Historic sites have all the signs of gross ineptitude
OPINION:Visit Monasterboice, site of some of Ireland’s most wonderful early Christian heritage . . . and weep – it is all so inadequate, writes ALFRED SMYTH
WHILE ATTENDING an academic conference in Ireland, I went with friends to see Slane and Monasterboice, two extraordinary historical sites by any European or international standards.
The monastic ruins at Slane in Co Meath stand proud and tall above the Boyne Valley in a landscape of timeless beauty. A few miles to the north at Monasterboice in Co Louth the ruins are more understated, hiding behind a garden hedge on a winding Irish lane.
But the majestic Round Tower at Monasterboice, rising well above 100ft – Ireland’s unique architectural contribution to medieval Europe – proclaims this place to have once been of great importance. These – and so many other Irish medieval ruins – are known not only to specialist scholars, but to discerning tourists from across the world, as once having been key centres in the nurturing and development of that phenomenon we call European civilisation.
To Irish people like me, and others of Irish descent around the globe, these places mean more. They are the ancient work of our forefathers’ hands – a priceless inheritance that lend dignity and substance to our treasured Irish descent.
It is in no small part because of the presence of these wonders in Ireland’s landscape, that so many American presidents have been inspired to retrace their Irish ancestry and to proclaim to the world: Is feidir linn!
Sadly, the idealism and inspiration still on offer from hallowed places such as Slane, and Monasterboice are lost on the very people who are paid by Irish taxpayers to look after them and to explain them to Ireland’s own youth and to the world.
Up at the monastery on the Hill of Slane, we were greeted at the gate by a sign whose mean, cheerless black format is seen nowadays in Britain and other parts of Europe only outside the perimeter of prisons. It informed us that a missionary later called Patrick (!) lit a “celebratory fire” at that place.
A bonfire? Surely not!
Ireland may be wallowing in the throes of some kind of immature post-atheist hysteria just now, but to airbrush out the true nature of Patrick’s Easter fire on Slane is pathetically coy, immature and dishonest.
There was nothing to tell us, either, of the importance of this place as a Royal Monastery of the Ui Neill Kings of Tara; or of the illustrious Fleming Lords of Slane who built the beautiful, later medieval monastery.
But Slane shone brilliantly nevertheless, under a clear summer sky and the nearby historic Hill of Tara, the Mourne Mountains, and the Wicklow Sugarloaf were clearly visible in the distance.
The prison notice told us nothing of these iconic vistas at a time when all viewing-points such as this across Europe have clear great circular markers pointing out the points of the compass and key landmarks on the horizon. This exercise should be all about adding to the interest and enjoyment of visitors in the hope that they will come again.
Further on, at Monasterboice, the weather had turned against us and another tiny prison sign, greeted travellers at another mean gate. It read:
Monastery founded by St Buite who died c.
AD 521. No building of so early a date survives here.
The oldest monuments [are] all dating from the 10th century.
Beyond (sic) a list of abbots little is known of the story of the monastery.
The negativity, the misinformation and the crassness were mind-boggling. My heart bled for the American tourists being shoved off their coach in the sluicing rain only to be greeted by this workhouse signage which in plainer and more honest English was meant to have said:
There’s nothing of interest here for you.
(or choose another four-letter word that today’s Irish officialdom would clearly prefer).
Inside – on their 10-minute stampede through the gravestones, the drenched coach travellers were led by their bored driver to yet another prison sign which said:
The North Church: a 13th century reconstruction . . . it retains little of architectural interest. The East Window and most of that gable have disappeared.
Do the people of Ireland know the harm that is being done here in their name? Are the shop-keepers and restaurant owners in Co Louth aware that their public servants in Dublin are actively encouraging tourists to drive on!?
At first we thought this was some kind of sick joke. The North Church, after all, still has walls rising almost as high in places as the original eaves, and the doorway still has most of its 13th-century stone jambs.
With a little creative thinking, the Office of Public Works (OPW) could easily have restored the roof of this little building and inserted an east window modelled on an existing medieval Pale church – all the time clearly defining where new masonry had been restored to the earlier building. And the cost when that Celtic Tiger was flourishing, would have been a drop in the ocean compared with those shameful bank bonuses and backhanders of the time.
One woman from Chicago observed that their earliest buildings in that great American city only dated from the 19th century, and yet she said: “the schmucks who wrote this crap are telling us that a building dating some five centuries earlier than most things in the US is of little architectural interest!”
The Americans, who had paid serious cash up front, for this experience were now loudly asking: Why take us to a place which proclaims itself to have nothing of any interest? And clearly written across their drenched foreheads were the words: Rip-off! We wanna go home! And that is precisely what they will do, and tell their friends into the bargain.
There are wider and far more serious issues behind this incompetence than crass signage and lack of education and vision in high places. There are issues here that make it all much more lamentable than an otherwise sick joke.
The pig ignorance and negativity demonstrated by the public face of Failte Ireland and the OPW are causing incalculable damage to the tourist industry.
All this at a time when tourism makes up a crucially significant slice of national income for all European economies, and when it is recognised as being one of the life-saving earners for countries such as Greece and Ireland – not least because they are blessed with a rich cultural heritage that people from other countries want to pay money to see.
