Áras reborn? Study points to bright future for centre

Killarney renews calls for redesign of Áras Phádraig as feasibility study points to a viable future as multi-use arts and cultural space

By Dónal nolan

Killarney seems to have it all: a bustling tourism industry sparked by its majestic scenery and facilitated by numerous first-rate hotels, a brilliant nightlife and endless top-notch facilities.

But there's at least one thing Killarney doesn't currently have - and that's a space dedicated to the promotion of the local arts and voluntary community scene, complete with tiered auditorium and all the other trimmings you would expect of such a centre in our age.

Those waiting with bated breath on a positive outcome from a feasibility study launched earlier this year to look at the prospect of redeveloping the iconic building that provided just such an arts space into recent times - Áras Phádraig on the Lewis Road - reacted with cautious delight this week as the report was finally published.

Its finding: Getting Áras Phádraig back on its feet as a vibrant performing, exhibiting and meeting space is a definite runner.

The study, conducted by Exodea Consulting under a special project team assembled by the Killarney Municipal District Authority, comprised a public consultation that heard from numerous groups working in the arts, community voluntary, education and skills training sectors - each pressing the need for the return of Áras Phádraig.

Their hopes are closer to being realised this week as the study concludes that a 'multi-purpose' centre should be considered, one comprising the following core components:

A 300-seater community theatre and arts space, supported by rehearsal spaces, exhibition and gallery space and a café 'to create a vibrant creative hib for Killarney and its Municipal District;

Well-appointed meeting rooms to support a variety of community uses;

An educational space to allow for training and skills courses, tailored for the local business community in particular, and an office complex to 'suit the particular needs of Killarney town'.

This is not all pie-in-the-sky as the business plan undertaken in the feasibility projects - at a conservative estimate excluding arts grant revenue - the venture to be well in the black by year five; generating €429,000 while incurring operating costs of €378,000.

The building was donated to the town by the Franciscan Order in 2009, but due to legal complications has remained largely idle since (apart from some space at the rear being used by the Kerry Parents' and Friends' Association).

That wasn't always the case. "I remember it being built in the 1960s. It was such a vibrant place always, a wonderful space that really benefitted Killarney for decades," Dónal O'Dowd of the Dóchas Drama Group told The Kerryman.

"We used put on a play there a couple of times a year but it was regularly used too by music societies, classes were held there amid a whole lot of various activities, it was widely used too by martial arts schools. It was a very vibrant place indeed and when it was closed we were told it would only be for a few months to enable some rewiring, wheelchair access works and other jobs.

"We were expecting to get back in quickly and had even been given the use of space in the old Pretty Polly plant to store our props, but it never happened."

Like many of the other groups, Dóchas now has no venue to call its own. "The need for Áras Phádraig to be redeveloped now as an arts space is great. Killarney is at a great disadvantage without it," Mr O'Dowd added.

Kerry Independent Alliance County Councillor Michael Gleeson has championed the project along with his colleagues - now on the municipal district authority - for years.

He's calling for a complete rebuild as the building has been left deteriorate for too long.

Cllr Gleeson cites the experience of a niece of his in a demonstration of the need for a community theatre.

"Some years ago a niece of mine wrote a play which she wanted to put on in Killarney but it was a huge effort to eventually secure a venue.

"We depend on the goodness and the availability of the hotels in function rooms where the floor gradient does not lend itself to an optimal experience for performers or their audiences," Cllr Gleeson said.

Today's arts scene is a far cry from the councillor's youth: "I remember the Abbey Theatre Players performing in the old Town Hall and, more recently in Áras Phádraig, I remember Mícheál MacLiammóir performing in the old hall too, it was a great era for community entertainment and it would be wonderful to have it again.

"The arts in Killarney are very much suffering because of the lack of a proper space. That's why I welcome the findings of the study, but I'm calling for a complete rebuild. The Áras as it stands will have to be demolished because it has lain idle for so long and disintegrated. It might be better to develop a greenfield site and start anew and redevelop the whole site, taking in the car-park on the Lewis Road in the context of a new space that would really act as a thriving creative hub. It's the sensible thing to do."

"One thing we see from other similar ventures elsewhere is that these spaces inspire more and more locally to get involved in the arts and help build even more vibrant artistic communities, " Cllr Gleeson stated.

Kerryman

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