Seanad debates

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

8:00 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Progressive Democrats)
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The Turoe Stone is acknowledged as one of the finest remaining examples of La Tène Celtic art in the world. It has been located at Turoe, near Loughrea in County Galway, for more than 2,000 years. Experts within the OPW and the National Museum have concluded that the stone must be moved indoors to afford it the protection that an artefact of this value requires. However, for some strange reason the decision has been made to move the stone to a location 30 kilometres away from Turoe to the middle of Galway city and an environment far removed from the rolling hills of the east Galway landscape. The proposal is to leave a meaningless replica in Turoe and to take the original stone out of its geographical context as the centrepiece of what was a large Celtic settlement in Turoe and its environs. The observation by the OPW and the National Museum that the stone needs protection indoors offers us a wonderful opportunity to create a new visitor centre at Turoe, where there is a wealth of heritage and where a new initiative of this type could give a massive boost to tourism.

In a recent e-mail from the National Museum, an expert cited some precedents for the moving indoors of archaeological monuments such as the Turoe Stone. I expect the contents of this e-mail will feature prominently in the Minister's response. Its author refers to Clonmacnoise and other locations as examples in which replicas have been placed outdoors and the originals placed indoors. However, she neglected to mention that the Clonmacnoise replicas of our valuable Celtic high crosses remain indoors in Clonmacnoise, that the cross of Kells remains in Kells and that the Iron Age road discovered in Corlea, County Longford, remains in Corlea. The expert also incorrectly asserts that the Turoe Stone was moved a considerable distance 150 years ago. This is totally untrue. The stone was moved, but only about 400 metres from one area of Turoe hill to another.

The sad aspect of this debacle is that no consultation took place with the local community, its elected representatives or the local authority, Galway County Council. In fact, the county council heritage officer, who is charged with the protection of our national heritage, was not even aware of the plan to move the stone until informed of it by locals.

I am surprised and disappointed that the order to move the stone has been signed already by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, whom I have always believed to be a passionate proponent of the devolution of powers to local government and particularly to local communities. In his speech at the opening of National Heritage Week last August, he said:

At a time when there is concern about a decline in civic responsibility it is inspiring to see that so many are willing to give generously of their time to their communities and neighbourhoods ... Recent research carried out by the Heritage Council highlights the public's support for a more proactive approach to protecting our heritage. It also articulated that this could be best achieved by increasing public awareness and empowering communities ... Tourism remains one of the key industries that benefits from regional development and generates employment in rural areas and it is set to continue to grow over the next decade.

The community of Turoe was not consulted before the loss of its most precious artefact was proposed. This community is more than willing to continue acting as the caretaker of the Turoe Stone, as it has done for generations.

I ask that the Minister make himself aware of the depth of feeling in east Galway on this issue. More than 3,000 signatures have been collected requesting that the Turoe Stone be left in Turoe and that an adequate home for it be constructed in acknowledgement of the rich archaeological heritage in this area. I plead with the Minister to revisit the issue and to see the opportunity, rather than the obstacle, with which he is now presented. The building of a new visitor centre in Turoe would be a major step forward and would acknowledge the commitment of this rural community to keeping the Turoe Stone in Turoe.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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Treaslaím leis an Seanadóir Cannon as ucht a bheith roghnaithe mar Seanadóir. Gabhaim buíochas leis as ucht deis a thabhairt dom freagra a thabhairt dó thar ceann an Aire, an Teachta Gormley. I thank Senator Cannon for the opportunity to set out for the House the considerations that have led to the decision to move the Turoe Stone.

The Turoe Stone is a national monument in State ownership located in the grounds of Turoe House near Loughrea. The land on which the stone is located is in private ownership. The stone is carved with a series of spirals, trumpet designs, curves and incised lines in a Celtic art style known as La Tène. It is believed to have been carved sometime between 300 and 100 BC and is generally considered to be the finest example of its kind in Europe. Given the international importance of the stone, there is clearly an onus on the State to secure its integrity in the longer term.

In 1996 a report commissioned from a stone conservation specialist found that the stone was undergoing weathering, leading to serious surface attrition together with disfigurement due to organic growth and iron staining. The specialist recommended that the monument be carefully cleaned and removed to an indoor display area with appropriate environmental parameters. In 2005 a follow-up inspection by the same specialist concluded that the stone had undergone additional surface attrition, with further reduction in its carved detail. The location of the stone was also leading to damage from human contact and it required a greater level of protection than it was possible to provide at its present location.

In the course of subsequent discussions between the Department and the OPW on how best to protect the stone, it was agreed as an initial temporary measure to build a small shed-like structure around it to prevent further weathering. This work was carried out in 2005. A further report in 2006 concluded that putting the stone under cover had inhibited organic growth and this had resulted in reduced staining and greater clarity in the carved detail on the stone. The report also found, however, that putting the stone under cover has been only partially successful in reducing the risk of irreversible damage. The report confirmed that it would be necessary to move this national monument to an environmentally controlled indoor location where the surfaces could be cleaned and stabilised under expert supervision and where it could be permanently protected from further damage. This view was shared by the director of the National Museum.

In light of all the expert advice available to the Department, the Minister has agreed there is no viable alternative but to move the stone, under archaeological supervision, to an environmentally controlled indoor location.

Unfortunately, there is no location in the immediate vicinity of the stone's current location which meets this criterion. However, the National Museum has indicated it is satisfied, following discussions and an inspection, that the new Galway City Museum is a suitable location for the Turoe Stone. A high quality replica will be put in place at the same time as the original is moved. On 25 July 2007, the proposed approach in this case, which is fully in accordance with archaeological best practice, was communicated to local public representatives and to the landowner.

The question of whether monuments under threat of damage require protection from the elements by covering them or by moving them indoors is considered on a case by case basis. Such action has been taken in the case of a number of well known monuments. For example, the high crosses at Clonmacnoise were moved to the visitors centre at the site, while the high cross in Kells was moved from its location in the centre of the town to a new location outside a heritage centre some distance away, with a canopy erected over it. A stone carved in the La Tène style formerly located at Killycluggin, County Cavan, was taken into the care of the National Museum in 1974 and subsequently loaned to the Cavan County Museum opened in 1996, while crosses at Durrow, County Offaly, were moved to an adjacent disused church. St. Patrick's Cross from the Rock of Cashel was also moved into a medieval building at the site.

Detailed discussions are taking place between the Department, the OPW and Galway City Museum on the arrangements for the Turoe Stone's transfer and the siting of the high quality replica at Turoe. The National Museum has also agreed to provide expert advice for the Department to ensure best conservation, custodial and presentation practice is adhered to at all times.

I acknowledge the desire of some members of the public that the Turoe Stone should remain in its current locality, but unfortunately this is not an option open to the Minister at present as there is no suitable location to house the stone. He would be happy to discuss these issues further with local representatives should they wish to meet.