THE true essence of the Great Blasket Island risks being lost forever if a cafe and services development goes ahead, a Bord Pleanala hearing was told yesterday.
The sale of most of the 1,100-acre writers' island and nature reserve two miles off the coast of Kerry to the State is dependant on the development of a cafe and services building, including a wildlife rangers facility, toilets and tractor storage room, by An Blascaod Mor Teo (BMT), the company which owns most of the island.
Under buyout plans hammered out by the Office of Public Works (OPW) on behalf of the State with landowners after protracted negotiations a year ago, BMT would retain ownership of the services building and could stand to gain ferry operating rights out of Dingle.
Kerry County Council granted permission to the company for the building last year, but the decision was appealed to An Bord Pleanala.
Sue Redican, who has worked as a weaver on the island for the past 20 years and lives there each summer, is one of four people appealing against the BMT plans for the new greenfield construction on the island, which was abandoned in the 1950s.
Ms Redican said: "There is only one opportunity to protect, conserve and develop the Great Blasket Island and if we get it wrong, the true essence of the island will be lost forever."
Ms Redican said construction on the Blasket Island required "more than a normal health and safety plan".
She had personally witnessed accidents with tractors overturning and going out of control while working on the island.
The new building would be on the opposite side of the existing village and the old green pathways could not but be damaged, while there would be undue noise and other interference during construction, Ms Redican said.
"The terrain from the pier to the construction site is sloped and at times steep and narrow, and is incapable of handling the proposed traffic," she said.
There was a need for a cafe, public toilets and limited accommodation but any proposed development should be undertaken in "a sensitive, authentic manner, utilising existing structures so as not to significantly alter the integral fabric of the island", she said.
Old houses, including Peig Sayers' house, could be used, she suggested.
Ms Redican also said BMT were "being facilitated in creating a monopoly and were negotiating sole commercial rights for a cafe and hostel and a ferry service from Dingle to the island" under the State's buyout plans.
She claimed "agendas of common interest" were involved and "that political pressure was being exerted to ensure a favourable outcome for BMT".
Britta Wilkens, originally from Germany but living in the Dingle Peninsula for more than 20 years and a regular visitor to the island, said she had objections to a modern "out of scale" building which would be three times greater than any existing construction.
The Blasket Island area plan drawn up by Kerry County Council stipulated that any new development on the island should be kept to a minimum and "only minimal visitor facilities would be permitted", Ms Wilkens said.
The new development measured 296 sq meters, would have 15 toilets with septic tanks facilities and a 50-seater cafe. It was two to three times larger than any other building on the island.
Ms Wilkens also raised the question of brown rats getting onto the island on boats from Dingle with building materials.
There were no rats on the Blasket and they could wipe out the entire Manx Shearwater bird population, a protected species, she added.