Advocating for Ireland’s architectural heritage


I grew up during Ireland’s 20-year-long economic boom, an event spoken of with pride as the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Until the great crash of 2008, I had not experienced a single year without the construction of countless new houses, factories, shopping centres or stretches of motorway. Many towns doubled in size. Now, five years on, and with the dust mostly settled, I was recently asked at a public lecture back home: how far back do you have to go as a historian to find a period of similarly frenetic economic growth, of such sustained architectural activity, in Ireland’s history?

The answer, I suggested, would have to be the early 19th century, and in particular between 1810-1840, for it was at this time that much of the fabric of Irish towns and cities was built. Similar to recent years, there was an economic boom followed by a great collapse (the Napoleonic Wars were mostly responsible for this) and a sustained population growth (until the Great Famine of the late 1840s).

Though today’s tourist’s impression of Ireland is inevitably coloured by the island’s ancient or medieval monuments – standing stones, round towers and the like – most of Ireland is in fact a lot more recent, just as tea and soda-bread, quintessentially ‘Irish’, are in fact mostly 19th-century imports. The ancient and medieval monuments have been given legal protection for nearly 150 years – and rightly so – but if we owe so much of our built heritage to the early 19th century, then why has the architecture from this period been, until so very recently, denied the same standards of listing and protection? According to William Cumming, senior architect at the Irish National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH), most of the government’s attention after Independence was focused on ‘prehistoric sites and medieval ruins, perhaps looking back to a mythical golden era prior to colonisation’. If it was politically easy to spend money protecting a medieval abbey, it was all but impossible to do the same for a former British army barracks, or a ruined country house.

As part of my PhD research into 19th-century public architecture in Ireland, I have had the opportunity to be part of the effort to help bring architectural history to a wider and non-academic audience. I am fortunate that within the past 15 years official Ireland has started to take seriously its more recent architectural heritage. It took a landmark European summit, which produced the Granada Convention (1985), to finally bring about a long-needed change by compelling the government to list and protect more recent buildings, right up to the present day.

Since then Ireland has been playing catch-up with its European neighbours, busily producing surveys and catalogues for each county. Buildings, groups of buildings, engineering structures, monuments, public spaces and gardens have all been assessed and a list drawn up of the selection worthy of listing and protection. I have been able to contribute to this larger project, in two ways: by suggesting structures which could be included in a particular survey, and by writing ‘Building of the Month’ articles which have appeared on the NIAH website, and have been re-published in the magazine History Ireland. 


I believe these articles matter because, as the law is currently structured in Ireland, the NIAH’s surveys are not legally binding; instead they are sent to each individual council who use the survey to produce the final list of protected buildings in their local area. The NIAH needs public advocates and an educated public to sway councils into adopting sufficiently extensive listing. As Cumming says: ‘The encouragement of public awareness and local pride in the built heritage is an important role of the NIAH.’ Free online access to the surveys, the ‘Building of the Month’ pieces, GIS maps (where Ireland is currently a world-leader) and to other databases such as the Dictionary of Irish Architects (DIA) have combined to bring the results of scholarship within reach of the general public.

The chance to engage with the public has been the most rewarding part of my academic research. For example, some of the structures which were included in one of the NIAH surveys are now earmarked for re-use as part of a dedicated greenway/cycleway, thereby ensuring their long-term preservation. Following a ‘Building of the Month’ article last year on a 1970s concrete Brutalist library in a small coastal town, I had the opportunity to give an extended version as a public talk, hosted in the building itself, and there in the audience were some family and friends of the architect, and a group of people who had used or worked in the building over the past 40 years. Their comments, anecdotes and suggestions were invaluable.

Court house

Recently I have written about an unusually-sited court house in the south-east of Ireland [pictured], and during my research found evidence which suggests it was likely built some 10 years before the date currently thought. I wrote most of the article sitting in the building – now also a library – and learned from the staff that they were themselves not sure when the building was built, but that locals and tourists often asked them in passing. If academic scholarship is to remain relevant (and perhaps for continued government funding to be justified), this public education role, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, will become all the more important.

