€10m plan to turn Doneraile into tourist mecca

A €10 MILLION plan to turn a stately mansion and its extensive grounds into a major tourist attraction rivalling the Rock of Cashel and Muckross House is to be discussed next month by Fáilte Ireland and the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The plan, which is the brainchild of the OPW and a community association, focuses on turning the historic Doneraile Court, in north Cork, into a tourist mecca.

Up to 100,000 peopleare estimated to visit the attraction each year, despite the fact there are no proper facilities there.

They come to look at the stately home, once the seat of Elizabethan power in Munster, and to walk its 400 acres of picturesque riverside grounds.

There are scenic walkways along the River Awbeg, which hold the chance to catch a glimpse of a resident deer herd and a children’s playground. Yet as the local community and minister of state with special responsibility for the OPW Brian Hayes recognise, this idyll is totally unexploited.

With the consent of the minister, who hopes a community/OPW model generated in Doneraile will become a national blueprint for exploiting potential tourists attractions, the Doneraile Development Association (DAA) has drawn up a plan which it hopes will turn the house and gardens into a real money-spinner.

Chairman Willie Hallihan said by adding restaurants and cafes, and opening some of the historic gardens 30 full-time, all-year-round jobs could be created, along with an additional 30 seasonal jobs.

Doneraile is steeped in history, as witnessed by the fact there are 200 boxes of archive files detailing its past at the National Library.

DAA secretary Michael O’Sullivan pointed out that even displaying some of these in one of the stately home’s extensive rooms would prove attractive.

The house was founded by the St Leger family in the mid-1640s, a time when “Doneraile became the centre of administrative and judicial power in Munster”, Mr O’Sullivan said.

The St Leger power became even stronger as the years progressed.

“In the peak (of the family’s fortune) in the early 1900s there were 90 gardeners alone working on the estate,” he said.

The house itself has been conserved and maintained to some extent, although more restoration is needed to make it a magnet for tourists.

The Irish Georgian Society, which owned the property prior to handing it over to the OPW four years ago, employed Fás to carry out preservative work.

While the house is a key focal point for visitors of the future, there are unique aspects to the land which DAA is keen to exploit.

“We have a historic garden cased specifically within five acres which dates back to at least the 1670s and possibly even earlier. It is the largest of its type in Ireland from that era and there wouldn’t be a lot of work needed to restore it,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

Mr Hallihan said the grounds could be turned into a veritable history celebrating the shifting story of horticulture over 200 years.

“Its extensive parklands were set out in Capability Brown-style. A lot of the produce from them during its peak production years was sent by train from Buttevant to Dublin,” he said.

The place is steeped in history.

Doneraile Court produced the first and only female Freemason in that male-dominated organisation. Approximately 400 years ago Elizabeth St Leger had to be initiated into the then secretive organisation after she was discovered hiding behind the curtains during a Freemason Lodge meeting in the house.

Doneraile is also synonymous with horse racing.

The word “steeplechase” was invented there following a bet in the 1740s between two landlords over who could ride faster between the spires of the churches in Buttevant and Doneraile.

Today, most people, even those not versed in the sport will know the race run annually as “the St Leger.”

The celebrated Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser lived in Doneraile, as did the author Canon Sheehan. Elizabeth Bowen, one of the 19th century’s greatest writers, lived just a few miles away.

Last weekend the town held a successful art and literary festival celebrating the work of these greats, among others.

According to Mr Hallihan, this is another facet of life which can spearhead the town’s drive for tourism, by celebrating them within a restored Doneraile Court and the adjoining town, the best example of a preserved 18th century Irish town.

“We believe that if the plan is adopted we can increase the number of visitors to Doneraile Court and Park to up to 300,000 a year, within the next five to seven years,” he said.

He believes this will prove attainable, especially considering 100,000 people visit the grounds every year.

“At the minimum we need to provide public toilets, restaurant, cafe, and a proper interpretive centre. The cost of upgrading would be extremely cheap when you look at the potential. It wouldn’t just benefit Doneraile but would provide additional bed nights at hotels and B&Bs in nearby Mallow and Charleville,” Mr O’Sullivan added.

Mr Hallihan said that Doneraile was ideally positioned, close to a number of main roads to capitalise on the passing tourist trade.

The NRA has agreed, after a long and hard battle with locals, to provide a slip road to connect Doneraile and Buttevant with the proposed new €180m M20 motorway which will link Cork and Limerick.

The town is just 35km from the M8 Cork-Dublin road and would attract visitors traversing between the Rock of Cashel, Muckross House and Fota House.

Doneraile has been described as “the jewel in the crown” of the Blackwater Valley, which stretches from Youghal to the Kerry border.

Cork County Council is backing the project, hoping for spin-offs for other attractions in the region. The local authority recently purchased Mallow Castle, which it hopes to turn into another tourist attraction.

Also backing the Doneraile project are Ballyhoura Development — an organisation that promotes tourism along the Cork/Limerick border — and the Mallow Area Partnership.

If Mr Hayes really does believe in community partnerships with groups such as the DAA being the way forward and if, as believed, Fáilte Ireland can come up with the necessary cash for such developments then the likes of Doneraile Court could soon become one of a new generation of tourism money-spinners.

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