Seanad Éireann - Volume 158 - 10 February, 1999
Adjournment Matter. - Architectural Heritage.
Mr. Glynn Mr. Glynn
Mr. Glynn: Uisneach in County Westmeath is one of the most eminent sites in the country and is steeped in tradition and history. The members of Westmeath County Council are interested in Dúchas acquiring the property. I understand negotiations to this end have been ongoing for so long that I, council members and people in Westmeath are losing patience. It is a pity that, when the property was for sale some time ago, Dúchas did not present itself as a potential purchaser. However, hindsight is very useful. Unfortunately, no decision was made and no agreement has been reached regarding the price of the site. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Cuív, would use his good offices to ensure the site is purchased and held in trust by Dúchas for the Irish people. I could speak for the next three to four hours and not repeat myself on why the site should be bought. However, the motion speaks for itself. Perhaps the Minister of State would indicate the up to date position.
Éamon Ó Cuív Éamon Ó Cuív
Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Éamon Ó Cuív): Cuireann sé áthas orm deis a bheith agam míniú don Seanad go díreach cé mar a sheasann cúrsaí maidir le Cnoc Uisnigh. I have every sympathy with the thrust of the motion tabled by Senator Glynn and I hope I can elaborate my position on this important national monument to his satisfaction.
There are numerous references to the Hill of Ushnagh in early Irish literature and annals. It is often referred to in early literature along with assembly sites such as Tara, Rathcroghan and Eamhain Macha. It is said the Hill of Ushnagh was an important assembly point in ancient days when the men of Ireland gathered on May Day. It was also said to have been the seat of King Tuathal Techtmhar who crossed the Shannon from Connacht in the 2nd century AD. He established a royal fortress there and the hill gave the title Rí Uisnig to the kings of Meath and western Meath down to Maelsechlainn who died in 1022. Brian Ború occupied the hill in 984 as a challenge to Maelsechlainn. The Cat Stone, a large natural boulder at the centre of a low circular enclosure, was regarded as the point where the five ancient provinces met. St. Patrick is said to have founded a church on the hill, and an important synod of the church was held there in the early 12th century AD.
Some of the sites were excavated in the 1920s, including a large bivallate conjoined ringfort with house sites and a souterrain in the interior and an ancient roadway leading to it. The excavations revealed that this site had a complex structural and functional history and underlying it were  traces of a ritual enclosure. I was on the top of the Hill of Ushnagh many years ago. My father was a historian and very involved in Celtic studies, and he brought us on tours of all these ancient monuments. Therefore, I have a good appreciation not only of the monument but also of the magnificent view from it of a large part of the country. It is almost as much as one would see from any hill of its height anywhere in the country. There are a large number of ancient monuments on the hill which include ringforts, enclosures, a hilltop lough, an ancient road and a multi-period composite enclosure.
At present all these monuments have legal protection as recorded monuments under section 12 (3) of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act, 1994. Under the Act, an owner or occupier of a recorded monument or place who proposes to carry out, or to cause or permit the carrying out of, any work at, or in relation to, such a monument or place is required to give the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands two months' prior written notice of any such intention. A person contravening those provisions shall be liable to severe penalties under the Act, the maximum penalty for offences being a fine of £50,000 and/or five years' imprisonment.
The Hill of Ushnagh is regarded as one of the most important archaeological landscapes in the country, and I fully share the Senator's view that there is a need to expedite the purchase of the site. To this end, I am pleased to inform him that negotiations were opened to acquire the core archaeological area of 115 acres in 1997. Unfortunately these negotiations proved very difficult and were compounded by the death of the previous landowner in mid-1998. The Lunestown Estate, comprising 520 acres including the core archaeological area referred to earlier, was sold at auction on 10 September 1998 as one lot to a local landowner.
Dúchas, the heritage service of my Department, has been actively negotiating the acquisition of the core area with the new landowner since then. A number of offers involving significant sums of money have been made by Dúchas for the property, but no agreement has been reached to date. However, I remain hopeful an agreement can be reached with the vendor soon to acquire this site strictly on the basis of a fair and reasonable price.
Assuming the State can get ownership of this site, it is the Minister's intention to improve its presentation to the public similar to many other heritage sites throughout the country by providing a quality service to its many visitors each year. If the hill is acquired, my Department will assess proposals for and develop interpretative material to contribute to the visitors' appreciation of its value to the national heritage.
I assure Senator Glynn that my Department is giving priority attention to the acquisition of the  site and I hope the matter can be resolved before very long. Táim cinnte go dtuigeann an Seanadóir é seo agus go bhfuil sé sásta leis an méid atá ráite. Le cúnamh Dé, tiocfar ar réiteach maidir le cean nacht an tsuímh. Nuair a bheidh sé sin déanta, beifear in ann dul ar aghaidh agus an chuid eile den obair a dhéanamh.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 11 February 1999.
Seanad Éireann 158 Adjournment Matter. Architectural Heritage.