Thursday, 20 September 2012
Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)
Deputy Ferris, who represents the Wicklow constituency, will strongly support my remarks. During the Dark Ages, Ireland was a beacon of light in the context of learning, scholarship and civilisation when it was lacking in most other parts of Europe. During that time, Saint Kevin founded a monastery in Glendalough. I strongly urge the visiting delegation to visit the site, which is approximately 40 km south of Dublin. They will not see anything like it anywhere else in the world. Glendalough is home to the remains of an ancient Celtic Christian monastery and it is a unique site. The island of Ireland only has three world heritage sites: Skellig Michael, Brú na Bóinne and Giant's Causeway. Although Skellig Michael is an example of a Celtic monastery, it is quite different from Glendalough and it is partly because of this that Glendalough deserves this recognition. The site was in its time one of the most important centres in Ireland both as a religious site and as a place of learning, trade, commerce and scholarship.
I have been visiting the site for as long as I can remember but it was not until I travelled abroad that I realised what a unique place it is. Its uniqueness is enhanced by its natural beauty. Other major monasteries such as Clonmacnoise do not equate to Glendalough in the context of natural beauty. While I am prepared to accept that Wicklow is the garden of Ireland, Glendalough is the jewel of the county and it is one of the jewels of the State. To be inscribed on the world heritage site list, Glendalough must meet at least one of ten criteria that the World Heritage Council uses in determining such matters. I am firmly of the belief that the site fulfils at least three of them comfortably. It is an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation, therefore, fulfilling the third criterion. It is also an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble, which illustrates a significant stage in human history, therefore, fulfilling the fourth criterion. It also directly related with events or living traditions, with beliefs and with artistic or literary works which are of outstanding universal significance, which fulfils the sixth criterion.
I ask the Minister for this reason to do all in his power to present the case to UNESCO for Glendalough to be made a world heritage site. It would be a more outstanding site than many others abroad and it deserves such recognition.
I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and I assure Deputy Ferris that her interest has been taken on board and acknowledged, given that she represents the constituency. I fully agree with Deputy Dowds that the monastic complex at Glendalough is one of the foremost national monuments in the country. It attracts huge numbers of visitors to Wicklow. The quality of its setting, together with its cultural and heritage significance, is instrumental in bringing many people to Ireland in the first place. It is a marvellous expression of the heritage and history of which Irish people are rightly proud.
In March 2010 Ireland forwarded a new tentative list of world heritage sites to UNESCO on the basis of the recommendations of an expert advisory group established by the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and of an extensive public consultation process. The list contained seven new sites, including, as a single unit, the early medieval monastic sites at Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Glendalough, Inis Cealtra, Kells and Monasterboice. Glendalough is rightly there because of its outstanding archaeological value, not to mention its great natural beauty. It is one of the most visited sites in the country and is close to the Wicklow National Park.
The site is protected as a national monument and it sits proudly in the company of the other early Christian monasteries included with it for consideration by UNESCO. These sites have been chosen as a representative sample of the best of the early medieval monastic sites in Ireland whose outstanding universal value can be shown by any criteria one cares to mention. They embody the culture of the early church and they played a crucial role in educational and artistic development throughout western Europe in the so-called Dark Ages. They respond to the objectives promoted by UNESCO, in that they bear witness to a cultural tradition that has partly disappeared, as well as being outstanding examples of a particular type of monument. The sites form part of a landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history and are tangibly associated with living traditions, ideas and beliefs.
The importance of these monasteries as holy places, proto cities, places of trade and craftsmanship cannot be overestimated and I hope that they will become world heritage sites in the fullness of time. It is an onerous task to progress applications for world heritage site inscription and it is not something my Department can achieve on its own. While only the State can propose a site from the tentative list for inscription as a world heritage site, it is critical for local communities to become fully engaged in the process. The impetus for developing a new application should come from the community itself, rather than from the top down. An appreciation of the potential benefits to a community of having a world heritage site in its midst, along with an understanding of the obligations and measure that are necessary to protect its status, can best be gained through direct participation in the preparation of the application for inscription.
Local authorities should also play a more proactive role. They have the resources and the expertise to assist local communities to focus their engagement and to provide the necessary leadership where appropriate. This is in addition their more formal pre-existing role of ensuring county development plans and local area plans include policies and objectives to protect these sites.
A positive development that will provide practical support for community participation in heritage initiatives, including world heritage, is the fact that new sources of funding are becoming available to community groups that are not accessible to State agencies. Important changes to the regulations governing Leader funded projects have just been agreed between my Department and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Under the new rules, which I understand will be issued shortly, it will be possible for community groups to apply for Leader money for projects involving the development of historical or archaeological monuments for the benefit of the community itself or for world heritage status.
I cannot overemphasise the importance of the role of local communities in protecting and promoting our heritage and in advancing nominations for inscription on the world heritage list. The resources are being put in place to make this sort of community involvement a genuinely realistic proposition. For our part, the Department will do all that we can to guide and assist the nominations process as expeditiously as we can. I look forward to the Glendalough nomination making progress through this route and eventually to full world heritage status.
Deputy Ferris, as the local representative, will contact the heritage officer of Wicklow County Council with a view to taking on board some of the suggestions made by the Minister of State. I thank him for his contribution because it will be useful in progressing the issue. I was aware of the general background he mentioned.
Can the Minister of State indicate how long the process might take before the possible granting of world heritage status to Glendalough and the other Christian sites? If he can add anything that would help push this forward, I would be grateful for his comments.
I do not have to hand exact details of the timeframe involved. However, I will be in contact with the relevant section within the Department and will convey this pertinent information to Deputies Dowds and Anne Ferris. I am glad the initiative will be taken and that Deputy Ferris will contact the local heritage officer. As I stated in my original response, it is so important for this to come from the community because it is part and parcel of what is going on. Community participation is very important to ensure the site is treated as a world heritage site ought to be. The Department certainly will give every assistance and any advice it can. Incidentally, I believe the local authority also has a role in this regard arising from the county development plan and so on. Consequently, it is between the local community, the local authority, the Heritage Council and the Department. On the specific question on the timeframe, I will try to get something on that for the Deputy.