Seanad debates

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

7:00 pm

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, for taking this matter on the Adjournment. He will understand the issue because he spent many years in Killarney. That is why he has advanced to where he is.

Killarney House is a State owned property of major historical interest and national importance. The historic contents of Killarney House, including antique furniture dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries as well as valuable art work, ceramics, silverware and so on, were purchased by the State and are currently in storage at a cost of some €70,000 per year. In the current year, the capital budget allocated to the national parks and wildlife service, which has commitments in respect of other national parks, reserves and so on throughout the State, does not include any funding for future works at Killarney House.

Under the current national development plan, however, Fáilte Ireland has been allocated some €137 million to fund cultural projects. A proposal for a preservation, conservation and restoration of Killarney House was submitted by Killarney interests and was deemed by Fáilte Ireland to be worthy of merit. However, that proposal has not progressed beyond the expression of interest stage because the national parks and wildlife service communicated to Fáilte Ireland its view that it alone could prepare and submit a proposal in respect of Killarney House.

The citizenry of Killarney and County Kerry along with other interested stakeholders are concerned that potential funding for Killarney House via Fáilte Ireland's national development plan allocation will be lost simply because of the apparent proprietary control of the property being exercised by national parks and wildlife service officials. I cannot understand this difficulty; we are all State servants. If the funding is available, it should be forthcoming. It is a fright to see this property lie idle and continue to deteriorate and crumble as it has done for some years.

I accept the good intentions of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I wished him well when he came to Killarney and spoke about these difficulties. There is a bright future for Killarney House and I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, will tell me presently that there has been some progress. On the Order of Business this morning, I welcomed Deputy Healy-Rae's announcement last Friday on Radio Kerry in regard to funding. I look forward to learning the nature and extent of that funding.

Killarney House was the property of the earls of Kenmare who lived there from the time of the burning of their mansion at Knockreer in 1913 until the death of Lord Castlerosse in the 1950s. For 40 years thereafter, John McShain, who built both the Pentagon and the entire interior of the White House, lived there with his wife. It has been in the State's hands for ten or 11 years. The plans for Killarney House are wonderful, incorporating a chapel in which will be displayed something of our early Christian heritage. It could become a major interpretative centre. The property is in the town of Killarney as well as being in a national park. I look forward to the Minister of State's positive response.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Coghlan for giving me an opportunity to discuss this important matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley.

Killarney House and the greater part of the accompanying estate was sold to the State in 1978 by the then owner, Mr. John McShain, for a sum below market value on the assurance that the house and the estate would be incorporated into Killarney National Park. As part of the sale agreement, the McShains had the use of the house and the surrounding 52 acres for their lifetimes. Mr. McShain died in 1989 and Mrs. McShain lived in the house until her death in 1998, when the use of the house reverted to the State — some 20 years after the sale. The house is now the responsibility of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which manages Killarney National Park. In the 2005-09 management plan for the park, the stated intention for Killarney House is to retain and preserve its integrity and character both internally and externally and to provide for visitor access to certain parts as appropriate, in particular the three main furnished reception rooms. Detailed specialist surveys have been commissioned by the Office of Public Works. The surveys made it clear that major infrastructural works, such as adequate plumbing, heating and electrical systems, are needed before the house can be opened to the public. While Killarney House is in need of repair before it can be opened as a fully functioning building to the general public, I should make it clear that it is in a stable condition. It has been used for meetings of the national park liaison committee and for meetings between the Department and the trustees of Muckross House.

I assure the House that the Minister is committed to the development of Killarney House and the wider Killarney National Park, of which the house is an integral part. In the past five years, more than €5.5 million has been invested in the park, some €2.5 million of which was spent last year. A further €2 million will be invested this year. In addition, more than €1.4 million was spent in the past few years by the OPW on the provision of universal access at Muckross House which, for the first time, gives those with a mobility impairment full and equal access to the house. Killarney House has also benefited from this investment. Following consultations with the OPW, essential works to avoid any deterioration to the fabric of the building have been funded by my Department. These works include the removal of plaster on the walls to prevent dampness, the provision of dehumidifiers in all the main rooms on the ground floor and other important trench and draining works. The golden gates and railings of the house have been restored, a security system has been installed and heating pipes and radiators have been upgraded. In 2007, the gate lodge at Killarney House was renovated for use as an assembly and information point for walking tours, at a cost of more than €250,000. The lawns and flowerbeds at the house are regularly maintained. Staff are employed to cut the lawns, trim hedges, plant and maintain flowerbeds, collect litter and carry out small maintenance jobs. I emphasise that contrary to recent media reports, there are no squatters at Killarney House.

While Killarney House has been the subject of some investment in recent years, there is a bigger job to do. I assure Senators that the Minister is committed to ensuring the house fulfils its potential. To that end, he has asked the Department to work closely with all the appropriate State agencies to explore funding options. It will liaise with the Office of Public Works, in particular, to decide on a phased work programme for the house. We will keep Senator Coghlan updated on all of these matters.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I am grateful to the Minister of State for his reply. Perhaps I read too much into last Friday's announcement. The Minister of State's response did not mention when the house will be opened, when all its rooms will be open to the public, when the various displays will be fully restored and when the interpretative centre for the national park will be up and running. No timescale has been outlined. Perhaps the Minister of State will entertain a deputation from the various interests at an early stage. I am sure the Minister of State agrees that the importance of this project needs to be stressed in any such consultation.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator knows of my abiding interest in Killarney and the national park.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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Of course.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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The difficulty for me is that this is not my area of responsibility. Any deputation that might seek a meeting on this matter should contact the Minister, Deputy Gormley. I will make him aware of Senator Coghlan's thoughts on this issue. The Minister visited Killarney recently. He has given a commitment in this regard. I thought we made great progress tonight when it was clearly indicated that the Minister is in discussions with relevant State agencies about ensuring that Killarney House will be opened at the earliest possible date. He is putting in place funding infrastructure to ensure that happens.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I accept the Minister of State's remarks.