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Hopes for Birr diaspora centre

Story by Karen Downey

Friday, 16th November, 2012 10:30am

Hopes for Birr diaspora centre

The proposed National Diaspora Centre at Birr Workhouse

There are hopes that a National Diaspora Centre could be established in Birr after a local group has made a submission to Fáilte Ireland to redevelop Birr Workhouse into such an attraction.

Project manager Brian Rafferty told the Offaly Independent this week that the idea came about after Finbarr McLoughlin, the owner of Birr Workhouse, had been considering what to do with the building. He had been looking into some ideas with Lord Rosse and then approached Brian to see what they could do.

Then on October 19 this year Fáilte Ireland sought submissions for a National Diaspora Centre that would be cost neutral to the state and the group put together a comprehensive submission for the Birr centre.

Brian said there has been a lot of competition from across the country with over 100 submissions, but he understands that the Birr proposal is being considered among the top ten.

The group's proposal to Fáilte Ireland states that it is bringing genealogy and fundraising expertise, facility provision and significant players to the team to deliver a serious proposal to Fáilte Ireland as part of a Public Private Partnership arrangement. The group said it would be requesting a licence to operate the project for an exclusive period.

The group is ready to go to planning with the proposal within months and states: "We are offering the site with a valid business opportunity with funds to government to enable this project to become a reality."

Owner of Birr Workhouse and the promoter of the project, Finbarr McLoughlin, has a significant track record in restoration and redevelopment of heritage properties in Ireland over the past 20 years, including the Headford Demense, Kells; Kilshane House in Tipperary and the Harbour Mill Quay in Westport.

The diaspora centre at Birr would contain multimedia, pictorial material, 3D models, hands-on activities, interactive reproductions, facilities for education, facilities for adults and children, a library and facilities for research.

The promoters of the project say points in favour of Birr include the fact that it is a very attractive small town with good tourist facilities already, including two hotels and restaurants; is home to Birr Castle Demense; is central and with good access to two motorways; there is a variety of landscape in the hinterland including eskers, bogland, mountains and rivers; the workhouse itself is pre-famine and has never been seriously altered and has excellent records and Birr has a number of historical associations.

The group also stated in its submission that it has the experience to deliver all the key components - the online resource, information facilities, research centre, exhibition, museum, attraction and entertainment - and will show how all of these components interact and deliver in terms of the experience and financial sustainability.

Local Fine Gael TD Marcella Corcoran Kennedy has welcomed the proposal. She said she had been in contact with the owner Finbarr McLoughlin in recent months and welcomed his willingness to explore the possibilities.

"I look forward to working with local organisations, Government Departments and Failte Ireland in this exciting project, however, I am careful not to raise expectations as there is a considerable work to be done and this project is just at proposal stage."

"Birr Workhouse is a building of significant interest to the diaspora and academics alike. It is a well preserved example of an 1800s Workhouse and has the potential to be developed as a cultural and tourist destination like Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin."

The group expects to know by the end of this month if it has been successful in its bid. A feasibility study on the selected location will then take place in December.

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