Is it any wonder that the perception is still widespread inside and outside Ireland that far too many people in the Irish public sector still get their jobs because of which Minister they know, rather than what they know? And sadly, the well-educated youth of Ireland who could do those jobs so much better than the idiots who are still in charge, are now leaving Ireland in droves for Sydney and Boston.
The blatant injustice that drives all this, feeds into, and continues to fuel the Irish economic downturn. For when national governments and their economies become so engulfed as this, in a penumbra of corruption, international credit ratings also become contaminated by the same suspicions.
There are also worrying symptoms here of years of erosion of the democratic process within the Irish State. Those symptoms are exposed by the arrogance of an uneducated elite who have come to form a ruling cadre in Ireland and who believe they can get away with anything and who are answerable to no one.
Who for instance in the OPW or Fáilte Ireland ever took the trouble to consult those local experts in Louth and Meath about their local heritage? I refer to local teachers who have the enthusiasm and vision to communicate with young people; and to the membership of two old and scholarly archaeological societies in those two counties.
And who has taken the trouble to consult internationally acknowledged experts on Irish heritage in all of Ireland’s leading universities – North and South? The answer is clearly no one, because when democracy dies, the people no longer count.
The OPW has a duty to Irish taxpayers to sell the nation’s unique and marvellous ancient monuments to visiting tourists and to their own citizens – especially to the young – in the most informative and interesting way possible.
Nobody in charge seems intelligent enough, or cares enough, to see the obvious connection between ugly graffiti daubed on Ireland’s treasured past and the glaring lack of basic cultural education for the unemployed young who are left with little hope? But then, local graffiti on our ancient treasures pale in the face of official vandalism once practised by Dublin Corporation against the Viking site at Wood Quay, or more recently the motorway madness of the former government targeted against world-class heritage monuments on Tara.
Lest my anger with the people in charge of Ireland’s national treasures be seen to be purely destructive, let me make a brief suggestion as to how they might turn their own corrosive negativity on its head. How about a notice at Monasterboice, something like this?
Welcome to Monasterboice. You are about to visit one of Ireland’s truly ancient and historic monastic centres where the precious lamp of learning was kept alive throughout the Dark Ages, when the rest of Europe was devastated by Barbarian Invasions.
This monastery was founded by the Irishman Buite, as long ago as 521 AD at a time when there was still a flourishing Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and a hundred years before most of England had become Christian. Here there was a home to a thriving and wealthy community of monks and scholars, artists, poets and craftsmen, for more than six centuries – chief among whom was Flann of Monasterboice (Flann Mainistrech) who died in 1057. Flann was described in his lifetime as Chief Learned Man and Professor of History in Ireland. Many of Flann’s original poems and historical writings still survive and are found in medieval manuscripts housed in great libraries in Dublin, Oxford, London and elsewhere.
As you pass by the High Cross of Muiredach, you are gazing at one of the most significant stone carving from Early Medieval Europe with imagery inspired by ancient Egyptian Christianity. One of its panels shows Viking warriors dressed in lederhosen arresting Christ and brandishing distinctive Norwegian swords. It was to provide a refuge from these same Viking barbarians that the great Round Tower was built during the height of the Viking Wars in the 10th century .. .
Shall we go on? – and there are so many more wonderful things to tell – or should we too, walk away as the charlatans who concocted their negative version of Ireland’s past, want us to do? They may be surprised to learn of Flann’s very existence – and even more surprised to hear that when the British Dictionary of National Biography was first set up in 1882, two whole pages were devoted to the same Flann Mainistrech.
When criticising a system, no matter how rotten, it is also our duty to end on a positive note. But it’s hard to be positive when the rottenness seems so pervasive and so long enduring.
Thirty-five years ago I wrote to Irish newspapers lamenting the barbed wire on the gates of Ireland’s splendid Cistercian Abbey at Bective, and asked why visitors back then had to negotiate a minefield of sheep dung to reach it. But that was long ago, when the new crass affluence was still an impossible and indeed an undesirable dream.
Sadly, now things for Ireland’s fragile heritage have got far worse. Fifty-five years ago I, and countless others like me, climbed up to all four or five floors of the Round Tower at Monasterboice. Now like Slane, the visitor is locked out and the local tour guides and attractive welcoming visual displays and explanations that one sees at historic sites from Greece to Spain are not on offer.
A local councillor went on record in The Meath Chronicle only a few years ago to say that Tara’s archaeology amounted to little more than a few pots and pans. A motorway – now largely under-used – has been allowed by the very guardians of our heritage to rape the Tara landscape and stands as a lasting monument to the shame of those in Ireland who betrayed their national heritage. Slane will soon have a new bypass doing the same thing.
If there is a glimmer of hope, it must be that Ireland’s Government will see that the gombeen men and the time-servers who don’t understand the first thing about running a national tourist and heritage service are hastened into redundancy and retirement.
I am not an advocate for mass privatisation, but it may be the only way to clean out the stench surrounding Ireland’s national monuments service.
If that fails to happen, then the people of Ireland need to be told that their children – young graduates who are now leaving their homeland in droves – will send back their own children in 30 years and they, like us now, will gaze as visitors on the same mess at Monasterboice and elsewhere and wonder why they ever bothered to return.
Alfred P Smyth is a former pro-vice chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, former warden of St George’s House, Windsor Castle, and emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Kent.
He was born in Meath, grew up by the Hill of Tara and is author of numerous books on early Ireland