The news that the National 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy has been sold to a private developer caused an emotional response from members of the Municipal District Council at their monthly meeting last week.
Acting Director of Services, Carolyne Godkin, informed the members that a sale had been agreed on the centre. However, it has to be passed at a full meeting of Wexford County Council before it can be finalised.
Ms Godkin said the terms of the sale had been agreed within ‘the last couple of weeks’.
The members were told the prospective new owner plans to develop an exhibition centre based around the life of designer Eileen Grey at the site, in addition to a cafe.
The news was met with concern from some members, with Cllr Cathal Byrne being particularly vocal. He asked what will happen to the 1798 exhibition pieces that are currently in the centre.
‘We are removing the exhibition that is there and will look at trying to rehouse it in the castle,’ said Ms Godkin.
‘It’s 15 years old at this stage,’ she added.
However, Cllr Byrne expressed a desire to see the exhibition rehoused in a location where it could be exhibited to the public due to its historical significance.
Ms Godkin said the centre has been struggling for some time and that provision could be made in the castle for a small portion of the exhibition.
‘There is a national 1798 centre in Boolavogue as well so it’s not unique,’ she said.
Cllr Byrne said any sale should be dependent on guarantees that the existing 1798 exhibition will be suitably relocated and continue to be exhibited.
‘I could not support the sale of the 1798 centre without reassurances about where the exhibition is going,’ he said.
Ms Godkin said the number of visitors to the centre ‘didn’t cover the cost of the electric’.
‘Well I would like to see [proposals] as to where the exhibition could be relocated,’ said Cllr Byrne.
‘We are not looking at an alternative venue,’ replied Ms Godkin.
She pointed out that significant investment was made to the centre ‘a few years ago’, and we ‘just tried to tell the story in a unique and innovative way.’
‘It’s not going to an alternative venue,’ said Ms Godkin.
‘In my opinion it’s a strong town attraction and to make it part of a small exhibition in the castle is just not good enough,’ said Cllr Byrne.
Ms Godkin then said: ‘We are not rehousing it in another venue in the short term but in the long term.’
However, she said that a portion of the exhibition would be on view in the castle for the benefit of visitors to appreciate it.
Cllr John O’Rourke also expressed concern over the matter and said he concurred with Cllr Byrne’s views.
With regard to the 1798 Centre and artefacts he said ‘the people of Wexford gave donations’ and added: ‘They are all catalogued and stored below in Johnstown Castle.’
Cllr O’Rourke said people were contacted to have their name up on the wall in the 1798 Centre. ‘The people of Enniscorthy handed over their artefacts to the centre and now they’re buried down in Johnstown Castle.’
He went on to comment that the events of 1798 were too important for the exhibits to be stored away.
District Manager Ger Mackey said there was a missed opportunity with regard to the overall story of 1798.
‘I think there has been a missed opportunity with the whole story,’ he said.
‘I think there is an opportunity for another way of telling the story of 1798 and I think we should look at celebrating it in other ways,’ he added.
‘There is so much else that came from the battle and Vinegar Hill and that story has not been told.’
The Cathaoirleach, Cllr Kathleen Codd-Nolan, said visitors to the centre were left suitably impressed by what they saw.
‘People from other countries really loved it,’ she said.
However, Ms Godkin then commented: ‘The numbers just don’t stand up.’
Cllr Jackser Owens then suggested that having a 1798 Centre at the bottom of Vinegar Hill might be a more beneficial location.
‘I just wonder would it work if it was at the bottom of Vinegar Hill because that’s where it happened,’ he said.