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Ger Madden has been operating Holy Island boat tours from Mountshannon Harbour for 32 years. Photograph by John Kelly.

Inis Cealtra centre ‘poor value’ says Holy Island OPW caretaker

AN East Clare boat operator, who been conducting tours to Holy Island for 32 years, has questioned whether Clare County Council’s purchase of the old Mountshannon Rectory represents a value for money deal.

Described by the council as a “landmark tourism project” on the banks of Lough Derg, plans were lodged for a proposed new Inis Cealtra (Holy Island) visitor centre in the heart of Mountshannon village last February and were adopted by the council last May.

The Old Rectory Visitor Centre building will comprise a reception area, three exhibition areas interpreting stories from Mountshannon and the island of Inis Cealtra as well as a community/co-working space and a revitalised Rectory Garden.

Councillors were told at the January meeting of Killaloe Municipal District this visitor centre is expected to be operational by early to mid-2023.

The Visitor Experience project to interpret the 41-acres island is a collaborative initiative involving the council, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands (Fáilte Ireland), Waterways Ireland, the Office of Public Works (OPW), The National Monuments Service and The National Parks and Wildlife Service.

This tourism project is promised to be the ‘Jewel of Lough Derg,’ and has been enthusiastically supported by East Clare councillors in recent years.

However, Mr Madden, who is the OPW caretaker for the island for 20 years, has major misgivings about the way the council is engaging in local consultation.

“Clare County Council has the island since 2015 and I haven’t spoken to one of them. I have two books written on Holy Island, I have done numerous videos of the Island, I have been on RTE and travel programmes, yet no official from the council has spoken to me about Holy Island.

“Holy Island was purchased in 2015 thanks to former chief planner, Gordon Daly from Tuamgraney and former director of service, Ger Dollard. They had the right vision for Holy Island. It was a disaster when they left.

“I don’t know who recommended the purchase of the Mountshannon Rectory. I don’t know how you can turn a listed building into an interpretative centre, add a lift and an extension to it. I know an individual couldn’t do this. That deal was very questionable.

“It wasn’t part of the development plan when Solearth Architecture did a report for the council in 2015.

“The council want to turn it into an interpretative centre, which doesn’t make sense as it is a listed building. The council are spending another €1 million on consultants and planners but I haven’t seen any of them.”

He claimed none of the main recommendations made in the Solearth Architecture report about Holy Island have been implemented.

“The council has big ideas for Holy Island, but nothing has been done in the island for 1,000 years. The construction of any new building on the island apart from toilet pods could destroy the place.

He said having Zoom meetings during the day were not the best way of public consultation with farmers living in rural areas.

Mr Madden said one of the first priorities the council should be tackling is the provision of parking as Mountshannon Harbour is very often chock-a-block with traffic during hot weather.

He believes the council could have constructed a building on the road to Holy Island instead of trying to develop a structure in Mountshannon village.

“Holy Island is a pilgrimage site, it is not a tourist site, the council has lost sight of this. The day you take the pilgrim visitor out of Holy Island you destroy it. We don’t want Cliffs of Moher-style tourism here.

“The council think they own the island, but the OPW own it and are responsible for the monuments. The council bought the rest of the island. They can’t do anything without the permission of the OPW.”

Apart from the Whit and August Bank Holiday weekend, he said litter is very rarely an issue on the island.

He said the council are planning to build a floating marina in Mountshannon Harbour and one near Holy Island to facilitate two 50-seater ferries.

“My ferry only carries ten. That is plenty because that is the biggest I can land because there is only two feet of water there. That has been the way for 500 years.

“I think the council and OPW’s vision is different as the OPW will not support hundreds of people walking over 1,000 year-old gravestones.”

A council spokesman pointed out the authority has invited Mr Madden to engage with consultants and the local authority on several occasions on the Old Rectory – Inis Cealtra Visitor Experience. “No submission has been received from Mr Madden during the extensive public consultation process over the past 18 months.

“This is an exciting project that will act as a catalyst project and serve to revitalise the village of Mountshannon. The project has significant support amongst the community.”

An award-winning consultancy team has been appointed to progress the project, comprising McCullough Mulvin Architects, Tandem Partners Ltd (interpretation/visitor experience designers), Tobin Consulting Engineers (quantity surveyors/project managers), Design Works (branding & design consultants) and Amion (economics & financial management consultancy).

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