Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Natural Heritage Areas
I welcome the Minister of State. I recognise that he is from the midlands and is probably familiar with the area to which I refer. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Martin Mansergh, visited the site recently while his party was holding a think-in and was very impressed. For this reason I am sorry he is not in the Chamber but I am glad the Minister of State, who is from the midlands, is present. Corlea, and the major prehistoric trackway of large oak planks, was found in 1984 when Bord na Móna was harvesting peat near Keenagh, County Longford. The oak road is the largest in Europe and was excavated by Professor Barry Raftery of UCD. From tree ring analysis Professor Raftery identified that this great Iron Age road was cut down in 148 BC, which is a long time ago. The great road is the culmination of almost 60 tracks, or toghers, dating from 3500 BC at Corlea. The site is unique in that it is the only OPW heritage site in Longford and Westmeath. The OPW has done a magnificent job in building the Corlea trackway visitor centre. I advise anyone in the midlands to visit this area. It rises is like a basilica in the bog. Inside the centre an 18 m stretch of the preserved road is on permanent display, specially designed to preserve the ancient wooden structure. There is a tiered auditorium that seats over 60 people with a video showing the excavation and preservation of the road. Other facilities include exhibitions, a tearoom that seats up to 50 people, toilets, a picnic area and a walkway to the bog. The centre is accessible for visitors with disabilities.
The centre is in difficulty at the moment. It seeks to complement the existing visitor centre and put Corlea on the map. As the Cathaoirleach is aware, Clonmacnoise is located in Offaly and while this is on a smaller scale it is extremely valuable. I propose starting a new archaeological dig. Very few artefacts were found in the original dig because there was only time to excavate lengthways and not sideways. Bord na Móna has promised four acres of cutaway bog. We should combine this project with the existing visitor centre and initiate accredited training courses supervised by archaeologists. Many archaeologists are looking for work at present and support for such courses is already received from archaeology schools in Ireland and Germany.
We have considered where the money could come from. Funding could be received from the Leader programme and a potential €500,000 is available from that source. However, there are legal implications as Corlea is part of the OPW and it would need to be established as a limited company to receive funding under the Leader programme. Precedents for this exist in Muckross House and the Teagasc centre in Wexford.
I feel strongly about this issue because Keenagh is a small and beautiful village and the area would benefit from more visitors because it would create jobs. The people there have contributed to preserving the environment and will continue to do so. The auditorium and tearoom are valuable facilities and much money has been spent on them. To get the value for this investment we should go the whole nine yards and extend the project. At present, the facilities are closed from October to March and this is a terrible waste.
I thank Senator McFadden for raising this matter which gives me an opportunity to put on the record a reply to her. In 1984, a major prehistoric trackway of large oak planks was discovered during Bord na Móna peat harvesting operations in the raised bog at Corlea near the village of Keenagh, County Longford. Wood samples from the Corlea track, when subjected to tree ring analysis, indicated a felling date of 148 BC, thus dating the track to the early Iron Age. This track was one of a large number of trackways investigated which range in date from the middle of the fourth millennium BC to the middle of the first millennium AD. Over the centuries, these ancient trackways had become engulfed and preserved by the formation of the raised bog.
Trackways differ in construction according to the immediate needs of the people and of the material available. The simplest consists of wooden planks laid end to end on the surface of the bog, which would only have been used by individual pedestrians. More substantial methods of construction consisted of laying logs and split planks transversely on a brushwood sub-structure. This great Iron Age trackway at Corlea is the culmination of this more sophisticated process. The upper surface of the trackway is made of split oak planks laid edge to edge on legs of parallel pairs of long straight stems. Many of the planks have mortises cut into their ends, and pegs of birch, hazel or oak inserted through the base to secure the planks in position. To make the Corlea track, a huge number of oak trees had to be felled.
During the second century BC, there are indications that significant tribal developments and re-organisations were taking place in Ireland. At this time, major centres such as Eamhain Macha in County Armagh, the capital of Ulster, were built. Connacht's focus at Cruachain, near Tulsk in County Roscommon, may also have assumed prominence at this time. The building of the Corlea track was another prestigious construction of the period. Unlike the earlier tracks, its significance clearly transcends the simple needs of the local farming communities, and may have been part of a network of major communications. We can also speculate as to where the Corlea track led. It could have been part of a dry land route leading to a Shannon crossing at Lanesborough, and may even have been part of a highway which had royal Cruachain as its destination.
