Thursday, 23 March 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Deenihan: Ballybunion Castle is located on the Castle Green in Ballybunion and is an internationally recognised landmark. It continues to feature on postcards and in television documentaries. It is extensively referred to in the literature of north Kerry and has been immortalised in prose and verse by writers such as John B. Keane and Bryan MacMahon. Ballybunion Castle was constructed in the early 1500s by a branch of the Geraldines, the Fitzmaurices, Lords of Kerry, who resided in my neighbouring parish of Lixnaw. The Bunion family was placed in the castle to act as retainers and in the decades to follow the town took its name from this family. The castle was destroyed in a raid by Lord Kerry in  1582 and in 1583 William Óg Bunion had his lands confiscated due to his part in the Desmond rebellion. Thomas Fitzmaurice, the 16th Lord of Kerry, made a submission to King James having the lands confirmed by his patent of 1612. The Fitzmaurices retained their lands through the 1641 rebellion, the confiscations of 1651 and the 1690 wars. The castle then passed to Richard Hare in 1783 and has been a national monument—
The castle, despite being imposing, is a ruinous structure and only the tall eastern side remains. Much of the cliff on the western side has eroded and there is also erosion of ground near the north-east corner on the north side, which is further undermining the structure. In late December 1999, a lightning strike caused extensive damage to the castle.
From the east side there appears to be little damage, although it is clear that masonry fell from the apex and the top corner to the north side. In this area there is a small block of masonry now dislodged which will fall during the next storm if it has not already done so. Passing through the wall, the western side presents a more distressing sight. At some stage a light fitting of floodlight type had been affixed to this wall and it was this light which afforded an easy route for lightning to reach the ground. It is clear that the lightning struck the top of the structure and passed down through the wall, blowing out this light fitting and striking the ground where an area of earth has been blown out, leaving a huge hole. There was no lightning conductor affixed to the castle.
A section of masonry at the top of the north end has been blown away leaving the interior of the wall in this vulnerable area exposed. The lightning bolt seems to have passed through the wall, dislodging a huge section of masonry that includes part of the springing for a masonry vault, which is now gone. This huge piece of masonry is, perhaps, the most serious problem and will be the most difficult to deal with. From an inspection at ground level it is not possible to appreciate the full extent of the damage at this level but it is clear that substantial consolidation is required. Further down the wall and closer to the ground, the wall gives the appearance of being intact.
In the late 1960s the castle was pointed. Unfortunately, a cement mortar was used and the pointing finish was inappropriate to a medieval structure. It is essential that remedial works be carried out to this structure sooner rather than  later. It is precariously balanced on the cliff and any fall of masonry will crash to the beach below, which is a popular spot for visitors at all times of the year and especially in summer. This presents a definite hazard to the beach users.
It will be necessary to consolidate the top of the wall where a section of masonry has been blown off. To the north it will be necessary to reface with masonry that section of walling which was blown away. Below this the huge block of dislodged masonry will have to be secured and consolidated in situ. This is a specialist job and will require the same type of workmanship currently being used on the south wall of Ardfert Cathedral. Whatever should happen, the castle cannot be left in its current state. It is dangerous and immediate remedial works are the only way forward.
At present, Kerry County Council has cordoned off the area leading to the approach of the castle with a stout mesh fence to keep the public out. However, this is unsightly in a beauty spot that is renowned the world over. Ballybunion as a tourist destination has suffered a decline in recent years. This damage to its best known landmark is a further blow to the morale of the local population. It is incumbent on the Minister to act immediately and provide the necessary funding and craftsmen to repair and consolidate what remains of this national monument.
Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Miss de Valera): I thank Deputy Deenihan for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I am aware of his genuine concern for the castle. It was inspected in January by an architect and district works manager from the Department, together with an engineer from Kerry County Council. It had been damaged by lightning over the Christmas period.
I do not intend to discuss the castle's historic background although, like the Deputy, I am interested in the history of such places. Such monuments are important not only for people who are interested in history but also for the tourism industry and the promotion of our culture and heritage. The castle is neither in the ownership nor the guardianship of the State. It is, however, a recorded monument under section 12 of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act, 1994. This affords the castle legal protection in so far as the Minister must be given two months written notice of any proposed work to the monument.
The Deputy accurately outlined the precarious position of the castle, its ruinous structure and the work that needs to be done. He referred to the falling masonry and the difficulties posed by the light fitting. A section of masonry at the top of the north end has been blown away, leaving the interior of the wall in this vulnerable area exposed. The lightning bolt appears to have  passed through the wall, dislodging a huge section of masonry that includes part of the springing for a masonry vault.
Some decades ago, possibly in the late 1960s, the castle was pointed. Unfortunately, a cement mortar was used and the pointing finish is not appropriate to the medieval structure. It is essential that remedial works are carried out to the castle sooner rather than later. It is precariously balanced on the cliff and any fall of masonry will crash to the beach below which is a popular spot for visitors. At least half of the structure will need to be scaffolded on both sides. This is necessary not just for the works but to examine the full extent of the lightning damage before a full assessment can be made. It will be necessary to consolidate the top of the wall where a section of masonry has been blown off.
To the north of this, it will be necessary to reface with masonry that section of walling which was blown away. Just below this, the huge block of dislodged masonry will have to be secured and consolidated in situ. This is a specialist job. In the architect's opinion it will be necessary to repoint this area, grouting it with a structural quality specialist grout and, possibly, insert stainless steel rods to restore its structural integrity.
Only experienced personnel could undertake this work. Erecting the scaffolding poses its own dangers, given the state of the wall above, but this could be done under the right conditions. It will add to the costs, however. It is impossible to give an estimate for the costs of remedial works before the castle is scaffolded and examined closely at the upper levels. It will be an expensive exercise. Once the castle is scaffolded a lightning conductor should be affixed given the castle's height and exposure.
The castle is not in my ownership or care. There is no question of my taking this site into State care even if ownership were to be established beforehand. There are many other such monuments throughout the country similarly at risk where my intervention has been sought. However, all the resources available to me are already fully committed for the foreseeable future to the conservation and maintenance of those national monuments that are in State care, such as Ardfert Cathedral, Gallarus Castle and Listowel Castle.
While I am concerned to see that the future of the castle is safeguarded, the immediate concern is the current dangerous condition of the monument which poses a threat to public safety. It is essential, therefore, that remedial repairs be carried out as a priority. The issue of public safety, where dangerous structures are concerned, is a matter for the local authority, Kerry County Council. Nevertheless, I am prepared to make my professional staff available to advise on the correct procedures to be applied. Any works would have to be carried out by a competent contractor  to a specification appropriate to structural work on medieval buildings. In this regard, the services of a suitable engineer with experience in historic buildings would be required. I am confident that in this way both the public safety imperative and the future preservation of the castle can be satis factorily achieved. My Department wrote to Kerry County Council on this basis in early February following a joint inspection on site. There has not been a response to date.
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