Progress on the multi-million euro Inis Cealtra tourism project

Inis Cealtra or Holy Island on Lough Derg.
Inis Cealtra (Holy Island) on Lough Derg on the River Shannon in Co. Clare (courtesy of Dunphy Communications).

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In East Clare, a pioneering tourism endeavour is forging ahead with its vision to transform Mountshannon’s Old Rectory into a visitor centre for the holy island of Inis Cealtra. Backed by substantial government funding and strong community support, this project promises to revitalize the local area.

A groundbreaking tourism initiative in East Clare is taking its next big step forward with the recent signing of a contract to develop the Inis Cealtra (Holy Island) visitor centre. The medieval monastic island of Inis Cealtra near the west shore of Lough Derg will soon have its own visitor centre on the mainland nearby in the heart of Mountshannon village.

The Old Rectory – Inis Cealtra Visitor Experience

The Old Rectory in Mountshannon, which was acquired by Clare County Council in 2021, is poised for repurposing and expansion into a visitor and interpretative centre dedicated to exploring the history and archaeology of the island of Inis Cealtra. A historic building dating to 1905, the Old Rectory is listed in the Record of Protected Structures (RPS). This distinctive redbrick house commands a prominent position in the village overlooking the harbour and lake.

Old Rectory, Mountshannon, the new Inis Ceatra Visitor Centre.
The Old Rectory in Mountshannon, Co. Clare, is set to be transformed into the new Inis Cealtra Visitor Centre (source: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage © Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage).

The local authority has entered into a contractual agreement with the Ennis-based M. Fitzgibbon Contractors Ltd to transform this early 20th-century building into a dynamic exhibition space. There’ll be three exhibition areas, a reception area and an upstairs café in the refurbished building, while visitors will also have the freedom to enjoy the rectory garden. It is anticipated that the flagship visitor centre will be open to the public next year.

Pat Dowling, Chief Executive of Clare County Council, commented:

“Our ambition is to deliver an iconic visitor experience that raises the profile of the Lough Derg Region … [by] introducing one of Ireland’s most important and historically significant ecclesiastical sites to a national and international audience.”

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The island of Inis Cealtra

Strategically positioned on the River Shannon, the most important routeway in medieval Ireland, the early ecclesiastical settlement on Inis Cealtra, a 20-hectare island, was founded in about the 6th century AD. It is associated with several early saints and soon developed a focus for reliquary and penitential practices while forging links far afield, as reflected by finds of East Mediterranean and Gaulish pottery sherds. Excavations carried out in the 1970s revealed the rare survival of an earthen church, which probably dates to this early phase of occupation.

Holy Island, Lough Derg
Inis Cealtra, with St Brigid’s Church in the foreground and St Caimín’s Church and round tower in the background (© Irish Heritage News).

By the late 10th century AD, Inis Cealtra was entering the height of its prosperity. Most of its stone buildings, including four churches and its iconic round tower, as well as its high crosses and a remarkable collection of carved grave-slabs, date to the 11th and 12th centuries. By this time, Inis Cealtra had emerged as an important setting for royal and high-status burial. These centuries witnessed the Uí Bhriain (O’Briens) – the dynasty of Brian Boru, the high king of Ireland – invest heavily in the site. Excavation evidence from this period revealed extensive occupation, industrial and craftworking activity largely unknown outside the Hiberno-Norse port towns of the time.

Saints’ Graveyard, Inis Cealtra.
Saints’ Graveyard on Inis Cealtra (© Irish Heritage News). Visible in the photo are the ruins of the 12th-century Teampall na bhFear nGonta (Church of the Wounded Men) and rows of 11th- and 12th-century carved grave-slabs.

In the late medieval period, Inis Cealtra’s political significance waned, mainly due to the decline of Uí Bhriain dominance. However, the island solidified its status as a pilgrimage destination during this time and into the modern period. Inis Cealtra was a renowned pilgrimage site not only locally but also throughout Europe. The island has also continued as a place of burial for locals into the present day.

Remaining uninhabited for centuries, Inis Cealtra boasts exceptional preservation levels, having evaded modern development. Its archaeological monuments were entrusted to the care of the State in 1869, with Clare County Council purchasing the remainder of the island in 2015. The whole church site is designated a national monument, while more than 200 individual monuments on the island are listed in the Record of Monuments and Places (RMP).

Inis Cealtra was included in the 2010 UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List for Ireland as part of a serial nomination for early medieval monastic sites featuring Glendalough, Kells, Clonmacnoise and Durrow. In 2021, Inis Cealtra was again nominated, but this time as a standalone nomination. Regrettably, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage concluded that, despite its significant heritage value, Inis Cealtra did not sufficiently demonstrate potential “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV). This decision represented a significant setback for East Clare.

>>> RELATED: New sites added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List for Ireland

Inis Cealtra remains, however, an unparalleled, authentic embodiment of the uniquely Irish expression of early medieval monasticism, boasting an array of iconic elements that few other Irish sites can rival.

