By Cathal McNaughton

BUSHMILLS, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - One of the homes of Irish whiskey is fighting an economic downturn by investing in art projects to brighten up derelict shops and houses - an approach it says is boosting tourist numbers.

The idea of cosmetically enhancing villages in Northern Ireland, a British province still recovering from three decades of sectarian violence, gained much publicity before a meeting of G8 leaders there in June.

Bushmills, best known as the town where the whiskey of the same name was distilled for the first time 400 years ago, has taken the practice to an extent that the village is becoming recognizable for highly detailed artwork and graphics that brighten up its main street.

It is notable for the scale of the project - around a dozen vacant units have been given a facelift, including an old-style cobblers where a worker in a flat cap mends shoes. A bakery with appetizing bread and cakes is depicted up the road with a barber shop and bookmakers nearby.

Windows and doors have been painted on to empty houses, complete with people observing passersby outside. Elsewhere, Farmyard animals are drawn coming out of shop doors.

"Being a tourist village, there was quite a lot of emphasis put on trying to bring about an uplift and see could it be the catalyst for further economic development in the town," said Aidan McPeake, director of environmental services for the local council.

"That seems to be the case now, the village has been very popular this year. It's been very successful."

Two of the shops brightened up with art over the past year are no longer vacant, McPeake said.

The Northern Ireland government has spent 2 million pounds ($3 million) to tackle dereliction over the past two years and stickers were applied to windows in areas near the luxury golf resort where G8 leaders met to give the impression that business was booming.

But the "Brighter Bushmills Project" was set up by locals last year and supported by the local council, which is among the least well-funded in the North.

They raised 30,000 pounds, some of which was donated by the local distillery, and the shopfronts depicted are more detailed and colorful than elsewhere. A second phase, developed with the help of government funds, was completed in March of this year.

As a gateway to the Giant's Causeway, the famous collection of interlocking rock formations considered a World Heritage Centre by the United Nations' cultural agency, Bushmills hopes the initiative will make sure the tourists keep coming.

"Obviously locals would much rather see the properties filled and in use all the time but this is definitely the next best option," McPeake said. ($1 = 0.6437 British pounds)

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin)