PATIENCE, small steps, open the door one inch at a time. For the ordinary stakeholders in Newcastle West who want to see its towering medieval castle and banquet hall utilised more, platitudes have been the only tonic for years.
However, in the same way that tiny steps will take you around the world, the incremental work of local volunteers and business people is now turning the castle into more than just peripheral scenery.
Last Thursday, a small fashion show organised by style doyen Celia Holman Lee took place inside the castle’s banquet hall, which 600 years ago hosted feasts for the Earls of Desmond.
Peter Byrne, chairman of the Newcastle West chamber of commerce and a member of a small committee tasked with finding ways to open up the castle, said that opening the castle’s doors to such an unorthodox event is just the beginning.
“We want to use the castle to attract people into the town and do business. Most people fly through town, they don’t even know what’s there, and anybody who’s actually taken on a tour up town and around the square has been impressed.”
If it could speak, Newcastle West’s magnificent castle would probably found its current state of near-dormancy amusing, considering the centuries of life, drama and fire it has come to know.
It dates back to the late 13th century, when Norman invaders began building fortresses in the heart of Gaelic Munster, and since that time it has been burnt, besieged, torn down and rebuilt several times over.
Since it was taken into the care of the Office of Public Works (OPW) in 1989, the castle has undergone a multi-million euro restoration which has turned it into the finest medieval heritage site that no one knows about.
Mr Byrne and the committee want to see Newcastle West turn towards its castle, not away from it.
Last year, signs were erected at Lacey’s Cross town pointing traffic down Gortboy and towards the castle. It had an instant impact on the number of visitors whose curiosity was piqued.
My Byrne said that the committee then submitted a six point plan to OPW minister Brian Hayes for how they felt the castle could grow further.
“We were looking for a lot of things, and I found myself that when you go looking for a pile of things you end up getting none of them. Brian Hayes came down to see the castle, and he thought it was absolutely fantastic. He thought he was only going to be seeing a shell. He was very impressed.”
With a blanket demand for six measures likely to meet administrative gridlock, the committee decided to focus on the easiest and most effective item on the list: opening a new entrance to the castle grounds from South Quay.
Permission has now been given for the opening up of an old bricked-up doorway in the castle’s rear wall, with new signs to be erected at the bottom of Bridge Street.
The county council are to lay a new footpath between the entrance and the existing riverside walkway, with the entire endeavour expected to cost less than €4,000 and likely to be completed within a few months.
The greatest obstacle, however, remains the fact that the castle is only open for three months in the year.
One-off events, like this week’s fashion show, require all manner of checks and approvals from the OPW.
Mr Byrne said that while difficulties remain, the rewards for the castle and the town will be worth it.