The proposed sale of the National 1798 Rebellion Centre in Enniscorthy to a private developer is not going ahead, according to senior figures within the local authority.
Sources revealed the news to this newspaper late on Wednesday and the outgoing Cathaoirleach of Enniscorthy Municipal District Council, Cllr Kathleen Codd-Nolan, confirmed the news Thursday morning.
News of the proposed sale had led to over 5,000 people signing an online petition calling on the council to reverse the decision and, reacting to this latest development, Cllr Codd-Nolan said: '1798 flows deep in our veins and I hope people will continue to support the centre.'
She also commented recently that any feedback she received regarding the centre and the 1798 exhibition was that people 'loved it' and thought it was excellent.
Other councillors also expressed satisfaction at the news the centre will not be sold, for now.
Cllr Jackser Owens said it was a case of 'people power' in action.
'I welcome the news. This is about people power,' he said. 'There were over 5,000 signatures on the petition.'
With regard to what the next move should be, he said there should be an open week at the centre to encourage people from around Wexford and beyond to visit it.
'I think there should be a free open week so that people can go and judge it for themselves,' he said.
'I would like to see the council invite RTE down to showcase it to the entire country through something like Nationwide,' he added.
Cllr Owens also suggested schools should be invited to visit the centre and consideration should also be given to running buses from Vinegar Hill to the centre and vice-versa.
Cllr John O'Rourke expressed his satisfaction at the decision and said: 'I'm glad the officialdom in the county council came to their senses.'
Acknowledging that numbers in the centre were dwindling, he said the only way around that will to being the centre to the fore and to look for funding from the Department of Heritage and the Gaelteacht.
'From a tourism position, we need a plan to sell it [as a tourism product] to every county in Ireland and outside of the country,' said Cllr O'Rourke.
He said it's important to be able to walk people through the history that occurred in 'our town and county'.
He suggested a strong tourism package should be developed between the 1798 Centre, Enniscorthy Castle, Vinegar Hill, Oulart Hill and the Fr Murphy Centre in Boolavogue.
'I think that is the way forward,' he said.
Cllr Barbara-Anne Murphy said a permanent place is needed to remember the people of 1798, however, she is not sure if the current centre is the ideal location.
'Unfortunately, it has not been a popular centre for people to visit from outside the county,' she said. 'It's the wrong place and it would possibly be better not to move it until we have somewhere to move it to.'
Cllr Murphy then suggested a better location might at Vinegar Hill itself.
'It should be as close to the hill as possible,' she said, citing an example of how such an interpretive centre can work very well being the Cliffs of Moher.
'The visitor centre there is not intrusive at all,' she said.
'Our offering in the 1798 centre is excellent but unfortunately it's not a place that people visit,' she added.
Cllr Murphy also said that some of the issues, especially around things like equality, are as relevant now as they were over 200 years ago.
'There is a tourism offering around the history of Enniscorthy that people might be more open to at the hill. Maybe we should also be marketing it on equality, internationally,' she said.
'We could have a passive type building there too that would work with the landscape of the area,' said Cllr Murphy.
Deputy James Browne also welcomed the news that the centre is not to be sold.
'I'm glad plans to sell the National 1798 centre have been scrapped. Enniscorthy and County Wexford's rich history boasts many ties to the 1798 rebellion. It would have been a shame to see the closure of the centre,' he said.
He went on to express hope that the decision not to sell the centre will now lead to implementation of a plan to refocus efforts on promoting the facility.
'As our National Centre dedicated to preserving and commemorating the history of the 1798 Rebellion, now is the right time to put a plan in place that will re-imagine how we promote this important part of our county, and country's, history,' said Deputy Browne.
Cllr Aidan Browne expressed delight that the sale didn't take place.
'I think it's time now to look at the centre and see how it can be developed because the legacy of 1798 needs to be maximised,' he said.
'We need to have a good look at it and develop a better overall attraction and look at ways of making it more relevant in how we present it,' he said.
'I think we need to make it more interactive and now is the time to look at it because it's become very topical and the moment,' he added.
'We need to look at how we can enhance it and just make it more relevant to the time we are now in.'
Cllr Cathal Byrne was one of the most vocal councillors in terms of his opposition to the proposed sale of the centre. He expressed relief that the local authority had withdrawn from negotiations and that the sale will not now proceed.
He said the proposal to sell the centre at this month's meeting of the local authority came like 'a bolt out of the blue'.
'I spoke strongly against the proposal [and] it contained no plans for what would happen to the existing exhibits,' said Cllr Byrne.
He highlighted the fact that many of the exhibits were donated by local Enniscorthy people in the belief they would be put on permanent public display.
'The proposal [to sell] was met with shock by the entire Enniscorthy community,' Cllr Byrne told this newspaper.
'I have been inundated with constituents dismayed, in shock, at the proposal and over 5,000 people signed a petition calling upon Wexford County Council not to proceed with the sale,' he added.
Cllr Byrne said selling the centre would have been 'a hammer blow' to the town at the worst possible time of the year.
'Each year, thousands of tourists visit Enniscorthy to see Vinegar Hill and go to the 1798 Centre,' he said.
The knock-on effect on jobs in the town of Enniscorthy of a closure of the 1798 Centre would have been huge, he added.
Highlighting that tourists are vital for the town, particularly in light of the difficulties caused by Covid-19, Cllr Byrne said the importance of the 1798 centre was recognised in Wexford County Council's submission to the Regional Spatial & Economic Strategy for the Southern Region.
'It never made sense to try to sell it,' he said.
Cllr Byrne is now calling on Wexford County Council to put together a comprehensive plan and investment package to secure the future of the centre.