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A new Inis Cealtra (Holy Island) visitor centre in the heart of Mountshannon village has taken a big leap forward with the submission of plans for the proposed new facility.

Having taken 41 acres on the island into public ownership in 2015, Clare County Council has this week submitted a Part 8 Planning Application for The Old Rectory building overlooking Mountshannon Harbour and Lough Derg to progress a mainland visitor centre, which will interpret the seventh century monastic site of Inis Cealtra and its surrounds.

Still used as a burial ground, the ruins and buildings still standing on Holy Island date back as far as the 7th century when the monastic site was established by St. Caimin. Buildings on the island include a 24-metre-high Round Tower, an Oratory, and several churches. The Island lies close to the village of Mountshannon and is on the UNESCO World Heritage site tentative list as an Early Medieval Monastic site along with Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Glendalough, Kells and Monasterboice.

The Inis Cealtra Visitor Experience project, which is being led by the Tourism Department of Clare County Council, will steer the tourism development and visitor management of what is locally referred to as the ‘Jewel of Lough Derg’. Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands (Fáilte Ireland), Waterways Ireland, the Office of Public Works (OPW), National Monuments Service and National Parks and Wildlife Service are collaborating with the Council on the project. Funding for the project is aided by the Department of Rural and Community Development’s Rural Regeneration and Development Fund.

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“At a time when the tourism sector faces unprecedented challenges, it is encouraging to see new and innovative tourism projects being progressed,” stated Cathaoirleach of Clare County Council, Cllr. Mary Howard (FG). “Holy Island is one of the most important historical and ecclesiastical sites in Ireland, and has important links to Brian Ború, the last High King of Ireland”.

A wider audience will be introduced to an “iconic tourism attraction” as a result, Cllr. Pat Hayes (FF) maintained. The Cathaoirleach of the Killaloe Municipal District added, “It will further raise the profile of East Clare as an attractive visitor destination at a time when the domestic tourism sector is preparing for the reopening of the wider economy, and it also will complement the success of the Lough Derg Blueway”.

Holy Island was identified as a key heritage asset in both the Clare Rural Development Strategy 2026 and the newly developed Clare Tourism Strategy 2030, Pat Dowling, Chief Executive of Clare County Council noted. “This project seeks to conserve Inis Cealtra as a significant historical, ecclesiastical, archaeological and cultural site; as well as expand its attractiveness as a sustainable tourism destination and, in so doing, address population decline and rural deprivation by providing social and economic benefits derived from tourism for East Clare and the wider Mid-West region,” he explained.

Paddy Mathews, Head of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands believed the new visitor centre would help to establish Lough Derg “as a must-see visitor destination”. Regional Manager of Waterways Ireland, Éanna Rowe maintained the project would “provide a step change in the repositioning of the Shannon as a key tourism and navigational destination”.

Leonard Cleary, Director of Rural Development with Clare County Council, said the making of a planning application is the first step in preparing for the development of the visitor centre. “The next step awaits an announcement of Government funding for which a grant application has been submitted for the actual development of the project”.

Clare TD, Michael McNamara (IND) described the announcement of the plans as one presenting serious potential for the tourism sector and wider economy of East Clare. “Prior to Covid, we witnessed a huge increase in tourism in Clare, but it has been almost exclusively focused on the west coast. Great credit is due to the hospitality businesses there for developing their product. However, there are less tourists in East Clare along the Shannon now compared to when I was growing up here. The whole of Lough Derg needs an iconic site around which tourism can be developed and promoted. Lough Derg and the Lower Shannon needs an iconic site around which tourism can be promoted successfully as the Cliffs of Moher has been that site for West Clare. Inis Cealtra is clearly that site for Lough Derg and the Lower Shannon,” Deputy McNamara added.

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