bosco Centre), a display of old photographs in the Court House - things like that.
“It all went down very well, so much so that by 1998, we decided to turn it all into a Heritage Festival. The jewel in the crown of that was us staging the first big public event in Donegal Castle in 400 years, a play/pageant in tribute to Red Hugh O’Donnell. It started with a candelit procession of monks from the Abbey up to the Castle, accompanied by live music. Then, in the Castle itself, in the main hall upstairs, there was a spectacular show featuring singers, dancers, musicians, and people in period costume playing various roles on stage and off.
“So, when I came back to Donegal in 2008, I was keen to something that related to culture, heritage and tourism.
“I moved into a house at Malin Head, and set up a company called Headland New Media. The idea was to combine Cultural Tourism with the new media that was becoming available, working closely with local people and local organisations.
“We looked at developing sat nav devices putting ‘proper information’ on them. We found that some of the most interesting places in the country weren’t covered at all by sat nav systems. They’d mention hotels and golf courses, commercial establishments, but not things like where you’d find the best views, or where ancient monuments are located, not to mention filling in the background stories about them. We felt that was a serious omission and a real lost opportunity.
“Our real innovation was being able to tag audio into the tour, when people were travelling with our sat nav system. The system knows where you are at any given time and is able to tell you the story as you drove along, narrated by a local person. We called the system Navigatour and the audio upgrade is called Racontour. The first one we did was for Inishowen and that came out about two years ago. Since then, we’ve added one for Yeats Country. We’re very pleased at how well they are both being received.
“As is the nature of technology, things moved on and we had to adjust. Smart phones came into being and with them, apps - lots and lots of apps!
“At the moment, we develop cultural tourism related apps – anything from finding the best place to fish, to walking routes near a town or hotel. Our apps don’t just give basic information. There’s loads of backgrounds, on local plants and wildlife, mythology, folklore, place names – the stuff that really makes a place unique. The ones we’ve done for Donegal, which can be found on www.navigatour.ie, are free to download. This is just our way of doing something to promote Donegal.
“We’ve done six guides for Donegal town in one app, for example – heritage, food, two nature trails, a driving trail out to Slieve League and a general guide for the county as well, listing the top 70 places that, in our opinion, any visitor to Donegal really needs to know about.
“You would be surprised how many people who have lived here all their lives don’t have any real idea of just how much this county has to offer. It was a seriously hard task to get the list of essential places to visit in Donegal town to 70. I started with well over 650! We really are spoilt but we don’t necessarily know it or get out and see more than the tip of the iceberg.
“The guides can be downloaded to i-Phones or androids for free and can be used whenever or wherever you want, once it’s in the relevant area, ie Donegal.
“There’s also a guide to all the best ‘shrines’ in Donegal. This isn’t just about religious or pagan shrines. We’ve taken a broader and somewhat tongue-in-check view of what the word ‘shrine’ can mean. So, we’ve places like Viking House, a shrine to Daniel fans, and Rossnowlagh, a mecca for surfers.
“Currently, I’m involved in a number of projects all over the country, including one in the Midlands and another in the south east of the country. It’s really down to whoever approaches the company and asks us to do a guide for them.
“One of the other projects the company has been working on is developing documentaries for radio and my goal would be to do a lot more of these over the coming years. One such series was Rambling House, which explored the tradition of storytelling in Inishowen. Anyone interested can listen to the podcasts for these on. www.ramblinghouse.ie.
“I’m conscious that this rich heritage needs to be recorded soon, before the traditions and the people who keep them alive die out.”