Jordan Norris

The Lafcadio Hearn Japanese Gardens in Tramore will remain in Council ownership after a vote from councillors to change the terms of the lease at the March Plenary meeting of Waterford City & County Council.

Many councillors expressed grievances that while members of the public were being charged for entry to the facility, Tramore natives were able to access the gardens for free on occasion.

Cllr. Jim Griffin (Sinn Féin) said that he had extensive briefings with the team at the Japanese Gardens in the past week and queried whether the matter could be ‘pushed out’ so that questions on the gardens could be answered by Agnes Aylward, who Cllr. Griffin said was willing to speak with councillors.

Cllr. Joe Kelly (Independent) said that the gardens have gone from being a ‘dilapidated dump’ to ‘the jewel in the crown’ of Tramore. He supported keeping the gardens in Council ownership, and said that the gardens are ‘a real success story’.

“Although concerns are felt, I don’t believe they stack up to very much at all. This is an actual good news story and needs to be reported as nothing otherwise. We need to get on with business as was recommended by Kieran Kehoe and his team.”

Cllr. Declan Clune (Independent) said that the debate had gone slightly off the point. He said that he took offence with Cllr. Kelly calling the gardens ‘a dump’.

“No one is criticising the work put in by Tramore Development Trust. That doesn’t come into question. I’m not objecting to this on principle – I would just like to seek clarity on a few matters. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. What harm can it do defer this by a month and get a better picture of things? I take offence with Cllr. Kelly calling Tramore House a dump. He’s clearly never been out there. The place was fabulous. A little bit of anti-social behaviour is not unusual
in any area. He clearly hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about and it’s very offensive to the people of Tramore.”

Cllr. Davy Daniels (Independent) supported the transfer of the lease and said that the Council’s presentation on the matter addressed a lot of issues. He said that all members need to be on the same hymn sheet. Mayor of Waterford, Cllr. Damien Geoghegan (Fine Gael) reminded councillors that the actual
operation of the gardens was not what was up for decision, and that it was strictly the transfer of the lease that was up for debate. Cllr. John Pratt (Labour) said that the gardens are a ‘phenomenal facility’ and supported the transfer of the lease.

Cllr. Pat Fitzgerald (Sinn Fein) said that he has no issues with Tramore Development Trust or public money being spent on the park. He said that the Trust being described as akin to the Office of Public Works was inaccurate and wished to note that the Trust is a private company. He criticised the notion of doors being closed to the public.

The Lafcadio Hearn Japanese Gardens were officially opened in 2015. Photo: Noel Browne

“This is not about the people of Tramore. This is about a public asset. Could you imagine trying to close down St. Stephen’s Green and only open it up to Dublin people? I find that absolutely insulting.”

Cllr. Eamon Quinlan (Fianna Fáil) said that it is incumbent that councillors get answers to questions before decision day arrives. He said that there was a comprehensive response from the Executive regarding the matter and he felt that the decision wasn’t about the privatisation of public assets.

“We continue to own this asset. We would continue to own this asset afterwards if Tramore Development Trust or a new spin-off ever goes bust and liquidates. No one can touch the grounds or the premises. It all stays with us and the public. We’ve all worked with groups and advocated for groups. We’re passing here a disposal of a lease. If we don’t pass it today, it’s not that Tramore Development Trust loses the operation of this. It simply just continues the lease they have agreed up until 2023. The questions that have been asked here have already been answered.”

Cllr. Lola O’Sullivan (Fine Gael) wished to clarify that the Tramore Development Trust and Lafcadio Hearn Garden Group are all volunteers and do their work purely for the love of Tramore. Cllr. O’Sullivan said that Cllr. Pat Fitzgerald had implied that they were a private company who were gaining from the operation. Cllr. Fitzgerald was angered by this suggestion and requested that Cllr. O’Sullivan withdrew this comment.

Cllr. Lola O’Sullivan praised the volunteers involved.

Cllr. John Hearne (Sinn Fein) said that we cannot commend the ‘great work’ that has been done with the gardens while people in Waterford who ‘haven’t got a bob’ may be denied access to the gardens. He pleaded that the Council would look after these people and that they wouldn’t have to produce a pass to say they’re from Tramore to access the gardens. Cllr. John O’Leary (Fianna Fáil) said that he was beginning to get fed up of land disposals that were coming before the Council.

“There’s always late interjection and massive doubts about everything. We have a bizarre situation where we wanted to transfer the lands for the North Quays and it nearly went to the wayside because people had so many doubts. I would go with the thoughts of Cllr O’Sullivan and Cllr. Quinlan. It’s a beautiful entity and to be putting doubts into the minds of people after Mr Kehoe’s proposal is utterly ridiculous. Questions must be asked before coming into meetings
and not have the situation where people are playing to the galleries on such proposals.”

Cllr. Eddie Mulligan (Fianna Fáil) said that there were a lot of ‘negative and derogatory remarks’ being made regarding the Japanese Gardens, and that it has been a huge asset in Waterford’s pocket in building international relations and that he has not seen anything in relation to the new board to suggest that the transaction before the Council would not advance the facility.

CEO of Waterford Council, Michael Walsh said that different parties were expressing different views on the matter. He noted that there were periods when the facility was in ‘significantly bad order’ and that it did not succeed as a public park. He said that there was no need to make the matter ‘controversial’ as there wasn’t ‘a bad thing in the world’ surrounding it.

CEO Michael Walsh: “This is a national attraction which we are fortunate to have and there shouldn’t be any negativity surrounding it.”

“The garden has been constructed to take advantage of key aspects of the land. This is a national attraction which we are fortunate to have and there shouldn’t be any negativity surrounding it. The garden is available to locals free of charge on a Thursday and that is going to be maintained. Nothing changes. Not doing this transfer is simply delaying company operations. There’s a whole team of people involved on a bona fide basis with no personal gain. Yes, it’s a private company in construct but it’s future charitable status will ensure that there is no question of this being a private company and presenting it in that fashion is simply not true. It’s a company where you have directors with obligations to maintain the facility for the public good and as Cllr. O’Sullivan said, it’s €300,000 a year to maintain it. We can’t have this type of quality without significant effort. This Council isn’t in a position to contribute to that significantly. We do make some contribution but it is very limited. Without the concrete effort here and the structure which is being proposed, that won’t happen. My view on this is we should just proceed with what is only a technical change to the existing lease.”

A proposal from Cllr. Clune to defer the matter was defeated. The proposal to renew the lease for a dedicated local group, spun off from Tramore Development Trust, was passed. Waterford Council as a result retains underlying ownership of the gardens.