I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue, namely the need for the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government to provide funding for the restoration of Kilbixy church, Ballynacargy, County Westmeath, through the Heritage Council and to outline other available heritage grants for this essential restoration project. The church of Kilbixy, St Bigseach's, is part of the earliest history of Christian Ireland. It is a protected structure and its conservation is essential in terms of our national heritage and that of County Westmeath, which is extremely proud of this link to its past.
I congratulate the Mullingar union of parishes for the comprehensive report it has prepared on this worthwhile project. There was some confusion in the Minister's Department. In reply to a parliamentary question I tabled on this issue, reference was made to an application made in May 2010, which was deemed by the Heritage Council to be incomplete. This was absurd, as the restoration group did not make an application until October last and all its documentation was very much in order. I hope this error will in no way impact on its application, as the report on which it was based was one of the most comprehensive and impressive I have ever seen.
Kilbixy is situated on the western shore of Lough Iron. The church itself is flanked by a Norman motte and bailey to the west and the site of the medieval town of Kilbixy to the east, once the capital of this part of the region before Mullingar. In fact, the site predates Norman development and it seems that an early Christian monastery was founded in the sixth century by a handmaid of St. Brigid.
The current Church at Kilbixy replaces two earlier churches. In a record by Bishop Dopping of 1682-85, Kilbixy is described as ruined, with no curate. Another reference to a church in 1682 indicates a tower or steeple, which would preclude its being the structure of the current church, but is proof of a pre-existing chapel. There is also reference in a report of October 1793 to the discovery of underground passages at Kilbixy, which indicate a monastic settlement of approximately the eighth century. There was also a leper hospital at Kilbixy, founded by Hugh de Lacy in 1197.
This church has a history that makes it essential for preservation and a major attraction for educational and tourist visits. The restoration group is sensitive to the responsibility of this heritage and is anxious that any new facilities would contribute to the long-term sustainability of the church and its enjoyment, without damaging its special character. This is to be achieved by identifying special features of the church and ensuring that restoration will repair and conserve, while protecting the historic character of the building.
According to the architect's report the building is in poor condition and remedial works are urgently required. These would include work on the roof space, the interior of the church and the exterior, both of which are badly cracked and exposed to water penetration. The severe weather conditions of last year have caused a rapid deterioration of the whole structure. The recently discovered crypt underneath the church is partially filled with stones blocking the entrance and it urgently needs to be cleared out. If it proves to be empty of human remains, the crypt would provide an excellent storage for a heating boiler, water pump and other equipment. Facilities needed to fulfil contemporary functional requirement have to be integrated into the current building. No separate structure is proposed as this would take from the integrity of the existing site.
Our history is of the utmost importance in this time of rapid change. We need to preserve our unique architectural heritage for religious, educational and tourist purposes. I hope the Minister can see a way to ensure this valuable heritage resource is not lost to future generations, unlike so much of the wealth of our unique past. I am sure he realises how vital it is to provide the Mullingar Union of Parishes with the funding to go ahead with this worthwhile project, through the Heritage Council and other bodies. I would welcome a positive reply this evening.