The Corlea trackway visitor centre was opened in 1994 and is built on the exact axis of trackway in the bog. Within the building, 18 m of trackway is on display. This section of the trackway was exposed and excavated by archaeologists on its discovery. The exposed timbers were removed and preserved by means of a sophisticated dry-freezing technique and re-laid in their original positions. To preserve the last remaining 80 m of the great timbers under the bog, the eastern intact section of raised bog at Corlea was conserved. To achieve this, the water level in the bog had to be raised and retained at a higher level, by means of sheeting to enclose the area and the construction of small artificial lakes. In time, the bog will begin to regenerate, thus ensuring the long-term survival of the Iron age timbers which it contains for posterity.
The visitor centre contains an audio-visual presentation on the excavation and the preservation of the timbers of the Corlea trackway as well as interpretative panels and artifacts. A boardwalk across the bog and from the rear of the building follows the course and extent of the remaining trackway within the bog. From this boardwalk can be glimpsed many of the plants and animals of the bogland habitat. The Corlea trackway visitor centre is therefore unique in this country, combining as it does a number of distinct elements and disciplines, including history, archaeology, engineering, architecture and the natural environment. A visit engenders a most enjoyable and educational experience and I would extol the merits of this visitor attraction.
The Corlea trackway visitor centre was open from April to the end of September this year and attracted more than 5,000 visitors during those months. This is consistent with visitor numbers since admission charges were abolished at the site in the middle of the decade. However, it is as important as sites attracting many times that number given that the approach of the Office of Public Works to heritage is one of maintenance, preservation and presentation. The OPW has a conservation remit to maintain the built heritage in State care and an active role in facilitating presentation and public access. The heritage services of the Office of Public Works are in the first instance conservation oriented. The bulk of its resources are dedicated to conservation activities. The majority of properties in State care are presented to the public without specific visitor facilities such as guide services. Nevertheless, the OPW recognises the importance of heritage for tourism, which also provides a return on investment.
Management of areas of national importance for heritage, including visitor access, is underpinned by the overriding importance of conservation. Visitor facilities serve a dual role of providing for interpretation and public appreciation of the heritage while at the same time protecting the heritage resource. Interpretation is linked to a sense of place and therefore specific to a particular site. Our built heritage is a source of pride and inspiration for all our citizens who rightly demand that it is protected and celebrated. The job of the OPW is to ensure, through its work of identification, conservation and protection, that this heritage survives to be passed on to future generations. It is in this context that the Corlea trackway visitor centre should be viewed. It is a magnificent site and the trackway is now protected in the specially designed hall in the centre which houses the exposed timbers and in the conserved bog, thereby preserving in situ the remainder of the covered trackway.
Efforts are being made to promote further the Corlea trackway. The whole area of signage is being looked at, including signposting. It has been contended that the term "Corlea Trackway" referred to on signposting conveys nothing to the non-specialist visitor, and that the terms "Iron Age Trackway" or "Iron Age Bog Road" would be more appealing. Such suggestions have some merit and will be given serious consideration, although the significance of the Corlea trackway in both its method of construction and its usage far outweighs other Iron Age trackways or bog roads discovered in this region. The Corlea trackway is included in the OPW heritage website and in all heritage literature distributed locally and nationally. It has also been the subject of discussions with tourist interests, including tour operators, in an attempt to have it included on itineraries.
The remit of the OPW extends to the protection, conservation and day-to-day running of more than 750 national monuments and more than 20 historic properties in State care. It provides full interpretative facilities and guide services at 60 sites which attract more than 2.5 million fee-paying visitors annually, thus making a key contribution to sustainable tourism. All existing resources and moneys are fully committed to this remit.
The Corlea trackway project is at present self-contained. The portion of the trackway which survives is preserved, protected and presented, both in the visitor centre and the surrounding cut-away bog. A proposal for an extension of the Corlea trackway project has been made, principally to facilitate archaeological study groups which would make employment all the year round rather than seasonal, on what is claimed to be a self-financing basis with the support of the Leader programme.
These projections may, however, be over optimistic but the proposal is the subject of ongoing consideration in the Office of Public Works. Current commitments, severe budgetary constraints and pressing funding requirements at other sites in the heritage property portfolio preclude any hasty decision on the matter. From that perspective, the visitor numbers, even if substantially increased, would not justify a longer season.
It is not clear why the existing length of season would not be capable of accommodating the needs of any specialist study groups, particularly as the winter months are less favourable for archaeological activity. While the Minister understands the desire, both at Corlea and elsewhere, to make the most of a fine local resource from a visitor and employment point of view, particularly in a relatively remote location, decisions can only be based on what is realistically sustainable.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply and appreciate the indepth knowledge in it that was shared by the Department. My question, however, was how the project could be expanded. I believe the funding is available and while it may be over optimistic there is always a way to expand. I am focussing on getting value for money out of the centre and creating employment. Will the Minister of State ask the Office of Public Works to explore further ways of expanding the service, a gem in the bog so to speak?