Written answers

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Department of Public Expenditure and Reform

Offshore Islands

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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141. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans for 2023 for An Blascaod Mór; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1872/23]

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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The OPW’s involvement with An Blascaod Mór goes back to 1988 with Ionad an Bhlascaoid, (the Blasket Centre) being developed with assistance from the locally based voluntary group, Fondúíreacht an Bhlascaoid in 1992/3. The Centre was first officially opened to the public in April 1994 and was substantially refurbished ahead of a landmark re-opening in 2022. The centre continues to play a critical role in the cultural life of Dún Chaoin and is an important facility for the local community. It is also an important heritage visitor experience, operated by OPW, which celebrates and interprets the extraordinary literary legacy of the Great Blasket and as such, it makes a significant contribution to the economic and tourism agenda in West Kerry.

At An Blascaod Mór itself, the State purchased the majority of the land holdings in 2009. The OPW has provided a very successful guide service on the island since 2013, highlighting the heritage of the island for visitors. The OPW, with assistance from Fáilte Ireland, has also restored two houses on the island, including the home of the pre-eminent Blasket author, Tomás Ó Criomhthain. Further work is currently underway with a view to the further conservation of the largely abandoned island village.

In 2020 I opened a striking new ‘Viewing Platform’ at the Ionad site in Dún Chaoin, on a clifftop site overlooking the Blasket Sound. This project was funded by Fáilte Ireland and the OPW to create a unique way for visitors to experience the dramatic landscape of West Kerry. It connects with the headland walking routes which provide a safe way for visitors of all ages to enjoy the natural landscape. The Viewing Platform remains open year-round and is free of charge to access.

As part of this strategic programme of investment with Fáilte Ireland, Ionad an Bhlascaoid itself has been upgraded, incorporating a completely reimagined interpretive exhibition of world-class standard. I was delighted to open the new world-class visitor experience in June 2022, which is a flagship destination on the Wild Atlantic Way.

The conservation and protection of An Blascaod Mór continues to be of great importance to the OPW in order to secure safe access for visitors and to protect the unique landscape of the Island. A key element of this protection is a comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CMP). There has been a plan in place since 2004 to fully document the heritage assets of the Island, outline a strategy for conserving and developing the Island and provide a ‘roadmap’ for the Island’s future, prioritising the most urgent work and setting out a clear vision for the Island over the coming decade. These plans are regularly reviewed to ensure that the protection of the Island continues to meet the highest standards of best practices.

The OPW will invite tenders for consultants to devise a new Conservation Management Plan (CMP), to continue to guide the development and care of the Island into the future. This plan will consider the elements of conservation, heritage protection, archaeology, transport planning, marine biology and environmental ecology in relation to the Island. The CMP will include a comprehensive inventory of the built and natural heritage of the Island, with reference to the Island’s status as a Special Area of Conservation and a Natura 2000 site and its unique role in Irish cultural heritage. Work has already been undertaken to survey ‘An Dáil’, one of the most significant structures on the island.

The provision of public conveniences on the Island is an ongoing challenge given the unique nature of the Island. The OPW continues to investigate options for the provision of public toilets and is investigating the feasibility of a number of options. OPW is preparing to seek quotes from suitably qualified professionals to assess the suitability of potential locations on the island for such facilities. Toilets were successfully provided on Skellig Michael for the first time in 2022, and the learning from that project will inform the considerations on An Blascaod Mór.

Regarding the seal colony and other biodiversity on An Blascaod Mór, the vast majority of people who visit the island are conscious of the need to be careful not to cause any damage or disturbance to either the built heritage, wildlife and the natural environment. Visitor boat services will re-commence in April 2023 subject to weather conditions. During this off-season period the OPW is drafting a comprehensive information leaflet which will outline the necessary steps to protect the native seals and birdlife, in particular the vulnerable Manx Shearwater. It is anticipated that every visitor to the island will be provided with this leaflet prior to disembarking on the island. A Biodiversity study commissioned by the OPW in 2022 is nearing completion and the outputs of this study will inform the island's ongoing conservation strategies.

The OPW team will also co-ordinate with ferry operators to ensure that all visitors receive up to date conservation information before they disembark on the island.

I note the Deputy's continued interest in improved landing facilities where boats could embark and disembark passengers directly to the island. These facilities are an essential element in the sustainable management of the island from heritage, tourism, safety and environmental perspective.

Planning permission for a pier was previously granted in 2003, but Kerry County Council have advised that is necessary to secure fresh planning permission, given that there have been significant changes in the designated status of the island and in environmental regulations in the period since the original permission was granted. This will necessitate updated environmental and other reports to support such an application, as well as the preparation of a detailed updated design for the project. The OPW continues to engage with the relevant stakeholders to consider the key challenges in undertaking this project.

My most recent visit to the Island was on 19th September, where I was accompanied by the Deputy, and I will continue to work with the local community to continue to protect the Island and in supporting sustainable tourism to share the unique culture of the Island with visitors.


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