Minister stays silent on island purchase potential

The monastery, believed to have been founded by St Féichín in the 7th century.

The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has refused to comment on whether the State will attempt to purchase the deserted Ardoileán island off the coast of Connemara, but has described the €1.25 million price tag as “significant”.

Speaking in the Dáil, Minister Josepha Madigan said her Department continues to explore ways of protecting and presenting heritage sites, and that in some instances, this has included “strategic land purchases”.

However, she said it would be inappropriate to comment on whether the State intends to buy the 80-acre island, which contains the ruins of a 7th century monastic settlement – which is a protected national monument.

She added that because of difficulty in accessing the island, purchasing it “would bring little in terms of visitor access to the monuments on the site … and mean that disturbance levels are low, which is of benefit to the breeding birds”.

The Minister was responding to a question from Green Party leader, Deputy Éamon Ryan, who pointed out High Island’s heritage and important wildlife sanctuary.

He said he believed there has not been a sale, but there may have been tenders submitted to the auctioneer.

The Connacht Tribune previously reported that interest has been expressed by potential purchasers based in the United States, Britain and in Dublin.

“Will the Minister reconsider the State purchasing the island on behalf of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, to maintain it as a sanctuary?” Deputy Ryan asked.

Minister Madigan said she was aware of the national monument on the island and the fact that the property is part of a larger Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Birds’ Directive, and that recent surveys had found larger colonies of certain bird species than were know previously.

“My Department continues to explore ways to optimise the protection and presentation of heritage sites under our control in a way that is compatible with conservation objectives and that provides excellent value for money outcomes to the state. In some instances, this has included strategic land purchases. As it is in State care, the national monument on this site is fully protected under the National Monuments Acts.

“Any works at or in its vicinity may only be carried out with ministerial consent under those Acts. This will remain so, irrespective of future ownership arrangements.

“Property acquisition by my Department is the exception rather than the norm. The countryside is populated with a rich range of almost 150,000 archaeological monuments. The Department, working with OPW, is only in a position to acquire, maintain, conserve and present to the public a limited number of properties and monuments. Acquisitions are, therefore, only contemplated where there is a clear, tangible and substantial benefit to the overall quality and management of the State’s heritage portfolio.

“In this case, the national monument and other recorded monuments are already well protected. Even if the entire property were in public ownership, public access would continue to be hazardous and unsuitable for large-scale visitor exploration, which of itself also provides a significant safeguard for the bird population.

“Additionally, value for money principles must be carefully considered where any acquisition is proposed. Neither would it be appropriate or prudent for me to compromise any possible acquisition proposals by publicly disclosing interest or otherwise in any property,” said the Minister.

Deputy Ryan said the NPWS should have an interest in it because it is a “spectacularly important location” with 4,000 breeding pairs of storm petrels and an important colony of Manx shearwaters.

“Seabirds are one of the most threatened species. The seabirds on this island travel to the north Atlantic to feed. We are in a row with Scotland about Rockall. If we want to show we are serious about what is happening in the north Atlantic and preserving its ecology, it is important the NPWS takes ownership of islands like this and manages them,” he said.

Minister Madigan replied: “It does not have the potential to become a significant tourist attraction, in any event, as access is hazardous. The asking price, which I think is €1.25 million for approximately 32 hectares, is significant, and there are value for money principles which must be given careful consideration in the case of any acquisition.”

She went on to say the island is home to bird species including fulmar, barnacle goose and Arctic tern, the Manx shearwater and storm petrel.

“The site currently enjoys very low levels of human or farming disturbance, which benefits the birds. It can be difficult to secure optimal grazing levels on offshore islands but, in this case, the access difficulties may well prevent that problem.

“The Department would be a statutory consultee on any planning proposal and should, therefore, have substantial influence over any proposal to build there,” said the Minister.