Calls for the conversion of orphanage to museum


A children's museum is one of the ideas suggested by local people for the renovation of the Belvedere Orphanage in Tyrrellspass, Co Westmeath. However, Westmeath County Council has signalled the possibility of social housing on the site.

The 1840s development was the brainchild of Jane, Countess Belvedere, who bequeathed £6,000 to build a girls' orphanage. It is a crescent-shaped development of 11 semi-detached houses. The orphanage closed in 1943 and Westmeath County Council bought the property in 1986. It eventually fell into decay, apart from one house, which is still occupied.

The Tyrrellspass community council is anxious that local people have a say in the development. In 1999, a private developer was refused planning permission for a housing scheme on the site and the community council is keen to ensure it does not revert to private ownership.

"There is a huge sense of urgency about this - a fierce worry that it could be whipped away very quickly from us," said Mr Eugene Dunbar, community council member.

The planned Kinnegad to Galway road will bypass Tyrrellspass and give new opportunities to the village, according to Ms Maura Morgan, community council chairwoman. "Now is the time to plan for that," she said. "The orphanage could fill a gap in so many areas - we have no community-owned building."

In a thesis on the history of the orphanage, Mr Danny Dunne suggested that it be used as a centre for the history of childhood. "There is no such thing in Ireland or in England as far we know," he said.

He pointed to the number of historical studies on schools and said such a museum would be an ideal home for these works. "There's the whole history of orphans too. You could build up a great archive," he said.

A Dublin group has been lobbying for a national children's museum for over three years. Talks on a site are ongoing, according to Ms Orla Kennedy, Irish Children's Museum project manager. She said the museum would have to be in Dublin because of the capital's very young population base. "But there's room for plenty of facilities for children's activities," she said.

Mr George Lambden, Westmeath County Council's director of housing, said the council would listen to all views but was considering redeveloping the property for social housing. "We hope to get funds from the Department of the Environment to do this," he said. "It would all depend on the funding as it would be an expensive project."

Should the plan proceed, he said, the council would renovate the property in keeping with the crescent shape and the character of the houses. The plan would not involve constructing new houses, apart from replacing two that were demolished.

The county council is now drawing up a plan for the village, and he said officials would be happy to meet local people to hear their views.

Ms Morgan said the community council was anxious to work with the county council in planning the village's future: "We could have a very special development if the council works in partnership with us."