Funding and plans

Clare County Council Chief Executive Pat Dowling noted the importance of government support in making the Inis Cealtra Visitor Experience venture a reality. The ambitious project, which encompasses the transformation of the Old Rectory alongside wastewater optimization measures and enhancements to public areas in Mountshannon, has secured a substantial €4,290,765 in funding from the Department of Rural and Community Development through RRDF 1 Category funding, while Clare County Council is committed to providing an additional 20% of funds.

Round tower and St Caimín’s Church on Inis Cealtra.
Round tower and St Caimín’s Church on Inis Cealtra (© Irish Heritage News).

The local authority is dedicated to improving wayfinding infrastructure and public car parking facilities in the village, upgrading Mounshannon Harbour, providing better mooring facilities on Inis Cealtra, creating better access between the mainland and the island, upgrading the island’s pathways, and enhancing interpretation of its heritage. All of these plans will be submitted to An Bord Pleanála in the first half of 2024.

Deirdre O’Shea, Clare County Council Head of Tourism, commented:

“This project seeks to conserve Inis Cealtra as a significant historical, ecclesiastical, archaeological and cultural site; as well as expand its attractiveness as a sustainable tourism destination and, in so doing, address population decline and rural deprivation by providing social and economic benefits derived from tourism for East Clare and the wider Mid-West region.”

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Cathaoirleach of Clare County Council, Cllr Joe Cooney, also remarked on the substantial benefits to the people of Clare:

“This landmark visitor attraction will complement the Local Authority’s ongoing work to establish and promote all of County Clare as an all-year-round destination. The project has received enormous support from the local community due to the social and economic potential of the project for the village [of Mountshannon] and wider East Clare area.”

The Inis Cealtra Visitor Experience team

In 2016–17, Clare County Council commissioned a comprehensive visitor management and sustainable tourism development plan for Inis Cealtra by a team of archaeologists, conservation architects, ecologists, tourism and planning consultants, and engineers. It calculated the maximum threshold of visitor numbers and daily capacity limits that the island could accommodate without posing a risk to the archaeological monuments. The plan also included a condition survey of the island’s buildings, as well as outlining threats and mitigation measures which supported a phased and cautious approach to all conservation efforts.

Early medieval high crosses and cross-slabs on Inis Cealtra.
Early medieval high crosses and carved stones stored in St Caimín’s Church on Inis Cealtra (© Irish Heritage News).

Out of this plan was born the Inis Cealtra Visitor Experience project – a collaborative effort involving Clare County Council, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands (Fáilte Ireland), Waterways Ireland, the OPW, the National Monuments Service, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Leonard Cleary, Director of Tourism Development with Clare County Council, noted the role of elected representatives and locals in propelling the project forward and emphasized the collaborative ethos of the project:

“Working with colleagues in neighbouring Local Authorities of Galway and Tipperary and with Waterways Ireland as well as Fáilte Ireland, we are confident this project will be a key catalyst project within both the Shannon Tourism Masterplan and Lough Derg Destination Experience Development Plan.”

As work commences at the Old Rectory in Mountshannon, a multidisciplinary team of experts has been recently assembled to drive this milestone tourism project forward. It includes McCullough Mulvin Architects, Tobin Consulting Engineers (quantity surveyors/project managers), Tandem Partners Ltd (interpretation/visitor experience designers), in addition to sub-consultants, including Malachy Walsh and Partners (civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineering and ecology), Mitchell and Associates (landscape architects), Aegis Safety Management (project supervisor design process), Archaeological Projects Ltd (archaeologist), McCutcheon Halley (planning and environment consultant), Amion Consulting Ltd (business planning services), Design Works (brand strategy and identity), and Cognisense Ltd (market research services).

Contract signing for the Old Rectory – Inis Cealtra Visitor Experience project.
Contract signing for the Old Rectory – Inis Cealtra Visitor Experience project at Áras Contae an Chláir in Ennis, Co. Clare (© Brian Arthur courtesy of Dunphy Communications). Back row L–R: Brendan Costelloe (McCullough Mulvin Architects), Aldo Andreucetti (General Design Office, Clare County Council), Thomas MacKey (Tobins Consulting Engineers), Joan Tarmey (Tourism Officer, Clare County Council), Leonard Cleary (Director of Tourism Development, Clare County Council), Deirdre O’Shea (Head of Tourism, Clare County Council), Stephen Hanley (General Manager, Clare Tourism Development East) and Brian McCarthy (Senior Planner and Co-ordinator, Killaloe Municipal District). Front row L–R: Michael Fitzgibbon (Contractor), Cllr Joe Cooney (Cathaoirleach, Clare County Council), Cllr Pat Hayes (Leas Cathaoirleach, Killaloe Municipal District) and Valerie Mulvin (McCullough Mulvin Architects).

Despite recent setbacks in UNESCO designation, the commitment of Clare County Council, coupled with government support and the collective efforts of experts and the local community, should guarantee the preservation and promotion of Inis Cealtra’s unique historical value as the island is developed as a sustainable tourism destination. 

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