THE historic Gowran Castle is on the verge of total destruction after a raging fire tore through the main house, gutting the ground and first floors and collapsing the floor down into the cellar.
The alarm was raised at 6.50am on May 16 by a local man who saw fire bellowing from the castle which is a listed building. Two fire trucks attended the scene and brought the fire under control within an hour.
The cause of the fire is not yet known but angry local residents say they have been warning the authorities that something like this would happen at the derelict castle for months now.
Gowran Development Association chair John Connolly said the fire came 'within minutes' of spreading to the roof of the castle which would have spelled its total destruction.
"The fire was headed to the roof when the floor collapsed into the cellar which was a blessing because there was not a lot of combustible material down there," Mr Connolly said.
The castle, which is located in the centre of town, is owned by a Northern Ireland-based development company which 'abandoned' the estate after being refused planning permission to develop the site, according to locals.
The Jackson Group was refused permission to build 154 units by Kilkenny County Council in 1999 and nothing has been done to maintain the site or buildings since, Mr Connolly said.
"The Gowran Development Association and the people of Gowran are very concerned at the rapid deterioration of this building and the gate lodge. We believe more needs be done to protect the Castle, the Gate Lodge and the architectural heritage of this area," he said. "Unfortunately the buildings have further deteriorated and the recent fire has only confirmed our fears. The owners who are outside of this jurisdiction and live in Northern Ireland have totally neglected these protected structures and allowed them to deteriorate from habitable dwellings to derelict sites in a relatively short period of time. The castle is totally neglected and, sadly, nothing has been done. It's a very, very poor state of affairs."
Kilkenny County Council committed to pursuing the Jackson Group for a duty of care to the castle and gate lodge and the owner was asked to undertake minimal repairs to prevent entry to the buildings, cover the windows and doors and repair the roof before a date in March, but no work was done before the deadline. The Development Association is now pressing for the council to carry out the work itself.
"This is not just a heritage issue, it's become a health and safety issue now as well," Mr Connolly said. "Someone could easily get in there and hurt themselves. We're at the stage now where something has to be done and we want work done to secure the castle immediately. This has gone beyond the rights of legal ownership. The local community has a right to preserve their heritage and that should count for something. It is ironic that invaders outside of Ireland like Edward Bruce and Cromwell burned previous castles on this site and now that we are in control of our own destiny we are allowing the Castle to be burned by not taking stronger measures to protect it."
Gowran Castle, which was built between 1816 and 1819 by Viscount Clifden, is the former seat of the Kings of Ossory and the Butlers of Ormonde. It has been in private ownership for many years and was bought by the Jackson Group in the mid to late 1990s from James and Mary Moran, who had acquired the estate in the late 1950s.
"It is a very important part of the history of Gowran, Kilkenny and all of Ireland," Mr Connolly said.
Mr Connolly said the castle had a beautiful interior architecture which was being destroyed because all the windows and doors had been smashed in and that some of the interior furnishings, including the original marble fireplaces, had been looted. The castle previously had 24 hour security, but for the past 10 years had been left in a 'progress of dereliction'.
"Holes started to appear in the roof which let the water in and pipes are leaking, so because water is now able to penetrate the building it has damaged the flooring and the beautiful plaster work," he said. "There's absolutely no protection from the elements and anyone can just wander in and out, including the wildlife. And the upper floor, which holds the ballroom which many local people would remember from the lovely parties held there, has collapsed completely."
The issue of the castle's dereliction was brought up at a November meeting to discuss the Gowran Local Area Plan and the Development Association also met with Ministers John Gormley and Mary White.
Kilkenny County Councillor Ann Phelan said she felt for the people of Gowran who were just trying to preserve their heritage and dealing with an absentee landlord.
"The residents are very upset. There is huge concern by local people," she said. "Residents feel the owners of the estate are not complying with dereliction laws because works given under a timescale by the council were not carried out. Gowran Castle is a landmark in Gowran, it's a part of the local history and residents want to see it preserved. The developer bought it with the intention of putting in lots of houses but now nothing will be done with it and it's a difficult situation with the owner living outside the jurisdiction of the council."
Cllr Phelan said the council was planning to carry out a survey of the estate to assess the damage and work out what needed to be done. "They are also working through the legislation to ascertain what powers they do have," she said. "The Dereliction Act is very weak in my opinion. It confers power to the county council but doesn't give them the resources to do anything with that power. But all is not lost. The council are being quite proactive on this one."