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.