Wednesday, 23 September 2015
Topical Issue Debate
It is with great sadness that I have to raise this issue, which I raised on 22 May 2012 with the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, yet again. I brought to the attention of his Department the recklessness of scramblers, quad bikers and others engaging in anti-social activities in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. I am a regular visitor to them - I am on the mountains every weekend.
The Dublin Mountain Way was developed in conjunction with four local authorities. It is a spectacular civic amenity in the Dublin mountains. There is a Neolithic passage grave which is approximately 5,000 years old and is probably the closest such grave to Dublin. One can stand and look over the city of Dublin, see the bay and reflect that one is standing on something that was built and operated as a grave by people in the forests of the area. It allows one to contemplate how people might have lived 5,000 years ago.
The tragedy is that last week we discovered an amazing desecration of the grave, which is recognised by the Office of Public Works as a national monument. People systematically tore the passage grave to bits. It is a sight that would bring tears to one's eye if one was that emotional about the issue.
If this site has stood for 5,000 years, why, over the weekend, can gurriers systematically wreck this passage tomb?
I received a report before I came in from another hill walking activist who told me she has noticed the Fairy Castle cairn has been interfered with, possibly over recent days. It seems people are trying to penetrate this particular cairn to see what may be beneath it. There are many cairns and passage graves in the Wicklow area. On the previous occasion I spoke on this issue it was with regard to motorbikes literally riding right up on top of Seahan and Seefin, and in and around that most magnificent monument to those who lived in the area 5,000 years ago, Seefingan, which has the most magnificent passage grave. It is worth encouraging people to go see it if they are into walking.
Will the Minister of State investigate the desecration of these passage graves? Will he enact the necessary legislation to prevent motorbikes, scramblers and quads desecrating these very important landmarks in our mountain ranges? The Dublin Mountains Way is spectacularly popular with dog walkers, runners and hill walkers. Will the Minister of State take the necessary steps to have both of these sites investigated with a view to taking the necessary action to rehabilitate them in whatever way possible? I have photographs for the Minister of State so he knows what I am speaking about with regard to the desecration of the grave.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, who unfortunately is unavailable today, is charged with responsibility under the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2004 for the protection of our rich and important archaeological heritage. I assure the Deputy it is a responsibility which both she and her Department treat with the upmost seriousness.
The hilltop cairn at Tibradden, County Dublin, is a national monument of which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is guardian under the National Monuments Acts. It has an interesting history. In the middle of the 19th century what was believed to be Bronze Age pottery and bone was recovered from the monument. In 1956, an archaeological excavation was carried out by the National Monuments Service. The results of that excavation clarified that the cairn was in fact a Bronze Age burial site dating from 1,800 B.C. to 600 B.C. However, it is important to note that the above ground passage and chamber structure is actually a 19th century feature.
Examination of Bronze Age burial sites has great potential to yield important archaeological information about ritual and burial rites in prehistoric times. It can, in turn, also cast wider light on the nature and structure of prehistoric society, as well as bringing us into closer contact with our remote ancestors. While, as I have said, the cairn at Tibradden has been subject to some archaeological excavation, there is no doubt it retains the potential to yield further important information about our past, a fact which further highlights the need to preserve and protect it.
As a national monument of which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is guardian under the National Monuments Acts, the cairn enjoys a high level of legal protection under those Acts. Section 14 of the National Monuments Act 1930 makes it clear that it is a serious criminal offence for any unauthorised person to interfere with or damage such a monument. A conviction carries a fine of up to €10 million and up to five years in jail. A convicted person may also be required by the courts to fund the cost of repairing the monument. These onerous penalties reflect the gravity with which the Oireachtas views such offences, a view to which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht fully subscribes.
As the Deputy will no doubt appreciate, the national monument formed by the cairn at Tibradden is situated in an isolated hilltop location. The protection of such monuments from interference, whether through deliberate vandalism or interference by those who simply do not understand the nature and significance of what they are doing, presents challenges. While the Minister and her Department are, of course, fully committed to using the sanctions available under the National Monuments Acts, she must also rely on the goodwill and vigilance of the public as one of the main ways to protect our archaeological heritage. In that context, the Minister would call on anyone who has information about any damage to this or any other monument to contact her Department's National Monuments Service or the Garda.
