Endangered Ireland: Heritage Sites Under Threat

Ireland’s wealth of valuable historical sites are in danger. Every day they’re under attack from the elements, from neglect, from developers, from public apathy or ignorance, and from misuse by landowners. It’s time to face the fact that many may not be there for the next generation.

Coolbanagher Castle last year, and immediately after the storm on February 17. (photos courtesy of Laois Archaeology)

Coolbanagher Castle last year, and immediately after the storm on February 17. Photos courtesy of Laois Archaeology

2014 has shown us two extreme examples of these dangers as first the severe winter storms eroded the cliffs beneath Dúnbeg Fort in Co. Kerry, resulting in large parts of the structure’s defensive wall falling into the sea, and then the storms caused part of Coolbanagher Castle in Co. Laois to collapse. After that partial collapse, the rest of the castle was completely demolished, although the circumstances of the decision and the identities of those who undertook the demolition are unclear at the time of writing.

Besides the slow erosion of the weather or the sudden action of severe storms, other factors negatively affecting Ireland’s historical sites have been first the relentless construction of developers who often swept everything aside in their haste to build new houses, roads, and other projects, and now the inertia that the bankruptcy of many of those developers has created, which has left many of the historic properties they purchased in legal limbo, many rotting away in disrepair with neither the funds to stabilize them nor the will to sell them on to somebody who can. [Interesting article in the Irish Independent on this topic…]

The plight of Ireland’s built heritage is encapsulated in the story of our round towers. Among the most iconic of Irish structures, there are 52 round towers still standing in the country, but only two are currently in a sufficient state of repair to be climbed. When I was a child, I remember visiting the tower at Monasterboice — still a poplar site due to its wonderful high crosses — and viewing the surrounding landscape from the top. Due to the deterioration of the internal ladders (which are open to the weather) this tower is no longer safe to climb.

Over the years, I’ve seen landowners using dolmens as storage sheds and erecting structures inside ring forts, both of which appeared to damage the structures, at to my untrained eye. There’s also evidence of structural elements being stolen from remote ruins (stone window frames, carvings, etc.) and made part of somebody’s home. Allegedly, many of the stones from the cottage used in the film The Quiet Man were removed years ago and shipped to the US, where they were used to build a fireplace and chimney. There is said to have been a video on youtube of a woman discussing the origins of this fireplace until it was removed after negative publicity.

Part of the problem is legislation that prevents the public having assess to all of our national monuments — we can’t value or understand what we can’t visit. Another issue is the paucity of funding for An Taisce, the National Trust of Ireland, which does not have the means to purchase, preserve, and administer important structures like national trusts in other countries. Successive governments give lip service to the importance of tourism and heritage, but prefer to side with development whenever the chance arises.

Coolbanagher Castle  after demolition.  Photo courtesy of Laois Archaeology)

Coolbanagher Castle after demolition. Photo courtesy of Laois Archaeology

During the Celtic Tiger boom years, there was a lot written by disgruntled archaeologists about the number of historical sites that were impacted and destroyed by construction. These were most-often unknown sites, discovered during construction activities, and quickly excavated and photographed before being built over. We didn’t feel the loss because we’d never visited those sites.

However, people are beginning to feel the loss of places they’ve known and visited all their lives. Castles like Coolbanagher and iron-age forts like Dunbeg have been part of the fabric of community life for generations, and their loss is irreparable.

It’s clear that the romantic Ireland of enigmatic ruins and history you can touch and walk among is seriously endangered. Anyone who wishes to experience our diverse history as their forefathers did, needs to visit these heritage sites sooner rather than later, before the only places left are the few well-funded, world famous sites.



To keep up-to-date on the unfolding saga of Coolbanagher Castle, check out Laois Archaeology’s Facebook page


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