Wednesday, 12 June 2013
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, for coming before the House to take this matter, which relates to the well-being of and future plans relating to the artefacts from Yeats' Tower at Thoor Ballylee outside Gort in County Galway. As he is probably aware, this building and the artefacts contained within it are, from a historical, recreational and cultural perspective, of special importance to the people of south Galway. He may also be aware that the building was completely restored - replete with a collection of first editions of Yeats' work and also items of furniture - by the Kiltartan Gregory Cultural Society in 1965. Following the flooding of the Cloon River in 2009, however, Thoor Ballylee was extensively damaged and has since not been open to the public. All of the furniture and ancillary items were removed an placed in storage. Despite significant works recently undertaken by Fáilte Ireland to protect the structure, it appears unlikely that Thoor Ballylee will ever be reopened in its previous capacity as a point of interest for tourists.
I previously raised this issue on the Adjournment in the Seanad. At that stage, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht indicated that responsibility for the building may very well be transferred to his Department and stated that he is considering the possibility of establishing a cultural and educational centre there, which I very much welcome. I am raising this matter again because the tower and the artefacts previously held there are critical to any tourism revival in south Galway. Shortly after becoming a public representative in 2011, I set about working extensively on this issue as a means of maximising the area's connection to W. B. Yeats. Thoor Ballylee is steeped in connections with Yeats. He took up residence there in 1917 and used it as a summer home for his family until he left in 1929. South Galway has suffered badly in recent years and it needs a tourism boost. The allocation of some of the artefacts from the tower in alternative accommodation is critical to the revival of the tourism sector in the area.
The south Galway connection to Yeats should be just as important in the context of tourism as is the poet's grave in Drumcliffe, County Sligo, which tens of thousands of people visit annually. The latter highlights the tourism potential of Thoor Ballylee to south Galway and the people who live there. I have always advocated the tower being reopened. I wrote to the Minister to request that funding be made available to facilitate such an eventuality. If the tower is reopened, it is unlikely that all of the artefacts relating to it will be able to be housed there because, as already stated, it is proposed to put in place a cultural and educational centre at the site. I request, therefore, that the Minister consider housing the artefacts relating to and previously contained in Thoor Ballylee in alternative accommodation, such as local museums or other suitable locations, in Gort and the surrounding area. If this is done, members of the public will be able to view the artefacts and the area will receive a tourism boost. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
I am taking this matter, which relates to the future display of those artefacts relating to and previously contained within Yeats' Tower at Thoor Ballylee, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar. The importance of Thoor Ballylee is fully recognised. As the Senator is aware, Thoor Ballylee is the former holiday home of W. B. Yeats. The tower house was given by Michael Yeats - the son of W. B. Yeats' - to the regional tourism authority, Ireland West, and transferred to Fáilte Ireland in 2006 when the authority was amalgamated with it.
I know that Senator Higgins is au fait with the situation which obtains in this instance and that she debated the issue with my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Cannon, last month. However, by way of background for other Senators, I wish to explain that Ireland West was among a number of regional tourism authorities that were amalgamated with Fáilte Ireland at that time. It is important that Senators be aware that on taking over the regional tourism authorities, Fáilte Ireland also took on the operation of an extensive network of tourism information offices throughout the country. It is also important to be aware that the management and staffing of these offices, their opening hours and their locations are administrative and operational matters for Fáilte Ireland. In view of the pressure on the public finances and in response to changes in the needs of tourists, like many other State agencies, Fáilte Ireland continues to reconfigure service delivery, reshape its services and prioritise the locations where tourism information offices are provided. As part of this process, Fáilte Ireland has been working in partnership with local communities, where possible, in the provision of tourism information by local groups and businesses. During 2011 and 2012, Fáilte Ireland established a good track record in this regard when co-operation with local communities ensured that many tourism information offices that might otherwise have closed have remained open. Fáilte Ireland has outsourced the provision of smaller tourist information offices across the country and, to date, approximately 40% of these offices have been taken over by local authorities, chambers of commerce and community groups. Fáilte Ireland does not operate tourism attractions and where it inherited such, it disposed of its interest at an appropriate stage.
In the context of the specific situation at Thoor Ballylee, Senators will be aware that this area of Galway was badly affected by flooding in 2009. The tower house was extensively damaged by this flooding and has been closed ever since. In 2012, Fáilte Ireland spent €200,000 in weatherproofing the building and protecting its fabric but, as matters stand, it is not fit for occupation and further work will be required if the building is to reopen. However, it would not represent value for money for Fáilte Ireland to make any further investment in the tower house as the number of visitors who sought tourist information when the house was open was too small to justify spending scarce resources on reopening the building as a tourist information office. In light of this, it is clear that Thoor Ballylee will not be used by Fáilte Ireland. As a result, other possible uses for it - outside the remit of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and its agencies - are being explored. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has suggested that it might serve as a cultural and heritage centre. This matter has been raised with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, who, it is understood, is considering the position.
The future of the building will, needless to say, have a large bearing on the future location of the artefacts. That said, it must be emphasised that the future of the building and the associated artefacts is primarily a matter for Fáilte Ireland. In that context, Fáilte Ireland is concerned with the protection of the artefacts and that the integrity of the collection, which has been accrued over a number of years, will be maintained. Fáilte Ireland has shown that it is prepared to be flexible in respect of the display of the Yeats' material and recently loaned out some of the artefacts for Sligo's second Yeats Day which takes place tomorrow. I am pleased to advise the Senator that Fáilte Ireland has advised that it would be prepared to agree to a similar local arrangement, provided that local interests can identify a suitable organisation with the ability to give the appropriate assurances regarding the display and protection of the artefacts. Such an organisation would have to be in a position to enter into a legal agreement with Fáilte Ireland because, as I am sure the Senator will appreciate, the artefacts must be safeguarded for future generations.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am absolutely thrilled with the content of the reply. It is great that museums and similar entities in the area may now be in a position to enter into negotiations with the Department in the context of housing some of the priceless artefacts from Thoor Ballylee. In light of my background as a barrister, I would be delighted to offer legal assistance to any of those museums in south County Galway which may wish to house some of the artefacts and keep alive the spirit of W. B. Yeats and bring a tourism boost to the area.
I again thank the Senator for raising this extremely important issue. I agree that these artefacts should, where possible, be given to the community.
As Fáilte Ireland has stated, they must be safe and protected. We have too many artefacts in storage. Recently a gun was given back to the Mountbatten family after 40 years. Artefacts should be displayed and given to the community where possible. As the Cathaoirleach knows with regard to Turlough House, artefacts found in our county are in safe storage in Dublin. Where possible, artefacts should be displayed in the county in which they were found.