Demolition will ‘seriously injure historical integrity’ of Kilkenny, say opponents

Important medieval structure hidden behind Victorian accretions, insists archaeologist

 

Frank McDonald,

Environment Editor

The imminent demolition of three seemingly ordinary Victorian two-storey houses on Vicar Street, Kilkenny, to facilitate a new road scheme “will seriously injure the historical integrity of the medieval city”, according to opponents of the plan.

Cóilín Ó Drisceoil, director of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, noted that the three houses stood on the site of a much earlier courtyard manse - the Prebendary of Tascoffin - intimately associated with the nearby medieval St Canice’s Cathedral.

He disputed Kilkenny county manager Joe Crockett’s contention that the houses were “of no heritage value”, saying there were “substantial grounds” to believe that parts of the Tascoffin complex were “still standing behind Victorian accretions”.

Mr Ó Drisceoil said investigations conducted to date have been “inadequate”, as no large areas of plaster were removed to see what was underneath. “Thus, the local authority still has no idea as to the extent of surviving remains of the medieval house.”

He also warned that the Central Access Scheme - as the proposed road is now called - could lead to “large-scale destruction” of deeply stratified layers of waterlogged medieval archaeology, such as timber structures found at nearby John’s Bridge.

“New research indicates there is every likelihood that the Central Access Scheme will lead to the destruction of a famine graveyard that is recorded as having been present at the County Fever Hospital, Wolfe Tone Street”, Mr Ó Drisceoil said.

He also noted that excavation of a similar graveyard on a site next to Kilkenny’s railway station, where MacDonagh Junction shopping centre was being developed, had cost more than €1 million in 2006-2007 and led to the disinterment of over 900 bodies.

The Central Access Scheme budget has already increased from €8.5 million to €10.7 million. Archaeologists familiar with the area believe that costs could rise significantly because of the likely presence of sensitive archaeological remains on the route.

When the controversial road plan was first proposed in 2007, the National Monuments Service warned that it would have “a severe negative impact on archaeological remains in the historic city will completely alter the street pattern”.

In a letter signed by chief archaeologist Brian Duffy, it said the Central Access Scheme would “cut through the precinct of St Canice’s”, which had already been altered in an unsympathetic way “and this further impact would be unacceptable”.

“We are surprised to find that no alternative routes have been proposed for our consideration,” it said. “We object to the proposed scheme proceeding because of the severe impacts on the archaeology of one of Ireland’s premier historic cities.”

Others who opposed the scheme include the Heritage Council, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy, An Taisce and the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland as well as several individual historians and archaeologists.

However, following discussions with Kilkenny county and borough councils, the Department of the Environment - then responsible for the National Monuments Service - withdrew its objections after a number of changes were made to the plan.

These included avoidance of Garrison House at John’s Green and buildings on Vicar Street as well as elimination of a roundabout at St Canice’s Place and a proposed link to the rear of Irishtown in the vicinity of the Bull Inn Wall and old city walls.

“Recent discussions with the Department of the Environment ... at both senior and archaeological level yielded a very positive response to the scheme changes,” the county council said in March 2008. “The Department has no objections to the proposed sheme.”

Asked by Mr Ó Drisceoil to explain this “climbdown”, Mr Duffy referred in a May 2008 letter to the discussions - in which he was involved - and said: “Modifications made to the scheme have reduced the impact on the archaeological heritage of Kilkenny.”

Although the scheme’s first phase was approved by An Bord Pleanála in December 2011, the board ruled that subsequent phases would be “premature” pending the completion of Kilkenny’s outer ring road to relieve traffic pressure on the town centre.

The board insisted on design changes for a new bridge over the River Nore on the basis that the original plan for a cable-stayed structure was “not appropriate in terms of its visual impact at this sensitive location” while the revised design was “acceptable”.

Some 3,200 people from Kilkenny and elsewhere have subscribed to a petition by the Complete Kilkenny Ring Road campaign calling for the missing northern section of the ring road to be given priority, ahead of the Central Access Scheme.

Kilkenny Green Party councillor Malcolm Noonan said completion of the ring road “could have a profound impact on the entire dynamic of the city” if combined with significant investment in Smarter Travel initiatives, such as bus shuttle services.

“The issues raised by the Central Access Scheme go to the heart of the protection of Ireland’s historic towns from inappropriate development,” Mr Ó Drisceoil said. If it could happen in a premier medieval town, “what hope is there for our other historic urban centres?”