Thursday, 7 February 2019

Ceisteanna (17)

Thomas Byrne

Ceist:

17. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans for permanent tourist access to St. Colmcille's house in Kells, County Meath. [5757/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Ceist ar Public)

As with my last question, I refer to another unhappy situation with regard to access to St. Colmcille's house in Kells. There has been no access to it for tourists since last summer. While work is ongoing, the pace of change is slow. I am also concerned about other sites nationally where similar scenarios could emerge where a keyholder retires and access for tourists ceases.

Public access to the historic St. Colmcille's house in Kells was previously available through a local keyholder who lived near the site. This system worked well for many years, with a significant number of visitors gaining entry and good positive feedback being received from them. However, the person in question retired unexpectedly from the post early last year and has not yet been replaced. The OPW is working with Meath County Council to put in place a new arrangement whereby the key will be held in the local heritage centre facility which has recently been opened and which will in the future be a major focus for tourists in the town. In addition, the OPW is engaging with a local tourism group, with a view to appointing another local keyholder who will be able to address issues at the site that cannot be managed by the heritage centre. This is being done to ensure the greatest possible access to the site will be restored, while also making sure the historic building is not damaged.

I pay tribute to Mrs. Carpenter and her family who have provided access for the public to St. Colmcille's house for decades. She retired last summer and the town, wider region, tourists, archaeologists and historians were very grateful to gain that access through her. Keyholders nationally provide access for limited reward and from a sense of love for their native towns and areas. They take on the role with the OPW for the greater good, for which I pay tribute to them. It is unfortunate, however, that when someone retires, having done tremendous work over many decades, significantly beyond normal retirement age, as discussed in the previous question I tabled, matters are left to stand with no access being provided. There is no succession plan from the OPW. I pay tribute to the Kells and district tourism network which the OPW is asking to find a keyholder. While it will be good if someone suitable and willing to do the work is found, which I hope will happen, it is a burdensome role from the perspective of what is required by the OPW. I accept that it is probably necessarily so, given what needs to be done to ensure a monument is protected and people are let in. However, the OPW and the local authority must play a more proactive role to ensure the huge gaps in access will not occur and that the particular gap will be closed as soon as possible.

I appreciate fully where the Deputy is coming from, but it is not fair to say the OPW is not engaging with the local authority and the tourism group. We had a meeting in my office just before Christmas and hope to advance the matter to a conclusion shortly.

While work is now taking place, there was a long period last summer - a very important time - when things were moving very slowly and people did not know what was happening. I acknowledge that work is now taking place, but it should not all be left to voluntary tourism groups. It is something to watch out for in the future. Last night I attended a meeting in Clonalvy, County Meath where there is another extremely important monument, FourKnocks, which is of equal standing to the momuments in Newgrange and Knowth. Mr. White continues to give out the key on a regular basis. There are so many such sites nationally that it was about time someone acknowledged it. The OPW probably does so, but the individuals in question should be acknowledged nationally for the work they do to keep the sites open, while places that are considered to be more important, whether it be World Heritage Organisation sites such as Newgrange or sites in other parts of the country which historically have had more political clout, have visitor centres, seen substantial developments or have full-time staff. The people in question do a great deal of work and it is important that it be recognised.

Certainly, I acknowledge all of the good work they have done throughout the country. The matter the Deputy has raised in his question was brought to my attention just before Christmas. Once I had the meeting, I commenced to move it to a successful conclusion. We are working closely with the parties involved. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, brought the matter to my attention just before Christmas and set up the meeting. The matter is now moving towards finality for those involved.

I brought it to the attention of the Minister of State's officials.

The Deputy might have brought it to the attention of officials, but if he brings it to my attention, I will act. No matter what Member comes to me with a query, I will follow it up. If it is placed in front of me like the matter in Kells, I will deal with it. I appreciate that it was brought forward.