I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue. I am glad the Minister of State is here to respond and I will begin with a quote:
This is Ireland. From the view atop the walls, to the sounds of the nearby farms, to the smell and feel of the mists off the sea nearby. A haunting place that will never leave you. Sláinte!
These are the words of a tourist who came and experienced An Grianan Fort in Burt, County Donegal. The words say it all and yet my principal reason for raising this issue is that many visitors who arrive in the early evening find they cannot gain access to the site. Just this week some local people contacted me because they had taken visiting relations up to the fort at 6.50 p.m. but found it locked up and inaccessible. In the interest of facilitating people, both local and from further afield, who know of this wonderful location I ask the Minister of State to please, at the very least, ensure the opening times reflect the bright late evenings we have. This debate is an annual one and it should not have to be. No one asking for reasonable opening times wants to see vandalism or abuse of the site, but current policies are anti everyone, especially the very valuable tourists whom we so badly need in north and east Donegal.
Google is full of references to the Grianan of Aileach and it is important to put on record some information about the location of which I am speaking. It is said to guard the entrance of Inishowen on an 800 ft. high hilltop that offers a magnificent panorama of the "Island of Owen" as well as the twin loughs of Foyle and Swilly. The original structure dates to the Neolithic or early Bronze Age, 2000 BC, and consisted of a central cashel or circular fortification with a series of outer earthen ramparts.
Grianan has a long history associated with the northern O'Neill clan, who ruled the Gaelic kingdom of Aileach which reached from Tyrone to Donegal and beyond from the sixth to the 12th century. The name Inishowen literally means "Island of Owen" and refers to Eoghan, one of the sons of Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland. Legend has it that St. Patrick came to Grianan in the fifth century and baptised Eoghan in the holy well that lies to the rear of the fort and thus in one fell swoop brought the Christian message to the whole of Inishowen.
I could provide the Minister of State with more of its history but I must be concise in the time I have. In light of this information I ask whether the OPW has any strategic initiatives that will not just put a plaster on locations such as An Grianan. I could also include Malin Head and hundreds of other points of interest in the few miles between the two locations on the peninsula. Does the OPW have plans to maximise the tourist potential of these sites in a manner safe to the site and visitors? Do the Departments with responsibility for the OPW, tourism and employment interact on tourism potential, and thus employment potential, of cultural monuments and cultural tourism?
At present, the questions being asked of me are along the lines of whether An Grianan is on the OPW's heritage sites of Ireland map; whether the monument is less important in the national context than Wood Quay or the Hill of Tara; whether facilities for visitors at An Grianan are on a par with other sites, which are often less than spectacular; and whether it is adequately signposted.
Works to ensure the safety of the structure were necessary and welcome. However, whose responsibility is it to develop the potential of this wonderful national treasure? Will the OPW review its strategy on the national monuments of Inishowen and think outside the current very limiting box to help us preserve and sell, figuratively speaking, the jewels of which we have so many to those who have not yet heard about us? Will the Minister of State seek a meeting between the tourism sector and employment agencies to make culture pay? The opportunities in cultural tourism are almost limitless. While we see the extent to which cities go to achieve the City of Culture status that is awarded annually, there are many rural locations that have equally fine examples of culture to promote.
Perhaps a joint venture in this, the year that Derry is making a serious bid for recognition, might be appropriate to sell the culture in the north west. To facilitate this, we would need a lead agency to take on the mantle of co-ordinator. As we have tourism and employment agencies at every level, from departmental, national, regional, county, Inishowen and cross-Border levels, surely there must be potential for action rather than talk on this real and viable project. I ask this in my Seanad role and also as a member of the Council of Europe's cultural committee.