How do Irish people really feel about our heritage?

A poll reveals Ireland’s attitudes to the issue ahead of European Year of Cultural Heritage

What is heritage? The dictionary definitions are vague: it’s something handed down from the past; something of value inherited by a person, family or nation; a tradition, craft or product passed from generation to generation . . .

It's all a bit broad, admits Beatrice Kelly of the Heritage Council. "It's a weird portmanteau term," she says. "Some people may feel it's too woolly."

Kelly prefers to describe heritage as “a process as much as a label”. From that perspective, heritage is the act of discovering, preserving and engaging with a world of which we are only temporary custodians. It spans cultural traditions and artefacts, the historic built environment and also the natural world.

In Ireland, the Heritage Council – the statutory body charged with "promoting, educating and encouraging enjoyment in Ireland's national heritage" – is co-ordinating the European Year of Cultural Heritage and will organise and promote a national programme of events and activities. It will launch the programme at the National Museum of Ireland on Monday.


The European Commission initiative is designed to be "truly European", with activities taking place at European, national, regional and local levels. The plan is to involve all citizens in events that "help to promote a sense of belonging to a common European space".

But how conscious are we really of having a shared European heritage? It’s clear Europeans share a common patrimony of interlinked language groups, cultural and intellectual traditions, history and natural environments.

However, the EU has struggled to find a way to celebrate simultaneously those shared historical experiences alongside the diversity of European countries and cultures.

Look at the euro banknotes in your wallet and wonder why they bear images of non-existent bridges “illustrating” architectural styles from the classical to the modern, rather than featuring actual bridges such as Venice’s Rialto, as originally intended.

Also, as well as being something to be celebrated, the concept of European heritage can also sometimes be deployed as an instrument of division or exclusion – contemporary political debate in some countries frames it as something under threat from immigration or alien influences.

How we compare

A new Eurobarometer poll in advance of the Year of Cultural Heritage yields interesting and occasionally startling results on how Irish people feel about our own heritage and how we compare with other European countries.

In general, the results show we are at least as enthusiastic as our fellow Europeans about exploring and experiencing our national heritage. For example, we are far more likely to “engage in a traditional activity”, which covers everything from traditional dancing or singing to traditional cooking.

We are also more than twice as likely to say we have done voluntary work for a museum or other heritage organisation. And we are slightly ahead of the European average in the pride we take in our own national heritage.

Some of the results seem unlikely, though: libraries across the country will be surprised to hear that 35 per cent of Irish respondents (versus 30 per cent in Europe as a whole) "visited a library or archive to consult documents, manuscripts, ancient maps, etc".

And if 28 per cent of Irish people in the past 12 months have “been to a cinema or a film heritage festival to see a classic European film produced at least 10 years ago”, I’ll eat my Ingmar Bergman boxset.

The theme for the year in Ireland is “Make a Connection”, with the idea being to deepen the connection between people and heritage, and from that to build a legacy of increased public engagement. To achieve this objective, the Heritage Council is inviting organisations and individuals to take action and respond to the theme.

“It’s a sort of rolling programme,” says Kelly. “We’ve been discussing a number of core events with the main cultural institutions. We’re hoping to have a rolling series of events across the year around the country.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is encourage people to explore their local heritage or even to get involved in a project.”

Kelly says she was “really impressed to see how Ireland did” in the Eurobarometer poll.

There is evidence, though, that our views on whether we actually share a common European culture are sometimes confused and contradictory.

So while 78 per cent of Irish people (slightly ahead of the European average) agree that “it’s the diversity of European culture that sets it apart and gives it its particular value” and 71 per cent say globalisation will make European culture more dynamic in the world, 64 per cent agree that “there is no common European culture because European countries are too different from one another” and 55 per cent say there is no European culture, only a global Western culture.

On the last two questions, the Irish are much more sceptical than the European average about whether a shared culture exists.

How does the Heritage Council, which usually focuses on national and local heritage, propose to introduce European themes? “One of the things we want to do is encourage people to explore their links with other parts of Europe,” says Kelly, who cites examples such as the international influence of Irish monasticism. has more information