Adjournment Debate. - Preservation of Tennis Court.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Gerry Reynolds.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

On 15 April 1999 an oral presentation was made to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Sport and Recreation by Mr. Ted Neville and Mr. Michael Bolton on behalf of the Irish Real Tennis Club Association. The association was seeking to preserve the site of a real tennis court in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, for which planning had been granted for development as a recital hall for the National Concert Hall. I acknowledge the wonderful work and contribution made by all those associated with the National Concert Hall and the need for it as a centre of musical excellence to have greater flexibility in the accommodation that it provides in the many and varied events it presents. However, this issue is not about the development of the National Concert Hall but rather the preservation of a real tennis court that is the only one of its kind in Ireland and the only one in the world with marble features. It is one of only three in the world that are owned by national governments. The others, at Hampton Court, London and at Fontainbleau in France, are major playing and tourist venues. The facility at Earlsfort Terrace is one of only six existing courts in the world to have hosted the real tennis world champion challenge in the last 150 years, having done so in May 1890.

Real tennis is a little known sport in Ireland. It is the original game of tennis, devised by monks and the game from which lawn tennis evolved in 1874. It has been played in its present format for over 400 years and is at present experiencing a huge growth in playing activity, with 42 courts across the world and many more under construction. The game is played on a large indoor court, with many internal features such as an offset wooden racket and hand-stitched, cloth-stuffed balls

Behind the wall of Earlsfort Terrace, unknown to virtually all the population, is a unique gem that may soon be lost forever. How did this court come to be? Sir Edward Guinness of the Dublin brewing family built a court in 1885 and in 1939 his son donated his residence, Iveagh House, the Iveagh Gardens and the tennis court to the Irish nation. Rupert Guinness, the second Earl of Iveagh, wrote to Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, when he gave the court to the nation and said that he was loth to think of the tennis court being destroyed as he felt it was unique in its way and might be appreciated by players in Dublin. The court has not been played on since. Its recent use as a workshop and offices by UCD and the Office of Public Works has resulted in alterations to the interior which the Office of Public Works has costed at £1.5 million to repair. The Government wishes to develop the court as a facility for the National Concert Hall, but the Irish Real Tennis Association made a laudable presentation to An Bord Pleanála at an oral hearingvis-à-vis the change of use. At present the proposals are on hold as there are concerns that the proposal would contravene the deed of trust made in 1939 between the second Earl of Iveagh and the Irish State. I believe the Attorney General's office is currently investigating this.

There should be no need for any of this. UCD can be relocated from Earlsfort Terrace to Belfield, with the NCH getting much deserved scope for expansion. In the process the real tennis court can be saved. If this course of action is taken and the court refurbished, in a few short years this unique facility will be as significant as any other landmark building in the capital. This is not about a sport for the elite, but rather preservation of part of our unique and various culture and I ask that the opportunity to save this unique heritage be taken.

I support Deputy Timmins. I am a member of the Committee on Tourism, Sport and Recreation. The Irish Real Tennis Association made a very worthwhile presentation to that committee. As Deputy Timmins said, this is a unique gem and the Minister has an opportunity to preserve something unique to Ireland. The Irish Real Tennis Association has put a lot of work into this; theirs is a minority sport, but something so unique in culture and character should be preserved. I look forward to seeing this as a monument to the Minister's foresight if it is preserved and I do not doubt we will have the chance of a game of "real" tennis there. I look forward to seeing the Minister in her white shorts. The Minister has the opportunity to do something very worthwhile here.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. I am glad Deputy Reynolds has not yet lost his sense of humour.

In recent years it has became apparent that the main auditorium of the National Concert Hall which was opened in 1981 was no longer adequate to cater for the various demands being placed on it or to meet the strategic objectives of the board of the hall. The strategic thrust of the NCH as a national cultural institution is to broaden its audience base and to develop a programme of events with a strong outreach, education and tourism content. Such programmes are aimed at stimulating people of all ages and backgrounds in the appreciation and exposition of various types of music. To develop effectively the programme needs a proper space in which to operate. Hence the proposal to convert what was the former UCD gymnasium building for use by the National Concert Hall.

This building is currently being used as a teach ing and testing laboratory by the UCD engineering faculty. The NCH has made a very good case for a space that can accommodate smaller recitals, the outreach programme and other functions that would be inappropriate in the main auditorium. The John Field Room, which functions from time to time as a second recital space, is regarded as inadequate and inappropriate for this purpose. For example, no concert, rehearsal or other public or private event can take place in the John Field Room while any performance is taking place in the main auditorium. This in effect means that the two spaces cannot be used concurrently.

The addition of a new recital space within the same campus is intended to give a much needed flexibility to the NCH. The existing 1,200 seat auditorium of the NCH is far too large for the presentation of some chamber music concerts and other musical events which require more responsive physical and acoustic surroundings.

It was decided in consultation between the Office of Public Works and the National Concert Hall to design a recital hall within the former gymnasium building with seating capacity for 320 people. Funding for this project was originally included in the Operational Programme for Tourism, 1994-1999, to be co-financed by the Exchequer and the EU. However, due to the implications of delays in progressing the NCH project, the funds earmarked for it – £1.6 million – had to be transferred within the operational programme. However, I am satisfied that Exchequer funding will be available for this project when it can proceed.

Planning permission for the project was granted by Dublin Corporation subject to certain conditions relating to the preservation of original features within the building in November 1998. This decision was appealed by a group known as the Irish Real Tennis Association to An Bord Pleanála. An oral hearing of this appeal was held on 20 April 1999 and the board decided in favour of the planning authority's decision to grant permission in June 1999. The Irish Real Tennis Association, which claims a membership of about 30 in this country, has now lodged an application for a judicial review of this decision with the High Court. The case is currently adjourned. As I understand is the normal practice, the Office of Public Works has undertaken not to proceed with any works on the project pending the outcome of the legal proceedings.

I must make the following two points before concluding. Should the development we are proposing proceed as approved by An Bord Pleanála it will involve the reinstatement or restoration of many of the original "real" tennis court features. This will not happen if the current use is maintained there. None of the adaptations required for use as a recital hall would prevent the building being used at some time in the future for "real" tennis if a decision was to be made for such a change of use. The nature of the work will, in fact, facilitate such a change if required in the future. Second, the building when converted and restored will add a vital new element to the cultural infrastructure of Dublin and its hinterland. It will thus be accessed and used by many thousands of people attending recitals, a great deal more than will be the case if the building remains with its current use or indeed if it were to be used as a "real" tennis court.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 9 March 2000.