The Minister very much appreciates the steps taken by concerned citizens in this case to bring this matter to the attention of the National Monuments Service. I assure the House that the Minister is having it fully investigated by her Department and has also brought it to the attention of An Garda Síochána. The Minister deplores, as we all should, breaches of the National Monuments Acts; such breaches represent acts of gross disrespect and disregard for our national heritage.
Fortunately, in this particular case, the reported damage may not be especially serious, as it appears to be confined to the movement of loose stones from the cairn into the central chamber area. The material moved would very likely have been taken from an area rebuilt in the 1950s. It may indeed be possible to rectify it by simply moving the loose stone from the chamber back onto the surrounding cairn. The Minister's Department has already initiated discussions with the Office of Public Works with a view to repairing whatever damage has occurred at the earliest possible opportunity.
It is obviously difficult to know in this particular case, pending the outcome of any further investigations by An Garda Síochána, what may have been the motivation behind what occurred. As noted already, such incidents can represent intentional vandalism or simply a lack of understanding and appreciation of our heritage. On behalf of the Minister, I appeal to everyone to demonstrate appropriate respect towards our national monuments and also to be vigilant about protecting these monuments so we can be sure they will be there for future generations to visit and enjoy.
I thank Minister of State very much. I am very conscious he is familiar with the mountain ranges of Ireland and that he is keen to protect our national heritage. He will see from the photograph that what happened required the movement of quite a substantial amount of the walls of the passage grave. He will see the entranceway to the grave. I am interested to learn it was rebuilt in the 1950s. Perhaps we can reinstate it to some degree of authenticity. The Minister of State mentioned there are loose stones. These cairns all comprise loose stones. The report I received recently that the cairn at Fairy Castle has been interfered with is particularly worrying, as there may be an attempt to interfere with these national monuments throughout the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains. In particular, Seefin, which is a phenomenal passage grave, should not suffer any further damage.
Will the Minister of State address the question of the responsible use of motorbikes and scramblers and the desecration of these very important sites? The Wicklow Way is a phenomenal development and attracts tourists from all over the world. The mountains are becoming more and more open to people who walk them and enjoy the scenery, vistas and knowledge that they are standing close by burial grounds which are perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 years old. This must be treated in the most serious way and these sites must be protected not only for this generation of Irish people, but generations to come. We owe these passage graves and cairns absolute respect as something we have inherited from as far back as 5,000 or 6,000 years ago.
Again, I thank Deputy for raising this matter. Over the past five years we have walked most of the mountain ranges of Ireland with some of our colleagues, and I know he has a real passionate and genuine interest in archaeology and the protection of our uplands. I thank him very much for that. I am confident the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is particularly pleased to see a demonstration of such interest in this central part of her brief as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and a matter which all Members of the House will, no doubt, consider to be of great public interest. She wishes these sentiments to be conveyed to the Deputy.
I again assure the Deputy that all appropriate steps are being taken in this case. As serious as the matter undoubtedly is, it appears, based on the information so far available, that the matter can be remedied.
As has been outlined, the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2004 provide robust protection for our most important national monuments, and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is absolutely determined to enforce these provisions, working in close co-operation with other authorities, particularly An Garda Síochána. The investigation of the present case is at an early stage but the Minister can say happily that the past experience of her Department has been that An Garda Síochána takes such incidents very seriously and works with determination to resolve them.
The National Monuments Acts provide for the erection of signs at national monuments of which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is owner or guardian. The actual erection and maintenance of such signs is a matter for the Office of Public Works. In regard to this particular case, the Minister will discuss with the Office of Public Works whether there is a need for any additional signage at the monument. That could help, as some people do not realise the value of these particular sites. I will also bring to her attention the issue of motorbike and scrambler usage in those areas.