Faulty Vision


At the end of last August the Heritage Council, a statutory body ‘working for heritage’ released a five-year strategic plan which proposes to set out a new ‘vision’ for the country’s heritage and to map a route towards its realization (see: https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/news/news-features/heritage-at-the-heart-heritage-council-strategy-2018-2022). As so often with such documents this one is strong on lofty aspiration but rather weak on specific action leading to the achievement of goals. However, the idea is that by 2022 thanks to the council’s vision ‘heritage will be at the heart of Irish society and decision-making and that Ireland will be internationally recognised as a centre of excellence in heritage management, conservation and community engagement.’
On Wednesday a building less than ten minutes’ walk from the Heritage Council’s premises in Kilkenny city was gutted by fire. Adjacent to the Nore and across the river from Kilkenny Castle, for which it once served as a dower house, 88/89 Lower John Street dates in large part from the mid-18th century although it incorporated fabric from a much earlier building and contained the remains of a mid-17th century staircase. Despite its enormous architectural and historic significance – and despite being listed for preservation – the house was permitted by the local authority to stand empty for many years, its garden sheared off for the construction of an hotel, thereby severely compromising the site. Last year the house was finally sold, and hopes were raised that the property, its exterior a much-photographed landmark, would finally be restored. Instead it remained in the same condition until this week when left a smoking ruin.
One might have expected the Heritage Council – which declares its vision to be that ‘heritage is enjoyed, managed and protected for the vital contribution that it makes to both our social and economic well-being’ – would make a statement about this terrible loss so close to its own property. Yet it has remained silent: on Wednesday, the council’s Facebook page opted to post a video of Basque dancers in Galway. And ironically on the day after the fire, the Heritage Council was involved in a conference about urban renewal entitled ‘Unlocking Prosperity through Heritage-Led Regeneration.’ A building within Kilkenny offered an opportunity to demonstrate that the benefits of such regeneration, but that opportunity was missed. The Heritage Council’s home page bears the slogan ‘Our Heritage: Where the Past Meets the Future.’ In the case of 88/89 Lower John Street the past wasn’t given the chance to meet the future and all of us are the poorer. Articulating a ‘vision’ is admirable but occasions like this prove it to be insufficient.


17 comments on “Faulty Vision

  1. Vandeleur Antiques says:

    Utterly scandalous.

  2. Clifford says:

    I truly despair. I hate my own cynicism but when time after time one hears of bodies working against their supposed interests, what is one to think? Heritage agencies, wildlife charities, social housing… All at some point doing the opposite to what is espoused on their slick websites.
    The novel ‘Farenheit 451’ usually springs to mind at these times…

    First class work, btw… Keep it up!

  3. Dr Hugh Maguire says:

    The Heritage Council is based in Kilkenny. It does not have a regulatory function nor a policy one. This is the remit of the Department. Nor is it allowed by law to own heritage buildings or sites. It is not an OPW and even less a National Trust. The Council does provide policy advice but that is not necessarily listened to by the relevant authorities. There are many buildings all over the country that have benefitted from the good policies being promoted by the Council as well as small-scale grants, A small organisation with limited staff capacity and a limited budget the Council has always punched above its weight. To draw attention to a dilapidated building and by association imply a failing by the Heritage Council is to suggest that a road accident and tragedy is due to the shortcomings of the RSA rather than the failings of what might have been an inebriated driver or a mechanical failure in a car. The Council is a force for good and needs to be supported at a time when other cultural values are in the ascendant. Hugh Maguire

    • Thank you – and everyone else – for your comments. The Heritage Council does indeed do admirable work and, as you note, many properties across the country have benefitted from its support. But no body, least of all one in receipt of tax-payers’ money, should be immune from scrutiny and, on occasion, reproach. I believe that the council could, with relatively little time or expenditure, do more to ensure that our built heritage enjoys a securer future. Might it not, for example, take advantage of its profile and prestige to chastise local authorities which fail to act on their legislative responsibilities towards buildings listed for protection? It could, as another option, champion specific buildings which are clearly at risk, drawing public attention to their precarious condition. A house like that on Lower John Street, Kilkenny does not just happen to fall into ruin: it does so because those in positions to make a difference fail to act. The Heritage Council is in a better position than most to make that difference.
      Of course I fully appreciate that the council’s funding was savagely cut during the years of recession – as was that of all government-supported bodies. But can it be called small? If I read the relevant department’s accounts correctly, in the present year the council has received a grant of some €6.4 million and pays the salaries of twenty persons. Having maintained this site on my own for over six years, voluntarily and without any financial assistance, I am familiar with the concept of small.
      We live in challenging times and must accept our limitations. If, through budgetary constraints and no fault of its own, the Heritage Council cannot do as much as it might wish to support our architectural heritage and fulfil its remit satisfactorily, would it not be better to acknowledge this and seek to pass some responsibilities on to another body? Surely that would be better than struggling to do too much with too little.
      As you say, the Heritage Council is a force for good. But – just like every one of us – it can always be better.

  4. A common theme in this country, no imperatives requiring people to restore, or sell to someone who will. Many owners who don’t give a damn, combined with their unrealistic expectations of market sale value, make it impossible for those who do care and would restore.

  5. Gerry O'Keeffe says:

    It seems that much of the 17th staircase is gone and possibly the beautiful stucco ceilings and marble fireplaces also. This is an aerial view courtesy of the Kilkenny People and Kilkenny Archaeology website. Hopefully the site its accessible as it also contains some pictures of the building’s interior.


  6. wildninja says:

    Well said!!!

  7. Susan Burke says:

    Ohhh Velcro what a tragedy!! See you Thursday?? xxs, Velcro

  8. Claudia Murphy says:

    The Heritage Council was one of the first to break the news regarding the fire at bridge house if you go back through the Facebook posts. Also architecture officer Colm Murray spoke on behalf of the Heritage Council to local and national news. I heard the interview on local radio.

  9. Robert Towers says:

    Well said, Sir.

  10. Judge Peter Charleton recently chastised the Gardaí for not being out and about more doing their job properly. Perhaps the same criticism should be directed at some planning authorities. I presume Bridge House is listed in the Record of Protected Structures and therefore should have been protected. Accidents do happen but if a proper eye had been kept on this building I doubt if it would be in ruins today.

  11. Sara Whelan says:

    Well done, Robert! We need a more active Heritage campaign. Take a look at the Mountgarret Tower House in New Ross, which is being allowed to fall apart when it could form a wonderful welcoming image on the main road into the town. It used to have a beautiful stone casement window until it collapsed a few years ago. I cannot understand why buildings like this have ended up in private hands and are allowed to remain in their ownership when they do no maintenance !

  12. liamóhé says:

    I am enjoying this new phase of TheIrishAesthete whereby the work done by Robert O’Byrne is now gaining sufficient attention to warrant frequent direct responses from relevant organisations and bodies. Keep up the great work and equally congrats on your contribution to the Hugh Lane film documentary.

  13. I was in Kilkenny for Kilkenomics again in November, and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the ruin at John’s Bridge. A fire??? Any investigation into what caused it? As to its being in the private hands of a property vandal, – what else could you call someone who allows such neglect to an historic building? – whatever happened to Compulsory Purchase Orders??? Surely the County Council could have stepped in sooner? I have a horrible feeling that these questions are disappearing into a void…

    • Thank you for getting in touch. There was no need for the building to fall into neglect (it was ‘listed’ for protection) and no need now for it to sit open to the elements. The problem is indifference on the part of the relevant authorities who ought to do more (and have the statutory powers to do more) to protect the nation’s architectural heritage…

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