JOHNSTOWN Castle, the once proud and beautiful Gothic-revival style castle in Co Wexford, will form the backdrop to one of the world's leading opera festivals this summer - but the Government has allowed one of the finest example of Norman heritage in Ireland to fall into disrepair.
As dry rot, woodworm, damp, and leaks from the flat roof persist, Minister of State Tom Parlon and the Office of Public Works have withdrawn from an ambitious tourism project which was to save the castle.
The former Noble Mansion, which was occupied for one night by Oliver Cromwell, was once a centre of land-owning power and wealth in Wexford. But now the new venue for the world-famous Wexford Festival Opera is quickly becoming a General Election issue in the south east, with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visiting the famous castle last Friday.
Fortunately for Co Wexford, the only female politician on the General Election ticket in the Model County is making a stand for the celebrated landmark.
Fianna Fail favourite Lisa McDonald, whose grandparents once lived on the sprawling estate, has lashed out at Minister Parlon for not restoring the castle to its former glory, or even maintaining it.
"If Johnstown was in Minister Parlon's constituency, it would be restored and opened up to the public," McDonald said. "The castle and grounds is a sleeping giant in tourism terms, one that needs to be awakened."
The castle, which was refurbished and extended for the Grogan family in 1810, recently suffered a leaking roof and associated problems. And though the leak was fixed, the state of the historic building is a serious cause for concern.
Johnstown, run as an agricultural research centre since it was handed over to the State in 1944, has been empty for the past two years after its remaining employees were moved to a research laboratory on the Piercestown estate. Under the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College Act (1945), the Department of Agriculture and Teagasc were given responsibility for the castle and the 400-acre estate.
Dr Noel Culleton, head of the Johnstown Castle environment research centre, said that the Office of Public Work's decision not to proceed with the project was made because the 1945 Act was too restrictive and Minister Parlon couldn't take it over to develop it for tourism.
"We fix problems as they arise," Dr Culleton said. "We feel very strongly that we have a duty of care to the castle.
The Wexford Opera Festival is moving to the Johnstown estate while the Festival's usual home, the Theatre Royal in Wexford town, is being refurbished.
© Sunday Independent