FUTURE development of tourism in East Clare will require new strategies to ensure that key historical sites are sustained as drivers of economic activity, according to a local TD.
Scariff’s Deputy Michael McNamara has made the case, once again, for an alternative management structure for the Clare sites operated currently by Shannon Heritage.
Since the advent of the pandemic, sites like Craggaunowen and Knappogue Castle outside the village of Quin have remained closed, amid a steep fall-off in international visitor numbers. Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, which had been set to close in the autumn, secured an eleventh hour reprieve after a government funding injection of €2.6m. The money will enable it and King John’s Castle to stay open until the end of this year.
Speaking to Scariff Bay Community Radio, the Independent TD said he had raised the need to support the wider Shannon Group, with Micheál Martin, before and since his election as Taoiseach.
Deputy McNamara added that he felt the Shannon Heritage issue had been badly handled, with significant consequences for the local economy of East Clare.
“We closed Craggaunowen at a time when I think parent were crying out for some place to bring children, who were unexpectedly under their feet since March,” he said. “It still hasn’t opened and that just makes no sense to me. It’s an ideological statement by the Shannon Group, because the cost of opening Craggaunowen was so small compared to the cost of maintaining it closed. I accept Craggaunowen is an ongoing drain on their resources, but the capital expenditure in respect of Craggaunowen had been carried out already. So the additional cost of opening it was tiny.”
Deputy McNamara said the most important function of the heritage sites was to drive tourism and support others in the sector.
“The idea that the Shannon Heritage sites should make money, I think, is a misconception, because their purpose is not to make money in and of themselves,” he said. “Their purpose is the broader tourist economy around them to [support] the guest houses, the bars, the restaurants – if they ever open fully again – to make money and they can’t make money if the attractions aren’t open. Shannon Group make the point that that’s all well and good, ‘we are a commercial semi-State and our remit is to make money in and of ourselves’.”
He added that alternative arrangements for the management of the sites might be preferable.
“Maybe the government does need to look at Shannon Heritage itself and whether it should be owned and managed elsewhere,” Deputy McNamara said. “The ownership really is irrelevant, I suppose, because it’s the management [that matters]. Craggaunowen is not owned by the Shannon Group. It’s owned by The Hunt Trust. King John’s Castle in Limerick is owned by Limerick City and County Council.”
Asked about the attempts that had been made to have the CEO of Clare County Council appointed to the board to Shannon Group, Deputy McNamara said he wasn’t in favour of such a move “for the sake of it,” but acknowledged that the local authority has significant expertise in tourism.
“In respect of the management of tourism sites, they have done a very good job, with The Cliffs of Moher, Loop Head Lighthouse, The Vandeleur Gardens,” he noted. “They’ve built up a certain expertise in the management of tourism sites. I’m not aware of any other county council, certainly not in this are if you look at Galway, North Tipperary, Limerick, who has built up the same expertise in the management of tourism sites, which is unparalleled.
“The difficulty is also that there is a plan to invest around €10m, capital funding in Bunratty Castle. Old buildings cost a lot of money to maintain and repair. Craggaunowen costs money, not a huge amount mind you, Craggaunowen is not a hugely expensive site. Knappogue, Dunguaire, King John’s Castle, all these buildings cost a lot of money and I suppose Clare County Council would be careful, if they were to ever take on the running of them that they wouldn’t sink the ship because of the capital funding requirements. But the State does need to look at how it’s going to invest in these sites, because they are key. We have a problem in this county with regard to tourism. We have a huge number of tourists down the west of the county and day-trippers coming on buses and I daresay less tourists on buses in East Clare than there were in the ’80s. Clare County Council have taken over Inis Cealtra, the island. They own it now and they have plans to develop it. I have had meetings with the county manager to make sure that it is developed. I’m not going to say it’s primarily a matter of the county council, but we do need to spread out tourism more.”