Seanad debates

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Commencement Matters

Archaeological Sites

10:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Joe McHugh. I call Senator O'Keeffe and she has four minutes.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome the Minister of State to the House. I want to ask about the Killery Graveyard in Ballintogher. I am not entirely sure whether it is correctly described as a graveyard or a burial ground and I appreciate that there is a difference. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has efficiently and properly written a fully report on the maintenance and care of historic graveyards. It has noted that historic graveyards play an important role in the cultural life of Irish people.

The graveyard in question dates back to the 15th century, which makes it one of the oldest graveyards in existence. It is in a state of deep disrepair. It is also a grave for both Catholic and Protestant. People wishing to visit the site are now really not able to due to its state and, with a church located nearby, there is a fear of falling masonry. My understanding is that the site is not in the care of the OPW. In bringing forward my request I seek to clarify in whose care the graveyard ought to be. Is it the OPW? If it is not in the care of the OPW then it ought to be. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could offer some clarity on the matter. Obviously, these sorts of places are very special and precious to the local community and the wider community. In the context of our history and heritage, it is important that sites of this nature are not lost. Of course, damage is occurring at the site on an ongoing basis and there is concern that the problem will become something that cannot be fixed. I await the Minister of State's response in terms of where the duty of care lies with this particular graveyard given its great age and the fact that it is a Catholic and Protestant place of rest.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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Guím bliain fé mhaise ar an gCathaoirleach agus ar na Seanadóirí go léir fosta.

I thank the Senator for tabling her this matter. She mentioned that people can no longer visit their loved ones in the graveyard. A similar situation exists in my own county at the old Kilmacrennan Abbey. This is a matter to which we need to give serious consideration.

As the House will be aware, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht - who is unavailable today - is charged with responsibility, under the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2004, for the protection of our rich and vitally important archaeological heritage. The monumental remains at Killery, County Sligo, are of considerable interest in that they provide a link with the past history of the parish, which can be traced back to at least the 14th century.They also provide evidence of local ritual practices. The graveyard is still in use today. It contains many 19th and 20th century headstones and some low uninscribed grave markers as well as several chest tombs and recumbent grave slabs. In the north-east quadrant lies a thin stone slab. It is broken and partly covered in sods of grass but it has two round and five oval stones known as the curing stones. These stones were discovered in the graveyard when it was dug up and levelled in the 19th century. Adjacent to the stones is a small rectangular stone to which, according to early reports, was tied a piece of string that was known as the straining thread. These stones, together with the string or thread were reputed to cure strains, pains and aches in people and animals. The ruins of the medieval parish church are incorporated in the southern boundary wall of the graveyard and bear witness to a number of alterations that have been made over the centuries. It appears to have been rebuilt, possibly in the 18th century, when the east gable was reconstructed. The church also appears to have been reduced in size at this time by the insertion of a cross wall.

The monuments at Killery are protected under section 12 of the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2004 as recorded monuments and two months notice must be given to the Minister, in writing, of any proposed work at these monuments. However, the care and maintenance of these monuments is the responsibility of the local authority; in this instance, Sligo County Council. It is appropriate that as a graveyard still in use the local authority would continue to be responsible for its management in this way. The Department currently manages and maintains almost 1,000 individual monuments at 768 locations across the State. Undoubtedly, the Senator is familiar with many of these such as the great megalithic cemeteries at Carrowmore and Knocknarea, the wonderful monastic complexes at Inishmurray Island and Church Island, Lough Gill, the superb high crosses and round tower at Drumcliff, the magnificent Sligo Abbey and, of course, the remarkable castle at Ballinafad. The existing portfolio reflects the rich and varied diversity of the county's built heritage. Regrettably the Department does not have the resources to take on additional sites at this time; however, I can assure the Senator that we will continue to keep this under ongoing review in light of changing resources.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. He has rightly pointed to the great and extraordinary variation and richness of the built heritage in County Sligo. While I appreciate it is the responsibility of Sligo County Council and that the Department does not have the resources to take on additional sites at this time what is the criteria for such a site to be taken on by the Department? Is it about scale? He mentioned Knocknarea and Carrowmore, the two large sites. Is it when a local authority says it cannot take care of it or when the Department deems it ought to be because it is more important than something else? That is the issue I am not clear about. Should I seek further clarification from the Department as to what point something is handed over to the Department and is no longer in the care of the local authority?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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To be helpful I will cite an example in my own county. The abbey in Rathmullan is under the ownership of the Church of Ireland but there is an ongoing discourse between the heritage officer at Donegal County Council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and the Office of Public Works is involved. At the outset it may be idea to get Sligo County Council to organise a meeting between the Office of Public Works and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I will do what I can to help facilitate that meeting if the Senator wishes to pursue it.

While the Minister does not have the wherewithal to intervene directly in this instance there may be opportunities for the local authority to source funding to have remedial repairs carried out to the structures and make the sites safe for visitors. Financial support is provided by the Department through a number of structured schemes for the conservation and protection of heritage buildings. There is the structures at risk fund to enable conservation works to heritage structures in both private and public ownership that are protected under the Planning and Development Acts and are deemed to be at significant risk of deterioration. The Minister launched a new €2 million scheme, the built heritage investment scheme, for the repair and conservation of protected structures on 21 October 2015. This scheme will operate in 2016 via the local authorities on the same model as the very successful built heritage jobs leverage scheme which ran in 2014. It is expected to support a significant number of projects across the country and to create employment in the conservation and construction industries while helping to regenerate urban and rural areas.

The Heritage Council which the Department funds also provides grants for the protection and preservation of the built heritage. For 2015 the council administered a community-based heritage grants scheme, worth funding of more than €500,000, available for projects that contributed to particular heritage themes. The council would be able to advise if this particular structure would be eligible for funding now or in the future. I hope this information is of benefit. I am aware from my dealings with different local authorities that the heritage officers play a proactive role and do good work. The biggest challenge is in terms of resources. As it is a health and safety issue, surely there could be a mechanism to attract funding to ensure the buildings are safe in the first instance in order that tourists can visit but more important that people who have loved ones in these graveyards can visit them and are not precluded from doing so.