Confusion reigns over the future of Muckross Traditional Farms after the Department of Heritage failed to respond to key queries put to it by The Kerryman yesterday.
This newspaper posed additional questions to the Department after it announced on Tuesday afternoon that the Farms would "remain open".
This appeared to contradict what the Board of Trustees revealed last week, that the award-winning farm would close indefinitely from September 1. From now until then, the farm would remain open on a limited capacity, the Board had said.
"Muckross Traditional Farms is a commercial venture run by the Trustees of Muckross House," a Department spokesperson told this newspaper.
"We are working with the Trustees of Muckross House in that regard and the question of redundancies does not arise at this time. We can confirm that the Traditional Farm will remain open to visitors."
Later in its statement, the Department also said: "The day-to-day operation of Muckross House is run by the Trustees and all matters in relation to their staff should be addressed to them."
The Kerryman then asked the Department a number of follow-up queries to clarify these points. We asked would the farm remain open beyond September 1, and would it be open in summer 2021.
We asked the Department to clarify what it meant by "the question of redundancies does not arise at this time", querying whether the redundancies would arise at a later stage.
We also asked the Department how it could confirm that the question of redundancies does not arise when it also acknowledges that "all matters in relation to" staff are controlled by the trustees, not the Department.
At the time of going to print, the Department had not responded to these follow-up queries.
The Kerryman made several attempts to contact Minister Brendan Griffin TD and the Board of Trustees on Tuesday.
Late last week the Board of Trustees announced potential job losses at Muckross Farm which they said they had no choice but to close later this year 'indefinitely'.
While the tourism product of Muckross House is not directly under threat, the 18-strong Board of Trustees of Muckross House said on Monday that the farms will close from September 1.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees Micheál Ó Coileáin said it would be "reckless" to keep the facility open in the wake of Covid-19 income losses and a significant fall in the number of tour buses which the facility, which showcases pre-electrification 1930s style properties and practices, is heavily reliant on.
"We will remain open until the end of August to accommodate the Irish tourist season but it will be limited and free of charge. We will then close indefinitely and we are likely to see seven or eight redundancies," he added.
A subcommittee of seven members of the main board was set up to examine the situation at Muckross Traditional Farms and staff were informed last week that there will be job losses.
Trustees said a process will now follow, examining all options including shorter days and reduced hours.
"We're trying to keep job losses under 10," Mr Ó Coileáin continued. "Our biggest worry is next year and the year after. We have some resources but if they are not adequate we would be broke and have to close all the premises - 75 per cent of our income is gone. It would be reckless and not prudent to run it like always.
He said that trustees hope to open in the future under a different model.
While the Government provided significant funding to develop the tourist attraction alongside Muckross House - and is still the main source of funding for any capital works - trustees said they run the business and like any business must examine the books.
The wage costs according to the board of trustees is €2.5m annually for approximately 90 staff. The current reserves available to the trustees is €2.3m but Mr Ó Coileáin said that this will be depleted this year which is why the decision is being taken. Reserves are also used for capital projects at the Muckross complex including the house, he added.
Mr Ó Coileáin said that of the €7.5m income generated last year on the site, approximately €500,000 of this was profit.
"Wages along with day-to-day running of the farm and crafts and maintenance costs drain much of the funds raised," he added.
Meanwhile, on Monday Junior Minister Brendan Griffin, who was not informed of the closure directly and only heard of the move through the media, said that the Department cannot step in and help as the trustees are a separate entity. However, he said the state can assist in other ways. "I see this as a very important attraction and I am keen to see how the state can assist," he said.
However, Mr Ó Coileáin claimed that it is not possible to seek direct support from the State as the trustees do have reserves.
"The arrangement allows the trustees to run the business with the permission of the state. If the company became insolvent the state could step in and take over. We have reserves for one year but next year we would have poor reserves ... Our plan is to stabilise the company financially ... we cannot leave it too late."
He added that the financial implications of Covid will not just be felt this season but for the forseeable future and argued that the board was being 'prudent' in making the decision now.
Muckross Traditional Farms are part of the world famous Muckross visitor attraction in the heart of Killarney National Park.
Muckross House, however, is run by the Department of Heritage and Culture and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and no job losses will come into effect at the house.
The trustees are responsible for the Muckross Traditional Farm which includes the old schoolhouse and traditional craft industries at Muckross, including the book-binding and blacksmith, the shop and restaurant. The project was set up originally as an all-encompassing experience, one that would ultimately keep tourists in the Killarney region for an extra half a day.
This agreement was put in place in the 1960s when the Department granted a license to the Trustees of Muckross House (Killarney) ltd, a charitable and voluntary organisation, to run the Muckross tourist attraction.
The trust is responsible for all wages as well as maintenance costs and for funding of projects at the Muckross tourist attraction.
There are up to 90 wages being paid by the trustees which include full-time, part-time and seasonal staff. There are around 30 full-time and part-time staff. The trustees have begun talks this week with affected staff. While there could be as many as 10 full-time job losses, a number of part-time and/or seasonal employees will also be affected.
According to Fáilte Ireland's list of popular visitor attractions in Ireland Muckross House, Gardens and Traditional Farm boasts more than 550,000 visitors a year.
However, many of those only visit the gardens for free. The official visitors figures for the farm is around 70,000 to 80,000 annually.
Opened in May 1993, Muckross Farm features a number of old-style farm-houses featuring various crafts like bread-making.
The size of these houses is one of the reasons why the farm cannot open fully this year and also why, it was claimed, the decision was made to close as social distancing cannot be maintained in these attractions.