Public access to Dowth World Heritage site after €11m sale

by Caroline O'Doherty - published in the Irish Independent 30th September 2023

Megalithic Meath landmark bought by State to be turned into park

As a child, Gary McCloskey played hide-and-seek in an old tunnel at the back of his grandmother's house. Neither he nor his Granny Ita had any idea his giggles were echoing down a megalithic passage tomb built 5,500 years earlier.

The tomb was beneath the conservatory of Dowth Hall, the Georgian country house that the late Ita Pidgeon called home up to the early 2000s. It's just one of the remarkable features of the house and surrounding estate that the public will be able to enjoy after the Government bought the entire 550-acre property to turn into a national park.

Provisionally named the Boyne Valley National Park, the Co. Meath demesne falls within the Brú na Bóinne Unesco World Heritage site which is home to the passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

Bordered by the Boyne River, it has rolling hills of grassland and woods; lodges, stables, walled gardens, a Victorian manor and potentially many more ancient treasures underground. "We would have come up here at weekends and played in the trees and in the river and in what we now know were archaeological treasures," said Mr McCloskey.

"The house was brilliant for kids too because it has a basement and three floors, although Gran wouldn't let us too far into some of the rooms with our muddy feet." Now 40 and working with a pharmaceutical company in Dublin, Mr McCloskey said he was delighted the State had bought his childhood playground.

"It's definitely the right thing to have it in public ownership. I have three children of my own now and we'll be coming out here to enjoy it - it's great that it will be open to everyone," he said.

Possibly unknown to themselves, the wider public may have already had a sneak preview as Dowth Hall was the setting for the 1999 film, The Last September. Based on a John Banville novel and executively produced by Neil Jordan, it starred Michael Gambon, who died this week, and Maggie Smith.

The property was owned for the last decade by Devenish Nutrition, the animal feed company which used the lands as a research farm. They put it on the market earlier this year and the State bought it for €11m, although it will cost much more to turn it into a public amenity.

A masterplan will be drawn up over the next two years and Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien said he expected some public access would be possible then, with the full grounds to open up gradually afterwards.

Heritage Minister Malcolm Noonan said agricultural research would continue on site, with the emphasis on nature friendly farming. "It will be a unique national park for Ireland. You can trace the country's first farmers to this area 6,000 years ago," he said.

Ciara McMenamin, a neighbour of Dowth Hall, recalled many chats with the Pidgeons over the years in their humbly kept palace. "It was always beautiful, but it's hard to keep a place like this," she said, looking at the intricate plasterwork adorning the soaring ceilings.

"You'd be brought in by the big fireplace and they'd be delighted to see you. They loved seeing people coming. I think they'd be glad to know there'll always be people here now."

Niall O'Donnchu, director general of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, said the estate was already supporting a rich diversity of habitats and wildlife including endangered birds, kingfisher, otter, voles and red deer. "It has these incredible layers of natural woodlands mixed with pastureland. It has a symphony of habitats and natural heritage," he said.

The new national park will be the country's seventh, and the second in Leinster alongside Wicklow Mountains National Park.

Dowth World Heritage Site

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