WHILE Clare County Council is seeking, though not yet receiving, €15 million to take on the Clare-based Shannon Heritage attractions, hotelier Michael Vaughan has warned that even that vast sum may not be enough.
“Even if there is an investment of €15 million and it secures the asset, secures the heritage value of these sites, what in terms of a plan will increase the number of people staying in the locality, in Bunratty, in Ennis, in other parts of Clare?
“Some councillors have said there would be a multisite ticket people could get for three or four sites, but that would only help the likes of Paddywagon and the coach tours that are in and out in a flash,” said the Lahinch man.
He warned that a figure of closer to €20 million would be required to bring the sites up to the required standard and to start promoting them abroad.
“I think you could spend €15 million in Bunratty alone on infrastructure, never mind what you need to develop other sites, and remember the promotion is hugely important, the digital marketing. I’ve been told a €4 million investment is needed in IT and you still need to deal with Craggaunowen and Knappogue. If you were to visit Knappogue by day you would be quite shocked.”
While Bunratty Castle was once one of the country’s most successful tourist attractions that is no longer the case, and Mr Vaughan says it has been poorly run for many years.
“A more basic, fundamental thing, and nobody is talking about this, and I have to be honest and say it; there is a lack of depth of management within Shannon Heritage over many years.
“There are issues relating to employment and contracts and conditions and pay scales and work practices that have not been tackled.
“You can see it on the ground. There’s no excuse for things like 100 dead flies on a window of the castle; that’s a basic thing, it’s someone taking a hoover out or doing a bit of cleaning.
“You don’t get the feeling that the assets within it have been properly managed and cared for in quite a number of years.”
The running and operation of the business needs to change significantly, he added.
“There’s an apathy that has set in, there’s no doubt about it. That requires cultural changes and I think it’s going to require a package being available to make change. Redundancies may be a part of it because some people may not want to go with the new plan.”
What was once one of Ireland’s top visitor destinations has not moved with the times, he feels, with little innovation around how information is presented to the tourist.
“I’m not being cruel about saying it, but it’s almost irrelevant to many of the tourists who come to the country because it isn’t being presented in a fashion they can understand.
“You need to be able to pick up on modern ways of delivering information, whether it’s by bluetooth as you pass by with your mobile phone, or that you can pick up an audio guide in your portable device – all of these ways that are there to interpret what’s around you. And it does require huge interpretation.”
He said that in previous decades there were a number of additions and upgrades at Bunratty, as the site kept evolving, but that has been lacking more recently, with relatively few improvements seen.
“The most awful thing has been the decline of the banquets; while the older American brigade was coming to the country it was very popular.
“They had heritage, they were trying to keep in touch with their past, but we’ve gone beyond that in terms of the generations, most of the people coming into the country don’t have an idea of their links to it.
“More particularly, we didn’t develop anything for the European tourists, and create a relevance right across the site.”
He says the attraction is half-forgotten now by many people in Clare tourism, in stark contrast to when it was at the top of many visitor’s lists.
“It was a go-see. I think it also contributed hugely to the importance of Shannon Airport, as a first stop coming into the country, because you had this must-see and it was part and parcel of what you did as a tourist.”
He said that the figure of €15 million which is being sought by Clare County Council, might only be enough to do the basics at Bunratty.
“The roof on the Castle alone will cost nearly a million to replace and it’s badly needed. But there’s other parts of what’s in the Castle that need updating, tapestries that need repairing or reinvigorating, furnitures that need to be brought to life better.
“To my mind we had a world class heritage site and we have a very, very pale imitation of that at the moment. There has been a very sad decline over time.”
While Bunratty may have greatly declined from the years when it was one of the most popular visitors experiences in Ireland, he says it is far from hopeless.
“Regardless of how despondent I might sound this is quite fixable. It needs a plan, a huge investment in terms of management as well as everything else, but we have on our doorstep a sleeping giant. It is something we need to reinvigorate and bring back into the heart of Clare tourism.”
But the sleeping giant will need a large eight figure injection.
“We need to see a huge investment to bring energy, vitality and love back into the project.”
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.