Inside a walled enclosure overlooking the plains of County Kildare, the church of Oughterard (from the Irish Uachtar Árd, meaning ‘a high place’) is thought to have been originally established in the sixth or seventh centuries, although the present buildings are of later date. What remains of what must once have been a substantial religious settlement are a truncated round tower and a barrel-vaulted chancel with a 14th century three-light window at the east end. Much of the nave has been lost, but on the south wall is the burial site of Arthur Guinness, founder of a certain well-known Irish business. The reason he was entombed here: his maternal grandfather William Read was a tenant farmer in this part of the country (and, it is sometimes said, Arthur Guinness was born in his mother’s family house when she returned there for the event).
Since last year, two Cork-based sustainable designers, Jude Sherry and Frank O’Connor have been driving a campaign – primarily via Twitter (look for #derelictireland) but also through other channels – to tackle the shameful and ongoing problem of dereliction in Ireland. This is a long-standing issue which has been allowed to fester for far too long. Last October,
research by UK price comparison website money.co.uk reported that 9.1 % of the State’s housing stock, equating to more than 183,000 units, were classified as vacant – with 4,000 of these being owned by local authorities. Furthermore, the following month it was revealed that during 2020 the same local authorities had collected €378,000 through the Derelict Sites Levy, a small fraction of the almost €12.5 million in cumulative unpaid charges which could have been claimed. A large number of vacant properties can be classified as derelict, which is hardly surprising when owners see so little effort is made to ensure they maintain buildings in their possession. As anyone who has travelled around Ireland can testify, everywhere, in urban and rural settings alike, there are houses falling gradually, and seemingly irrevocably, into decay. These are a blight on a nation and ought to be a matter of shame, but instead too often the only response is indifference. Hence the importance of Sherry and O’Connor’s work.
Close to the shores of Lough Corrib, Oughterard, County Galway lies on the main route to Connemara: almost all traffic heading west passes through the town. Before doing so, all traffic must also pass the shabby remains of the former Connemara Gateway Hotel. This former 62-bedroom property on around six acres closed its doors some years ago, and is currently for sale for €2.4 million. In September 2019, some refurbishment was undertaken as the owner sought to have it leased by the state as a Direct Provision Centre. There had been no consultation with the local population which, when this notion became public, rallied to oppose the scheme; it was duly abandoned. So, the building now sits empty and falling ever further into decay, serving as a welcome when visitors arrive in the west of Ireland. Then, as they leave Oughterard, those visitors have an opportunity to inspect a further example of the national penchant for dereliction: the former Sweeney’s Oughterard House Hotel. The front of this building dates from the early 18th century when it was constructed as a private residence: it was subsequently, and clumsily, extended to the rear. Like the Connemara Gateway Hotel, the property has stood empty for some years and is in an increasingly poor state of repair.
One small Irish town, two large properties capable of providing accommodation to upwards of 100 people left to stand empty and neglected. In Ireland, property ownership is sacrosanct. Owners believe they are entitled to do what they like with the buildings in their possession, and that includes doing nothing. Hence the increasing number of buildings lying vacant and decaying. In February, Irish Times columnist David McWilliams wrote – not for the first time – that dereliction is vandalism and must be stopped (see https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-dereliction-is-vandalism-and-must-be-stopped-1.4798979). What’s more, the state allows this vandalism to persist. Legislation exists providing both national and local governments with the necessary powers to intervene and halt dereliction, but both persistently fail to exercise them. Until they do so, the likes of these two Oughterard buildings will continue to be found right around the country.