Last week, fire gutted the former Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen, County Cork. Its original occupants had long since vacated the building, left to stand empty and falling into dereliction for the past 15 years: the police have since requested forensic experts to investigate the cause of the blaze. All across Ireland there are similar sites, substantial complexes built in the 19th century for religious orders which, with the decline in vocations and the need for better facilities, have become redundant and too often allowed to become ruinous. A similar series of buildings can be found in Westport, County Mayo, again a former convent formerly belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. Dating from the early 1840s and built on a site provided by the then-Marquess of Sligo, the place was vacated in 2008 after which it was bought by the local authority for €4 million, with assurances that the buildings would find new purpose by 2011 as the town’s civic centre. Twelve years later, although still owned by Mayo County Council nothing has been done and the old place is now a blight on the town. Westport rightly enjoys a reputation for its fine architectural heritage: the present state of the old Convent of Mercy does nothing to help that reputation. In 2017 local newspaper The Mayo News wrote about the condition of the property and quoted a council official’s assurances that there was ‘a masterplan for the whole site and the council will be putting parts of the project to tender in the next couple of weeks’. That was three years ago; those tenders seem to be awfully slow in arrival. Twelve months ago, the council posted a planning notice for work to be carried out on the site, including the construction of two new blocks, one to house a civic office, the other a library. Again, nothing has yet happened. Meanwhile the condition of the buildings grows steadily worse. Two points need to be made here. The first is that Mayo County Council was itself responsible for listing the buildings in question as protected structures. What kind of example does it give to anyone else when the authority so signally fails to protect property in its own possession? Secondly, €4 million of public money has already been spent on the purchase of the former convent: the longer it is left neglected, the more eventual restoration will cost. Everyone – especially members of the council – should remember this will be public money, provided by the Irish tax payer.
Is the building not completely unsuitable for modern offices ?
That’s open to question, but it is certainly suitable for many other uses (such as accommodation). Having spent millions on buying the site, the council should now put it to constructive use.
There is a very fine example in Birr where the former convent has been conserved and is in use as Municipal District offices and Birr Library.
Developer arson …
All around the country there are examples of local authority neglect in terms of ownership and reuse of listed buildings. There is a housing crisis and there are many buildings suitable for conversion into high quality housing. Lack of political leadership prevails. Mayo actually has some very good architects employed by county council. They should be tasked with the job of designing for reuse! Your campaign should be highlighted nationally and within the EU, as I am sure there would be many applicants to buy and convert such buildings for a suitable heritage sensitive use?
It’s an insane situation these buildings were in some cases sold off to developers and none at not all of the money’s owed fo state by religious orders has been paid those who suffered under these regimes left with limited support for the abuse they suffered.
A clarification, please, just to make sure I am reading this correctly. The site pictured is the Skibbereen location as the majority of the text concentrates on the political situation/ownership of the other?
By the way, as Skibbereen is a ‘picturesque Irish village’ stop on some major tours, this site could be a retail complex like Aran Mills. Perhaps restore the chapel as a civil wedding venue and you could have Las Vegas in Ireland (an alternative to pricey/upscale Big House venues)! That is, when tourism is restored. As to office use, you have to have business in or willing to locate to the area for it to be used for that purpose.
Apologies, the pictures are of the former Convent of Mercy in Westport, County Mayo. And yes, there are plenty of uses for sturdy buildings (which is usually applicable to sites occupied by religious orders). In this particular instance, what is especially infuriating is that the local authority bought the premises 12 YEARS ago, and has allowed it to fall into the present state of dereliction. What sort of example does this set?
The Garda investigation has proven Arson in regard to the Skibbereen fire, and a number of youths are being questioned in relation to it.
Thank you. The news is disappointing but not surprising…