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Heritage Sites (Continued)

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 979 No. 6

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan Zoom on Eamon Ryan] A house could not be put on it because it is not accessible, except on a really calm day. A helicopter pad or any other landing system would ruin the ecology. Richard Murphy, the poet, owned it briefly at a time when he sailed in and out of Cleggan to Inishbofin. He wanted to give it to the State but my understanding, based on his biography and from talking to people who knew him, is that he grew frustrated at the slow response of the State and sold it to a local person. That person has been very good in supporting the scientific and archaeological research that has been done and has provided an excellent caretaker role. The island is now for sale and it is important that the State steps up to the mark and purchases the land so that it is protected. The island is of acute ecological importance and a State purchase would also be an investment in our archaeological heritage and our scientific research system. It would not be expensive relative to other projects the State engages in but it is important. It may require further investment, for example, if we were to have some limited tourism capability for visitors to an amazing monastic site. That might take the pressure of the Skelligs and other locations but we would have to do it very sensitively in respect of how we would get landing and so on.

We should support UCC in its critical scientific research. We should make sure we protect these really important populations of sea birds which tell us a lot about what is going on in the north Atlantic. Doing so would send out a signal to our people and to the wider world that we are monitoring what is happening in the north Atlantic and it is in our care.

Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (Deputy Josepha Madigan): Information on Josepha Madigan Zoom on Josepha Madigan I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I note his comments on biodiversity. As he knows, today and tomorrow I am hosting a national biodiversity conference in Dublin Castle. The Government takes this issue very seriously.

High Island is a spectacular island; there is no doubt about that. It contains an early medieval monastery dedicated to St. Féichín. This is a national monument which is in my ownership as Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The church is located in a small enclosure, which lies in the northern half of the ecclesiastical enclosure on High Island. It comprises a conserved single-cell church, dedicated to St Féichín, and is one of the smallest of the Atlantic island churches.

As the Deputy may be aware, the day-to-day care of this national monument falls under the remit of the Office of Public Works on behalf of my Department. The OPW works in close co-operation with the national monuments service of my Department, which has overall responsibility to ensure the long-term conservation of the national monument. In the 1990s, a comprehensive State-funded excavation and conservation programme was undertaken on the monastic site and the results were published in 2014 in my Department's archaeological monograph series. As a national monument in State care, the monastery as it stands is fully protected under the provisions of the National Monuments Acts. Any works at or in its vicinity may only be carried out with ministerial consent under section 14 of the Act. There are also a number of recorded monuments on the property which are protected under national monuments legislation as well. These monuments are in private ownership.

In the interests of the preservation, conservation, management and presentation of the built and archaeological heritage, the State sometimes may wish to acquire certain heritage properties and monuments. From time to time, these may come onto the open market, may be bequeathed to the State or may be offered to the State for purchase or free of cost. I might also add that there have been no recent invitations to our Department to purchase the site from anybody. In addition, lands surrounding or in proximity to national monuments in State care often reside in private ownership. In certain cases, improved protection of the monument, or access to the monument, may be possible if the State was to acquire such additional lands. There has not been any recent approach in respect of this particular monument. I must inform the Deputy that such acquisition is the exception rather than the norm and that where a monument is already adequately protected and there is no exceptional case for acquisition in order to improve access, the case for purchase may not be pressing. In the case of High Island, the national monument and the recorded monuments are already well protected, in our view. Public access, even if the whole property were in public ownership, would continue to be hazardous and the site is unsuitable for large-scale visitor exploration. Additionally, value for money principles must be carefully considered where any acquisition is proposed.

The national monuments in State care already number some 1,000 sites at over 760 locations around the country and these command considerable resource commitments in terms of both funding and personnel allocation. In addition, there are in excess of 120,000 monuments listed in the record of monuments and places that are not maintained by the State. Suffice it to say that while I understand what the Deputy is saying, there is no exceptional case in this instance that would merit an acquisition of this nature.

Deputy Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan Zoom on Eamon Ryan I believe it is an exceptional case. There was an approach made by Richard Murphy and he was spurned by the Government of the day, long before either of our times. I am making the approach now because I believe it is of great archaeological importance. The State has invested significantly in the restoration and maintenance of the site, which is one of the smallest and not insignificant monastic settlements, which is an important asset for the State. There is at present a benign ownership system under which the current owner has co-operated and facilitated the management of the site and of scientific research on the island. That could be lost. The island is for sale today. If we do not buy it there is a real risk that someone else will, who may have a different perspective on how it should be managed. It would be a tragedy if what is exceptional about this island was lost to the State.

The Minister has attended a conference and no doubt has spoken very good words on the issue of biological protection. However, her answer did not refer to the second reason I cited for purchase of the island. I understand there are up to 3,000 breeding pairs of storm petrels and a very significant population of Manx shearwaters. The most detailed analysis in recent years has been done by University College Cork to show this is actually a very important scientific site. What is happening to these sea bird populations, which are the most threatened and most in decline, indicates what is happening not just in the local area but right out to the Atlantic. It is cheaper for us to buy this island and maintain that scientific analysis than to send ships out with monitoring systems to research what is happening in the north Atlantic. We can do it here by tagging the sea birds as UCC is doing. This is very important. It is exceptional. I am making the approach to the Minister today to encourage her to buy it and protect the scientific and archaeological sites, allow for access and get it into public ownership.

Deputy Josepha Madigan: Information on Josepha Madigan Zoom on Josepha Madigan The Deputy can understand that if there was to be an approach made to the Department, it would have to be done in a formal way, not on the floor of the House, although I appreciate the Deputy's offering. I reiterate that there has not been any reasoned approach to us to purchase this particular area. It is also important to say that the Department will support all initiatives to study ecology, including those of UCC. The State is only in a position to acquire, maintain, conserve and present a limited number of heritage properties and monuments. As I said earlier, it is important to stress that any property acquisition by the State should be regarded as an exception rather than the norm. The Deputy mentioned birds a number of times; protected species are also safeguarded by the Department, as the Deputy is aware. The National Monuments Acts provide a legislative basis for the protection of archaeology in the State, whether or not the monuments are in State ownership. Furthermore, the Archaeological Survey of Ireland maps and updates the data on our archaeological resources on a regular basis. Information on more than 140,000 monuments across the country is currently stored in the Department's sites and monuments record.

The National Monuments Acts allow me to place a preservation order on any other important archaeological site or monument that may be at risk.


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