Sunday 8 December 2019

Grounds for concern

Admission charges were the hot topic at an Irish Heritage Trust information day at Johnstown Castle.

Johnstown Castle
Johnstown Castle
Philip and Mary Quirke with Jo Tynan of The Irish Heritage Trust
Aileen Cardiff, Austin O’Sullivan and Bernadette Cuddihy

Words: Maria Pepper Pictures: Ger Hore

An increase in daily admission charges and annual membership fees was high on the agenda when the Irish Heritage Trust held an information day in Johnstown Castle.

Four smiling staff members from the Trust, including the CEO Anne O'Donoghue welcomed a steady stream of visitors and fielded questions in a room beside the Irish Agricultural Museum.

'It's been non-stop since we opened this morning', said Communications Officer Charlotte O'Connor. 'Once people talk to someone, they can relate to what we are doing. They can see that we are passionate about the project. A lot of people are signing up for volunteering. It's very positive. This is just the beginning of the next chapter', she said

Not everyone was happy though and one of those expressing anger about the admission price hikes was Wexford town woman Anne O'Reilly.

'It's been a people's park for the last 50 years for the people of Wexford town and the whole district.

What other park do you have to pay to get into. In Dublin, Stephen's Green, St. Anne's Park, Herbert Park are all free to enter', she said.

'The Government wants people to be healthy, to get out and walk and get their children to do activities. There is nowhere in Wexford where we can walk without cars polluting us, nowhere for children to run wild.

'This is one of the only uncommercialised places where parents of young children could bring them without having to spend money. You could spend the whole afternoon here and not once hear the words 'buy me, buy me'.

'This is an exclusionary charge for poorer families who don't have money.

'If you are a disabled person you cannot access the beach satisfactorily but you can come here on a walking stick in a wheelchair or with a buggy.

'I'm not interested in the museum, the interpretive centre of the restaurant. I come here with my elderly mother and my grandchildren for a walk in the fresh air. It's safe and it's healthy. That's what I'm interested in and I think there's a lot of people like me.

'I think there should be a local charge. Yes, if I want to go into the museum or the castle, I should pay an extra charge as I have done in the past when I have had visitors.

'There should be a family charge of €35 a year which it has been for the past two years. Before that it was €25.

'I am going to boycott it and I would encourage everyone in Wexford to boycott it as well. Let everyone boycott it for a year and stick to it.

'The Irish Heritage Trust is not a charity. It's a rip-off quango. They're raising money to pay their own CEO and staff.

'I think they have been devious and underhanded in announcing the improvements with a great fanfare and two minutes before it is due to be opened, they let people know that they have to pay three times as much to get in', said Anne.

On spotting the Heritage Trust CEO,cshe left to speak to her. Afterwards, she said 'I just got an apology. I was told - 'sorry to lose you Anne'.

Michael Quirke who worked in Johnstown Castle for 48 years until his retirment in 2009 said he thinks people who have been employed there in the past, should be allowed complimentary admission. 'I don't think they should be charging people who worked here', he said.

Martin Doyle of Barntown who attends regular vintage days in Johnstown, said the new facilities will be 'fantastic' and will be a 'great tourist opportunity'.

'I don't know anything about the details of pricing but I think the charges should be modest and affordable for people'.

'I think it's going to be a big tourist attraction for people coming to Ireland for holidays', he said.

Dr. Austin O'Sullivan, a former scientist at Johnstown Castle who was instrumental in setting up the Irish Agricultural Museum, also attended the information day.

Austin is still secretary of a company called the Irish Agricultural Museum and Johnstown Castle Ltd which is continuing as an entity.

He said the collection of artefacts in the museum, many of them donated, is the property of Johnstown Castle Ltd and can't be handed over to the Irish Heritage Trust which has a nine-year contract to run the castle, museum and gardens.

'I'm not too worried about the admission cost. The cost of everything has escalated to such a degree that the situation that pertained up to the present is out of date.

'It hasn't changed in that length of time. But I think there should be a rate for the local people who come here to walk and cycle.'

