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.
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  is doing a PhD in the History of Art.