Wednesday, 15 November 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
My matter relates to Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre in Keenagh, County Longford and the monastic site on Inchclearaun in Lough Ree. Corlea Trackway is a 2,000 year old Iron Age highway, which was uncovered in the bogs in south Longford. It has been developed into visitor site, managed by the OPW. Visitor numbers are quite low because it is not being promoted well enough. The range of features on the site that people can visit needs to be expanded. This is why I am bringing the issue here today regarding the monastic stones at Inchclearaun. To give a bit of background, this is an island on Lough Ree where mighty Queen Maebh of Connacht lived and died. A monastic site was founded on the island by St. Diarmaid in 540 AD. He was the teacher of St. Ciarán in Clonmacnoise. The place has a lot of history.
In the 1980s, some of the monastic stones were stolen from the site and taken to America. Looking back at the RTÉ archives, we can see where the FBI was involved in an investigation when the stones were put up for sale to Boston College for IR£5 million in 1990. The FBI mounted a sting operation and the culprit was apprehended. The stones were brought back to Ireland to much fanfare. It was on the national news and the then Minister of State for Defence, Vincent Brady, received them at Shannon Airport. At the time, the plan was to put the stones on display to the general public. These priceless artefacts are sitting in storage in Athenry and have not been seen since. We want to see them brought back to be displayed in Longford. I acknowledge there are criteria for maintaining them under certain conditions and safety considerations but we have an OPW site in our county. We would like to see the stones brought back and put on display as promised. I strongly believe in maintaining our history. We need people to see it. Having the stones in a box in Athenry is not correct. I want the OPW to start making moves to have the stones put on public display securely and safely somewhere in their home county of Longford.
I want to express my sympathies to the Senator, his Fine Gael colleagues and the Belton family on the passing of the former Deputy and Senator from Longford, Louis J. Belton. It was always a pleasure to meet him, and it is quite ironic that we are speaking about a Longford issue here this morning. My thoughts are with you all.
As the Senator knows, the OPW is responsible for the conservation, maintenance, presentation and the promotion of Ireland's most iconic heritage properties, including our two UNESCO world heritage sites, 800 national monuments, 32 national historic properties and more than 5,000 acres of gardens and parklands. The OPW holds the right, under legislation, to enter property to undertake the necessary maintenance and works for the protection of monuments in its care.
As the Senator referenced, in 1984, a major prehistoric trackway of large oak planks was discovered during a Bord na Móna peat harvesting operation at Corlea. Wood samples from Corlea subjected to tree ring analysis indicated a felling date of 148 B.C., thus dating the track back to the early Iron Age. This track was one of the large number of trackways investigated, which range in date from the middle of the fourth millennium BC to the middle of the first millennium A.D. These ancient trackways had become engulfed and preserved by the formation of the raised bog.
The building at Corlea was a prestigious construction of the period. Unlike the earlier tracks, its significance clearly transcends the needs of local farming communities and it may have been part of a network of major communications routes. 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 sophisticated, dry freezing technique and then re-laid in their original positions. To preserve the last remaining 18 m of the great timbers under the bog, the intact eastern section of the raised bog at Corlea was conserved. To achieve this, the water level in the bog was raised and retained at a higher level by means of sheeting to enclose the area and the construction of small artificial lakes. The visitor centre contains an audiovisual presentation on the excavation and the preservation of the timbers of the Corlea Trackway as well as interpretive panels and artefacts. A boardwalk across the bog and from the rear of the building follows the course and the 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 the country. It combines a number of distinct elements and disciplines, including history, archaeology, engineering, architecture and the natural environment. The OPW is happy to consider the installation of the cross logs referred to by the Senator or, indeed, any exhibition or artefact. However, any decision in this regard will be cognisant of a number of factors.These include clarification of the ownership of the items in question and the long-term requirements that will have to be put in place to protect them from damage or deterioration. The OPW is committing to engage with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the National Museum of Ireland in this regard.
I am glad the Minister of State recognises the Corlea trackway is unique. We want to see further investment and expand the visitor numbers to the centre. I do not understand why clarification of the ownership of these items is being sought. They have been in the ownership of the OPW for the past 33 years and it is ironic it is now wondering about ownership and the requirements that will have to be put in place to protect them. They have been protected and kept in storage for the past 33 years since they were brought back from America. I take heart from the fact that discussion and engagement will take place with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the National Museum. We need to display these artefacts for people to see. Every day, thousands of kids and other people visit the two museums beside Leinster House to see artefacts. We need to put these artefacts on display for people to see. I have outlined the unique nature of Inchcleraun, with its links to Queen Maeve of Connacht and back to St. Ciarán of Clonmacnoise and St. Diarmaid. It is part of our history and folklore and we need the younger generation to be able to see it. We need to explain the story of the stones and bring them back to be put on display in their home county of Longford.
I agree the OPW should invest far more in its promotion. I was not aware of its significance even though I pass through the area regularly. Far more work needs to be done on promotion. The storage and public display of an artefact are two different things. It is about ensuring we can protect the integrity of items that go on public display. That will form the basis of the negotiation in which the OPW, through the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, will engage with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the National Museum.