'The whole idea is to have the place opened up. It has a huge carrying capacity with many acres of grounds and three lakes. I think the whole story went off the rails through the internet. The problem is the place doesn't have the status of OPW entities, it doesn't have the funding. The alternative was to close up the whole place. It's being floated off as an independent entity and expected to be self-financing. The staff will have to be paid.

'The grant for the current work was once-off money. We can probably thank Brendan Howlin and Simon Coveney, as former Minister for Agriculture, for that. From now on, it will have to be self-financing', said Austin.

Retired Johnstown Castle employee Noel Morrissey described the new pricing system as 'totally disgraceful'.

'I worked here for 30 years. I was in charge of the grounds here. I put all the lights up in the grounds. We got the fountain re-done. Now I'm told I have to pay to come in here. I understand the current staff can come in free of charge but retired staff are being discriminated against, they have to pay. I think it's a disgrace. I can't believe that they are discriminating against the retired and older staff of Johnstown Castle', he said.

Phil Murphy and his wife Nuala live in Piercestown and often walk to Johnstown Castle from their home.

'I think it's going to be great but I think the charge needs a little bit of looking at', said Phil.

'I think they should have a garden pass for people who want to come here to walk, people who don't want to visit the museum or the interpretative centre everytime they come.'

Nuala said she thinks the increase is too much. 'It will put the locals off. I know a lot of older people who drive here and come in for a walk.'

'What is actually happening is very good. I wouldn't like to be negative about it. The opening of the lower lake is a terrific idea', said Phil. 'The whole thing will be wonderful when it's finished', added Nuala.

The Heritage Trust CEO Ms. O' Donoghue who worked in banking for many years, explained that Johnstown Castle Estate, Museum and Gardens has become an entity in its own right, after the Trust won a tender to manage the facility.

The Trust which also runs Fota House and Gardens in Cork and the National Famine Museum in Strokestown, County Roscommon is an independent not-for-profit charity which receives a certain amount of money from government.

Ms. O' Donoghue said the €7.5 million renovation project which is expected to be completed in early May, will create new jobs in Wexford. Applications for a new General Manager and Head Gardener were advertised last week and coordinators for visitor services, guided tours and volunteers will also be appointed.

Staff will be accountable to a steering committee comprised of representatives of Teagasc, the CEO of the Trust and other senior management.

'We don't expect one property to support another. The money that comes in here is for here' said the CEO. 'Membership is just one part of the financing. We will be applying for grants and would hope to be successful in getting additional government money. We will also be looking for corporate sponsorship from parties who would like to invest in Johnstown and philanthropic support'.

Asked about the possibility of a garden pass being introduced for local people who walk regularly in the grounds and may not want to visit the castle, Ms. O' Donoghue said the site has been developed to encourage a 'free flow' of activity and once you reach the restaurant and visitor centre through a newly-constructed entrance, your membership will give you full access to the museum, grounds and castle. 'The structure of the site doesn't lend itself to a garden pass', said the CEO, adding, however, that 'we will be closely monitoring and reviewing the data in relation to visitor usage of the site. A year down the line if your visitor numbers are way down, you have to say maybe there is something wrong with the model'.

'If we don't have money we can't develop the site and make it a reality. What I am most passionate about is sustaining it for the next generation.

'I want to see large numbers of people, families, enjoying the facility. There will be an ongoing programme of events. I hope to attract people to do more than just walk the gardens',she said.

The CEO is aware of the controversy over the increase in price. 'I am sorry people feel that way. What I would like is for people, over time, to come to appreciate the value of it'.

The strength of the opinions being expressed and the interest in the open day, are an indication of the regard people have for Johnstown, she said, and the aim of the Heritage Trust is to 'breath life back into what is already a wonderful place'.

'Everyone who turned up today did so because they care about the place and I respect that. I understand that some people are not happy about the increase but I hope we can convince them over time'

'We have to do the very best we can for people with limited resources', she said, adding that Teagasc will provide a measure of financial support in the short to medium term.

Wexford People

Most Read