In many Western countries the argument that historic preservation is something that intrinsically matters – beyond simply tourist revenue – is one that has been won for many decades. But new challenges will always present themselves, as Alex Bremner has recently brought to attention in his piece on Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand. In Ireland the panic to redevelop urban centres during the boom years led to many regrettable losses, just as it saw the wonderful rehabilitation of disused buildings (for example, a convent in Waterford by the celebrated Victorian architect A.W.N. Pugin). The central areas of most Irish towns are distinctively early 19th century in character: only proper listing and protection will keep this so, whilst at the same time not choking off sensitive modern developments. It is also now time to list and protect the ‘new’ architecture of Ireland in the 1950s through to the 1990s, still greatly under-researched by both professional and amateur historians. Most exciting is the opportunity to use academic research to help shape public opinion, and thereby public policy, and now is a particularly stimulating time to be able to contribute to the field, in Ireland and elsewhere.

 *Richard Butler [2012] is doing a PhD in the History of Art.


Threat to world heritage


While I was in the midst of preparing the manuscript for my new book Imperial Gothic  a few years ago, a series of devastating earthquakes struck the New Zealand city of Christchurch. These quakes, of which there were two major ones between September 2010 and February 2011, caused widespread damage to the city’s historic centre, including the magnificent Anglican cathedral by the noted English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. The destruction and deaths caused by these earthquakes made international headlines.

From a heritage perspective, this was significant for me, not only because Scott’s cathedral featured prominently in my book as an excellent example of the global reach of the Gothic Revival movement in architecture, but also because, having studied the building closely over a number of years, I cared about its future. Christchurch cathedral is a very fine specimen of mid-nineteenth-century Gothic Revival architecture, among the finest outside the British Isles. For reasons explained in my book, the cathedral stands as testament to an extraordinary episode in the history of New Zealand as well as that of Britain and global Anglicanism in general. It is nothing less than the symbol of the city of Christchurch itself, which was originally established as a dedicated Anglican colony in the 1850s, and is therefore far more than just a building – it is a monument and a memorial to the city’s very existence. In this respect Scott’s cathedral holds a similar place in the annals of the city of Christchurch as St. Peter’s basilica does in those of Rome – both buildings embodying and representing the social, civic and architectural heritage and identity of their respective cities.

However, we now learn, rather depressingly, that the remnants of Scott’s magnificent pile are to be torn down to make way for a new building which, at best, makes a very poor comparison with its soon to be illustrious predecessor. What’s all the more remarkable about this decision is that the vast majority of the cathedral remains standing and, according to the latest engineering reports, can be saved and rebuilt for not much more than the proposed new building. For most civic authorities and governments around the world it would be a no-brainer as to what to do under these circumstances – saving an historic monument of this stature would not have required a second thought. Unfortunately, not so in New Zealand. From what I can gather, it has been all but decided that the remains of the cathedral must come down, tearing the heart out of the city in the process. I believe there is a glimmer of hope that it might still be resurrected, but this is fading fast.

One can only hope that the short-termism, philistinism and, indeed, vandalism that have reigned supreme in Christchurch over these past few years are not allowed to continue in this very important task of preserving and rebuilding Christchurch cathedral. It has to be said that whether Scott’s building should remain standing is not entirely the decision of the present bishop of Christchurch or the civic authorities – they are merely custodians of this heritage, not arbiters of its fate. For them to assume that they have any such right as arbiters in this respect is arrogance in the extreme, and if they should choose to exercise that unfounded right then history will judge them harshly.

There is no question that Christchurch cathedral is a building of international merit and standing. Its maintenance is therefore, more properly speaking, a matter of international heritage, not just local, and it was reckless of the diocese of Christchurch to reject the generous funding that would have been made available through international networks should a rebuilding campaign have gone ahead.

