*Photograph: Eamon Ward
Repeated calls have been made for Clare County Council to acquire Shannon Heritage sites in the county.
Clare TD, Michael McNamara (IND) was the first to suggest a move and made contact with the local authority in early June. Since then, Cllr Pat Hayes (FF) appealed for Knappagoue and Craggaunowen to be taken under the Council’s wing. On Monday, Deputy Joe Carey (FG) suggested the Shannon Heritage sites be taken into the ownership of the Council or the OPW while a motion on the matter was also put before the Council.
Cllr Alan O’Callaghan (FF) was the chief proposer of a motion calling on the Council to take over Shannon Heritage sites in Clare. His proposal was co-signed by one third of local representatives. “What has happened with Shannon Heritage isn’t working,” he stated and underlined the improvements that could be made to Bunratty Castle & Folk Park, Knappogue and Craggaunowen. “We are the backbone, we are to the fore in tourism when you see the way the Cliffs of Moher and Loop Head have been handled. It is something that needs to be handled very quick. When something is left closed for a short period of time, it is left to go to rack and ruin”.
Staff at Bunratty “are fighting for their careers and Shannon Heritage is trying to take it away from them,” Cllr Pat O’Gorman (FF) commented of the planned August 31st closure of the attraction. He claimed that 26,000 children attended the Christmas Festival in Bunratty last year “which would keep it going to St Patrick’s weekend alone”. He added, “We’ve seven or eight restaurants in Bunratty solely depending on the Folk Park, it is our heritage and has been there for generations. This is the one year we as a Council are persuading people to holiday at home and it is the one time Shannon Heritage want to close it, it is lunacy and wouldn’t happen anywhere else”.
According to Cllr Pat McMahon (FF), “poor management have led us to this situation”. He recalled meeting people in the past week who expressed a fear of flying in the current climate and stressed the opportunity for Irish tourist attractions in 2020. “Here we are and Irish people who are used to going abroad won’t fly and we’ve a company that has decided to close at the end of August without consulting the workers. It is weak management in the extreme to make this huge cut, workers were never given a chance”.
A brick by brick approach to taking over was suggested by Cllr Donna McGettigan (SF). She spoke of the “sense of passion” evident from her engagements with the workers, “they are the keepers of our heritage”. Cllr Johnny Flynn (FG) described the actions as “very sad” and referred to how Shannon Group previously stood up on occasions such as during the fodder crisis. Mayor of Clare, Cllr Mary Howard (FG) was adamant, “We know we have the expertise and the manpower to do this”.
Detailed analysis must be carried out by the Council Chief Executive, Cllr Gerry Flynn (IND) maintained. He warned that Shannon Commercial Properties may be looking to unload sites during the coming months. The planned decision to close is “very harsh”, Cllr Pat Daly (FF) believed. “The Cliffs of Moher was mediocre and average until the Council took it over. They have the proven track record. Bunratty without the Folk Park is like a hurling team going out without a ball. It is absolutely stupid what they have done, they have let the people of the Mid-West down”.
Consideration must be given to the proposal, Cllr PJ Ryan (IND) outlined, “it won’t happen instantly”. “The immediate problem is that Shannon Heritage want to close Bunratty Castle & Folk Park, we need to emphasise that Clare County Council doesn’t want Bunratty closed. We want staff back in their jobs, there is plenty of business around. Shannon Heritage have taken their eye off the ball, they would get more business now than previously”.
Limerick City and County Council must be factored into the discussion, Cllr Cillian Murphy (FF) advised. He said the decision was “ridiculous in the extreme” but done for commercial reasons. Cllr Michael Begley (IND) urged the local authority not to let Bunratty close at the end of August.
Caution was voiced by Cllr PJ Kelly (FF). He supported the motion but said the Council must be “extremely careful” of the risks. “We need to fully analyse what the implications are. The attempt to take it over may bring a bit of common sense to the people who seem to have a total lack of it”. Similarly, Cllr Joe Killeen (FF) was of the view consideration must be approached “in the cold light of day”. He noted that Shannon Heritage recently recorded pre-tax profits of €21.6m and have up to 512 staff.
Responding to the debate, Chief Executive, Pat Dowling described it as “unambiguous”. He flagged that the sites were not currently available, “We can’t steal if off them, it has to be agreed”. 80% of visitors to Bunratty are international, Dowling stated. He listed ownership complexities such as conservation, maintenance, staffing and contractors with “significant liabilities around the conservation of castles. “There has to be very comprehensive due diligence. We don’t often agree but I agree with Cllr Kelly wholeheartedly, it is very complex”.