National Monuments.

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.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the Grianan of Aileach, which I visited first in the late 1970s as a private individual with my wife, and which I visited as a Minister of State in the company of the Senator's colleague, Deputy Blaney, last November. The heritage services of the Office of Public Works are responsible for managing and maintaining more than 750 national monuments in State care, that is in State ownership or guardianship. They also provide full interpretative facilities and guide services at 60 sites which attract more than 2.5 million fee-paying visitors annually, thereby making a key contribution to sustainable tourism.

The built heritage in Ireland, comprising structures above and below ground dating from several millennia BC to the present time, is a fundamental and treasured part of our national identity. It encapsulates historic linkages within and beyond our shores and illustrates a strong sense of Irishness within a broader global cultural inheritance. It also enhances the environment and gives us all a sense of quality and a better place in which to live and work.

Our built heritage is therefore a source of pride and inspiration for all our citizens who rightly demand that we protect and celebrate it. The job of the Office of Public Works is to ensure that through its work of conservation, protection and interpretation, this heritage survives to be passed on to future generations.

The approach of the Office of Public Works is one of maintenance, preservation and presentation. It has a conservation remit to maintain the built heritage in State care and an active role in facilitating presentation and public access. The bulk of its resources are dedicated to conservation activities. The vast majority of properties in State care are presented to the public without specific visitor facilities such as a guide service. We have approximately 700 national monuments but we are able to have guide services at only 62 of them.

Public access to heritage attractions has a high priority and much effort has been made to improve access and information at all built heritage sites. Visitors' first-hand experience of sites fosters an appreciation of their special qualities and the need to protect them. The presentation programmes appeal to a wide range of visitors, including young and old, those with a casual or more specialist interest and those of Irish or overseas origin.

The approach to providing visitor facilities at sites is founded on a conservation ethos. Management of areas of national importance for heritage, including visitor access, is underpinned by the overall objective of conservation. Visitor facilities serve a dual role of providing for interpretation and public appreciation of the heritage, while at the same time serving to manage visitors so the heritage resource being protected is not damaged.

Every effort has been made in recent times, even in the face of adverse economic circumstances, to maintain reasonable opening times at sites. When I first became a Minister of State there was advance publicity of more restricted times during the 2009 season. I took a hands-on approach to it and my policy has been, notwithstanding that we have reduced personnel resources because of staff embargoes, not merely to maintain but to extend opening times at most of our sites. This is because of their key importance for the tourism industry. Last year, a major review was conducted of our visitor services in the light of budgetary considerations with a view to realising budgetary efficiencies to secure this objective. Cost considerations, particularly relating to the staffing of sites, cannot be removed from the equation in attempting to secure longer visiting hours, but an equitable balance overall has been achieved on site openings in 2010.

As far as I recall in no case are the openings more restricted than in 2009 and in many cases they have been extended.

The Grianan of Aileach is a magnificent site with magnificent views and should be treated in an exceptional manner. As I said, I had the pleasure of visiting it last November and it made a lasting impression from historical, geographical and visual viewpoints. One needs to bear in mind that, as with many of our sites, there was a strong element of reconstruction of the site in the 19th century. I am not so much of a purist that I object in any way to that. It looks very well and it does not impact significantly on its authenticity any more than the steps up Skellig Michael which were constructed in the Victorian era impact negatively on that site.

It is a fine stone-built hilltop fort or cashel situated in county Donegal, five miles north west of Derry, about 800 ft above sea level on Greenan mountain commanding superb views over Lough Foyle, Lough Swilly and the surrounding countryside. To the best of my knowledge, "Grianan", which is the name of my cousin's house, means lady's bar and was where the ladies went to have a view of the countryside. The placename "Aileach" means a rocky place or a rocky foundation and the most likely date for a construction of the stone fort is the late 8th or 9th century.

Senator Keaveney referred to the history of the site. The final destruction or abandonment of Aileach probably took place in 1101 when the Annals of Ulster record an expedition led by the King of Munster — apologies for that — Muirchertach Ua Briain, grandson of Brian Boru, into Connacht, Donegal and onto Aileach which then they raised and burned and outraged many churches. This could have been in revenge for an attack in 1088 on the O'Brien stronghold of Kincora, County Clare by Domnall Ua Lochlainn, King of Aileach, who was still king in 1101.

The Grianan of Aileach does not have a guide service at present but is in the charge of a caretaker who does not close the site until 9.30 p.m. in the summer months, which is probably from June to August. The Office of Public Works regards the Grianan of Aileach as a very special site and recently collaborated on an information leaflet, which is a beautiful publication and was produced in association with Archaeology Ireland. New information panels are being erected on site and discussions are taking place with Donegal County Council about upgrading the carpark and directional signage that fall under the ambit of the county council. Further discussions will take place with the county council and tourist bodies on how this site of major significance can be promoted and enhanced.

When I was there the issue of whether the hotel of the same name might devote some space for the purposes of further signposting and explanation was raised. I regard it as one of the jewels in the crown of the north west. I was conscious of it before I became a Minister of State. We will do anything we can to try to enhance it. I gather it receives a large number of visitors which number in the tens of thousands. I am not sure there is any count of the numbers because it is difficult to count when there are no guide services or tickets. I assure the Senator that the matter is very definitely on my radar screen.

I thank the Minister of State for his very constructive comments. Is there any possibility that the 9.30 p.m. closing could be brought forward from now on? The weather has been particularly good and the weather forecast is good for the next number of weeks and people are being seriously discommoded as they have travelled for long distances to be there and are unable to access the site.

At this time of year, it becomes dark at 9.30 p.m. In June and July it would still be light at 9.30 p.m. We are just coming into the period——

It closes at 7 p.m. now.

That will extend shortly. I will make inquiries about it.