THE buildings and grounds of Johnstown Castle in Co Wexford, are home to a Teagasc research centre for soils and the rural environment, is the location of the Irish Agricultural Museum and has 400 hectares estate of farm land, forestry, parkland and lakes.
Now the heritage and tourism potential of the site is set to be boosted with a €7.5m proposed development involving Teagasc, who own the Castle on behalf of the State, the Irish Heritage Trust and the Agricultural Museum.
Funding of €5m is available for the major conservation project through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and a request for €2.5m funding is being considered by the Failte Ireland board.
Development work will take place in five zones, the castle, pleasure grounds, walled garden, a stable yard and farm, and a lower lake.
Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, who recently launched the project, said it will significantly contribute to Ireland’s tourism offering, particularly to Ireland’s ‘Ancient East’.
The development aims to make Johnstown Castle the most visited attraction in the South East of Ireland and to greatly increase the amount of pleasure which people, from Ireland and abroad, obtain from the buildings and grounds of Johnstown Castle.
“For the first time, the Castle itself will be opened to the public to visit. It’s important to preserve such an historic building to a high standard for future generations to enjoy their heritage,” he said.
Minister Howlin said international research has identified that on average two thirds of the money spent on a visit to a heritage attraction is spent outside of the property in the local area. As a direct result restaurants, cafés, hotels and shops, for example, enjoy additional custom.
“This ‘heritage motivator’ produces substantial economic-impact for the local area and is the real and measurable impact of activity generated by an important heritage property,” he said.
Mr Howlin praised Teagasc for taking the lead on this project which is outside its research, advisory and educational remit.
It will benefit not only the built heritage of Johnstown Castle itself but will also contribute to an enjoyable cultural and tourism experience for visitors from Wexford, Ireland and abroad and at the same time contribute to the local economy, he said.
The project will be progressed in two phases, developmental and operational. It is proposed that the Irish Heritage Trust will act as the project managers during the two years of the developmental phase and will afterwards operate the centre under licence.
Minister Howlin said Failte Ireland development plans have historically prioritized an integrated approach towards tourism development.
These highlighted that “sensitive landscapes need more state investment,” with priority being given to the development of cultural heritage experiences that have an international appeal.
“Johnstown Castle fits neatly with their objectives and I would like to acknowledge and note their involvement and support for this project over the past number of years,” he said.
Teagasc chairman, Dr Noel Cawley, said the original Johnstown Castle was built by the Esmonde family who had come to County Wexford from Lincolnshire in the wake of the Anglo-Norman Invasion in 1169.
Ownership changed many times in the intervening years before it was gifted to the State and set up and run as a horticultural college from 1945 to 1960 and subsequently for agricultural research.
“Over the last 20 years, Teagasc’s environmental research work has been transferred into purpose built laboratories and office facilities leaving the Castle itself available for this exciting new development,” he said.
Teagasc director, Professor Gerry Boyle said the development phase of the project will run from this autumn to mid-2017. An application for planning permission is expected to be submitted early next year to Wexford County Council.
“We will be tendering for the major components of the work with a view to commencing construction in the third quarter of next year. Work has already started on developing pathways to open up the lower lake for visitors to enjoy,” he said.
The estate itself covers 250 hectares of farmland and another 150 hectares of forestry, parkland, and lakes. Ornamental grounds and gardens surrounding the 19th century Castle were designed by Daniel Robertson,who is famed for the gardens at Powerscourt in Co Wicklow.
Johnstown Castle grounds have over 200 varieties of trees and shrubs, Gothic towers, a sunken Italian garden, waterfalls and statues The Irish Agricultural Museum is housed in the former farm buildings. It was started by Dr Austin O’Sullivan in the early 1970s to preserve material evidence relating to agriculture and rural life in general in Ireland.
A company in the form of a non-trading co-operative was incorporated in 1976 to further the aims of the museum. These are to generate a holistic approach to the history of Irish agriculture, encompassing all aspects of farming and rural life ranging from working the land to running the household.
The museum occupies around 1,600 square metres of gallery space and attracts around 10,000 paying visitors per annum.
It has a large collection of restored tractors, carts, ploughs, threshing machines, stationary engines and dairy equipment.
The museum also features recreated workshops of traditional trades including those of blacksmiths, coopers and wheelwrights.