Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Senator Susan O'Keeffe will probably take one minute of the time. She thought my matter was being taken after Senator Byrne's, as a result of which she has just left the House. Perhaps someone could give her a call.
That is not a problem. The Minister of State is very welcome. We are facing into a wonderfully big year in the life of W.B. Yeats, as next year will be the 150th anniversary of his birth. My motion asks the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to ensure Fáilte Ireland would consider providing a licence to the Yeats Thoor Ballylee society, of which I am chair, to enable fund-raising to begin in order that Thoor Ballylee, the ancestral home of W.B. Yeats, can be opened in time for Yeats's 150th birthday in June 2015.
A year ago we set up this local committee and I was asked to chair it. It aims to celebrate the life of W.B. Yeats, specifically as it concerns Thoor Ballylee which is situated in south Galway, near Gort, Lady Gregory's Coole Park and the Kiltartan museum. That entire area is dedicated to the life of W.B. Yeats and the trials and tribulations of the man in south Galway. We set up this committee to reopen Thoor Ballylee because it was closed in 2009 after the flooding. It is now under the remit of Fáilte Ireland, which cannot afford to reopen or run it. However, it is on our committee and it is very committed to handing it over to a group such as Galway County Council in conjunction with ourselves, a community group. The newly named Yeats Thoor Ballylee society is made up of myself, Ronnie O'Gorman, who is the secretary, a number of local businessmen and real community activists, Fáilte Ireland, Galway County Council, and Galway Rural Development Company Limited. At our last meeting we had Senator Susan O'Keeffe visit, who is the national chair of Yeats's 150th birthday, so she knows what we are trying to achieve.
According to Fáilte Ireland, we need about €400,000 to reopen the monument. We have had it assessed by people in the know who would be tendering for this. They do not believe we need anything like that sum. I just toured it myself and it is in great shape. It needs cleaning and maintenance. However, we do not dispute that money is needed, not just to open it, but to run it. We have umpteen offers of money from America, the UK and Ireland, but we cannot accept them unless we have a licence to run it. We are asking the Minister of State for a licence for one year to enable us to fund-raise in order that we can get past the 150th anniversary, have Thoor Ballylee open, not just for Ireland but for the world, and join Sligo in the overall picture for Yeats. We are quite convinced that we will hand back Thoor Ballylee to Fáilte Ireland, Galway County Council or whoever and that we will work with them in a community-based, linked initiative to ensure this is run. We have an army of people ready to do this. We are totally committed and I am delighted the Minister of State is here to listen to this.
I thank Senator Healy Eames. The Minster of State will be aware of the 150th anniversary celebrations and will know that we gave a commitment to the Taoiseach, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport that this would be a nationwide endeavour. People visiting from other places in the world do not care about the border between Galway and Sligo. They just want to go and see the places associated with Yeats. I support this request for Thoor Ballylee to be given into the care of the community for the year in order that we can open it in 2015 and allow people to come and enjoy the place as a beautiful place in its own right and as part of the Yeats story. In so doing, as well as raising the funding, the profile of the site will be raised and the tower will be restored for the nation and the world.
I thank both Senators. I am pleased to attend the Seanad to discuss the future of Thoor Ballylee and to hear from Senator Healy Eames the progress that has been made locally to open Yeats's former home. As Senators will be aware from previous debates on this topic, Thoor Ballylee is the former holiday home of W.B. Yeats. He purchased the property in 1916 and it is only a few miles from Coole Park, the home of his life-long patron and friend, Lady Gregory. The tower house was given by Yeats's son, Michael Yeats, to Ireland west regional tourism authority, and it transferred to Fáilte Ireland in 2006 when the regional tourism authority was merged with Fáilte Ireland.
On taking over the regional tourism authority, Fáilte Ireland also took on the operation of the network of tourist information offices throughout the country. The management and staffing of these offices, their opening hours and their locations are a matter for Fáilte Ireland and its management. Given the pressures on the public finances and in response to changes in the needs of tourists, Fáilte Ireland, like many other State agencies, continues to reshape its services. It is also prioritising the locations where tourist information offices are provided. As part of this, Fáilte Ireland has been working in partnership with local communities. To date, approximately 40% of tourist information offices have been taken over by local authorities, chambers of commerce and community groups. Fáilte Ireland does not operate tourism attractions, and where it has inherited attractions, it has sought to dispose of its interest at an appropriate stage.
In respect of Thoor Ballylee, Senators will be aware that this area of Galway was badly affected by flooding in 2009. The tower house was badly 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, and further works will be required if the building is to open again. However, this future investment would not represent value for money for Fáilte Ireland. This is because 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 that light, Fáilte Ireland has been exploring other options for its future operations and seeking the involvement of interested parties to operate the tower house. I contacted with Fáilte Ireland yesterday regarding the Yeats Thoor Ballylee society, and I understand the agency has written today to say that it is agreeable to granting the society a licence subject to clarification of a number of issues. I would encourage the society to work with Fáilte Ireland and I wish it the best of luck. I hope we have a very successful outcome.
I am very grateful to the Minister of State. This is good news. It is the first day of the new term of Seanad Éireann, the House in which W.B. Yeats served from 1922 to 1928, and in which his son served subsequently. This is a great way to honour his memory. I have been feeling quite unwell all day but suddenly I am feeling great. I appreciate this because it is the way things should proceed. I thank Senator O'Keeffe for supporting this as well. Together we can move this forward.
In addition, we commit on behalf of Yeats 2015 that it is to be a national and international celebration. We would love to see the numbers for Thoor Ballylee increase as the current numbers are too small for Fáilte Ireland to do the work itself. We hope that in two, three, or five years time this will change, as we make it part of the Yeats story. We are all delighted with that news and I thank Senator Healy Eames for her support.
I am pleased because this is important work, coming at an important time in the history of our country. My family has taken its part in the foundation of this state, my grand-uncle having died fighting for the Free State side in 1921, and so I am pleased that this happened today. I wish Senator O'Keeffe well. I know that she has a difficult job to do, and I hope she receive the support she deserves.