Frank McDonald: Funding cuts at root of Russborough dilemma

Cuts in heritage sector grants are leading to the sale of valuable Beit collection works

Art teacher Elena Hughes outside the National Gallery of Ireland during her peaceful protest relating to the sale of paintings from Russborough House. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

More than €2 million in public funding has been invested in Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wicklow, over the past decade or so, with all of this money being provided to the Beit Foundation – which owns the property – by the Heritage Council.

The great Palladian house, built for the 1st Earl of Milltown by Richard Cassels in the 1740s, is in very good condition today, its roofs intact, internal rococo plasterwork superbly restored and several of the rooms sympathetically redecorated by Howley Hayes Architects.

Since it was set up 20 years ago, the statutory council has had a long association with Russborough and “supported ongoing investment in the fabric of the property”, mainly covering roof repairs, window replacement, internal plasterwork and restoration of the west wing.

In 2002, the council gave the Beit Foundation €110,000 for roof repairs, followed by €100,000 in 2003 for further repairs and security works, €480,000 in 2004 for more works on the roof and windows, €400,000 in 2005 for the roof (again) and internal plasterwork.


The biggest grant, of €531,000, was given in 2006 for "urgent" fire safety works, window repairs and security in the west wing, where Sir Alfred and Lady Beit used to live. A further €450,000 was disbursed in 2007 for roof repairs and window replacement in both of the wings.

A disastrous fire in the west wing in February 2010 effectively wrote off much of this investment, with the result that it had to be restored again. By then, however, the Heritage Council had run out of Government funding, so the Beit Foundation was left on its own.

All the Heritage Council could manage in 2011 was to contribute €18,000 – a tiny fraction of the cost – for plasterwork repairs and “render coating” to the west wing of Russborough, so that it could be used for short-term rental either as a unit or as two apartments.

Conservation plan

“The investment of public funds in the property was set within the strategic context of an agreed conservation plan. That investment is safeguarded through a deed of covenant and the detailed terms and conditions that apply to any grant offered by the Heritage Council.”

The deed relates to “the mansion house, demesne and lands known as Russborough” and specifically excludes “for the avoidance of doubt, any contents in or which may be brought onto the premises”.

In other words, it cannot be construed to cover the contents of the building.

But the conservation plan, for which a €25,000 grant was given in 2005, “did not foresee the selling of the paintings or any part of the collection”, the council said, adding that the collection’s importance was noted in the plan’s “statement of significance” on Russborough.

The council conceded that “there is a wariness in dealing in detail with the collection because of the unfortunate history of robberies at Russborough”, although the plan “scoped the possibility of the paintings being displayed in the house as intended by the Beits”.

No further support has been provided for the Beit Foundation since 2011 – not because of fears that it would put some of the contents up for sale, but rather “as a result of the cuts that were imposed on the Heritage Council in particular and the heritage sector in general”.

“It is therefore no small coincidence that properties such as Bantry House and Russborough, five years after the removal of any meaningful grant support for maintenance, are now contemplating the sale of very significant aspects of cultural heritage to raise funds.”

The Heritage Council’s budget was slashed from €22 million per year to just €7 million. And given that most of the money was being disbursed in grants to worthy heritage-related projects, from thatched cottages to stately homes, the funding clampdown hit them very hard.

As council chairman Conor Newman said at its recent 20th anniversary celebrations in Kilkenny, a widening gap between the public appetite for heritage and State support for the sector means that its potential to contribute to the public good is “not being realised, not by a long shot”.

The lesser-known Irish Heritage Trust – brainchild of Dr Terence Dooley, of NUI Maynooth, and of then taoiseach Bertie Ahern – was set up to take over endangered historic houses, with endowments raised philantropically to keep them going, but it has been sidelined.

The trust still has only one property – Fota House, in Co Cork – when it was meant to have several under its belt. The promised tax incentives that might have helped raise endowments for historic properties never materialised, despite repeated requests to ministers.

"We've simply had to focus on our core mission, which up until now was firstly to survive and secondly prove our concept," says director Kevin Baird.

“The general environment is more positive now, so hopefully the resources the sector deserves will start to appear again.”

Lottery funding

A report last year by economist Peter Bacon, commissioned by the Heritage Council, complained that the heritage sector currently received only 1.4 per cent of total disbursements from the

National Lottery

– a fraction of the funding lavished on sport and recreation.

“This would certainly suggest that a meaningful reconsideration is required regarding the allocating of lottery funding to support heritage,” Conor Newman said, adding that the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK “is a major force in terms of assisting the built heritage”.

Colm Murray, the council’s architecture officer, believes that a “public value” needs to be set for Ireland’s heritage, not just for its own worth but also the number of jobs and economic activity that result from, say, the restoration of a historic property or significant local monument.

Ironically, a specific piece of legislation – the 2001 Heritage Fund Act – was brought in to provide financial resources for the acquisition of heritage objects such as the Beit pictures that would otherwise be sold abroad. It was not replenished, however, and there’s no money in it now.

Minister for Arts and Heritage Heather Humphreys has made it clear that her department doesn't have the funds to buy the pictures.

But there is no shortage of money for other things, such as the Gort-Tuam motorway, which is currently under construction at a cost of €550 million.

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former environment editor