Many citizens and heritage experts in both Christchurch and New Zealand (as well as other parts of the world, including the Victorian Society in Britain) have worked tirelessly in lobbying the powers that be to save the building from demolition, but, sadly, their enlightened testimony has fallen on deaf ears. If Christchurch cathedral should come down, it will be a grim day for anyone who cares about the history and heritage of the built environment, the world over. If it does happen, then ignorance and cynicism will be seen to have won the day. I only hope that in the end good sense prevails, and that what I have said about the building in my new book will lend some support to its preservation, however small.

*Alex [George] Bremner [2001] is Senior Lecturer in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh. He did a PhD in the History of Art at the University of Cambridge. Picture credit: G. A. Bremner

Students stand up for science


On Wednesday June 26th, a diverse group of students working towards postgraduate degrees at the University of Cambridge started an open discussion about the current science culture. Students from Asia, Europe and North America, working in fields such as nanotechnology, chemistry and genetics discussed how the dominant incentive structures and intense career pressures to generate publications are not creating an ideal environment for scientific discovery. Many scientists agree that the system requires structural reform, but the real challenge is deciding what changes should be made and how to implement them. The aim of the discussion group was to: (1) identify the major shortfalls in the way science is currently practised (2) debate the primary causes and (3) brainstorm practical solutions. Although it was an ambitious task for the 90-minute discussion, we hope that as a group of passionate young scientists we can carry forward the momentum to eventually stimulate real positive changes.

1. The problem

Although we created a long-list of frustrations, the fundamental issue is that there is a “publish or perish” culture in science that is biased towards selectively reporting positive results and undervalues the importance of replications and negative results.  Because of these publication biases, many findings go unreported and data gets stored away and ignored in a hypothetical file-drawer.  Not only does this put unhelpful pressure on scientists to get positive results, it also undoubtedly causes wasted time and resources when others unknowingly repeat unsuccessful experiments that have not been published.

An extremely important caveat when illuminating flaws in the current state of science is that there is still brilliant, groundbreaking and life-saving research going on. In no way is this critical discussion of science intended to devalue the importance or quality of the scientific discovery currently taking place. This discussion is only to acknowledge that, as with any industry, changes should be made to keep up with advances in society and science is no exception. As the next generation of scientists, we need to take a stand and change the game to encourage and reward good science, and not just positive results and publications.

2. The cause

We are all to blame: poor decisions made by individual scientists, inadequate training provided by research institutions, publication biases in the journals and failings of the peer-review process. However, as we discussed the various causes of shortcomings in science, we kept coming back to competition over funding as the root of the problem. Publications are the main currency used to determine who deserves funding, which has created the “publish or perish” culture. The funding bodies determine the criteria which scientists work towards meeting so for change to be possible we must get the funding bodies on board.

3. The action

As a group we agreed that a few ideas could be implemented to encourage positive changes in the current scientific system. These are not novel ideas, but they are ideas worth sharing.

  • – Establish a pre-publication archive database for all research: positive results, negative results and replications. Fields such as mathematics, physics and astronomy use these types of archives which some researchers respect almost as much as traditional peer-reviewed journals. They allow all research to be freely available and provide a more transparent and complete picture of data in its entirety because all data is welcome regardless of the results.
  • – Use online registries similar to those required for clinical trials, which have researchers identify their hypothesis and methodology prior to data collection. The scientific method was developed to be hypothesis-driven and pre-registering experiments is one way to make sure this approach is maintained.
  • – Institutions should have archives for raw data that become openly available after an experiment has been published. This will hopefully increase transparency and encourage collaboration.
  • – All students and scientists should be required to take research ethics and research methodology seminars. At the end of the day, the responsibility lies with the individual researcher to make unbiased and ethical decisions. Open discussion of these issues can only help the scientific community.

These are not easy changes to make, but the first step is to begin the conversation. Students at the University of Cambridge are getting involved in the discussion and we encourage all scientists, journal editors and grant reviewers to join us in trying to improve the current state of science.

*Brianne Kent [2011] is doing a PhD in Experimental Psychology. Picture credit: jscreationzs and