The passage tomb on the top of Knocknarea and the megalithic cemetery at Carrowmore are familiar local landmarks for Sligo natives, though even many locals are unaware of two unopened Neolithic tombs less than 10km from their better-known historic cousins.
The two tombs, on Cairns Hill, close to Markievicz Park, the local GAA grounds, have been described as “the jewels in crown” of a bid supported by Sligo County Council to have the county’s Neolithic past honoured by a Unesco World Heritage Site rank.
On Monday morning, Sligo county councillors will vote on whether to approve a material contravention to their county development plan to clear the way for 74 homes designed by architect and television presenter Hugh Wallace’s company, Douglas Wallace, to be built on Cairns Hill.
Fourteen years ago, Cairns Hill was very much on the radar of Sligo county councillors when they voted unanimously to block the construction of a road on the hill, following strong lobbying by archaeologists and others who feared for the impact on the monuments and the landscape.
Sligo has 75 passage tombs, it is believed – a third of the State’s total. In a bid to protect them, there are efforts to have the landscape declared a World Heritage Site (WHS), joining the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, and Ireland’s Skellig Michael and Brú na Bóinne.
The first step on Sligo’s journey to world heritage ranks is expected to be rubber-stamped this month with an announcement due that Sligo’s neolithic treasures are to be put on Ireland’s WHS tentative list, ahead of Unesco’s 10-yearly review of its list.
Everyone involved accepts that Sligo has a housing crisis. The councillors will be asked to give the go-ahead for the project, which has already been approved by planners, even though 13 out of 18 of them must approve the material contravention of the development plan.
However, some residents who already live near the hill argue that it is not the proper place for a high-density scheme, while archaeologists and environmental campaigners say it will endanger the world heritage bid.
‘A big ask’
Recently elected cathaoirleach of Sligo County Council, Independent councillor Michael Clarke has signalled his support for the mix of apartments, terrace houses and semi-detached homes, saying that housing is his priority, though getting 13 out of 18 votes will be “a big ask”.
Pádraig Meehan of the Sligo Neolithic Landscape Group (SNLG) opposed changes to the county development plan, saying that the Carrowmore complex, one of the most important in Europe, would have had the town dump located beside it without past protections.
Ironically, the SNLG helped to prepare the application for addition to Unesco’s tentative list of world heritage sites in conjunction with Sligo County Council, later describing Cairns Hill as “the jewel in the crown” of the bid.
The application by developers Novot Holdings Ltd and designed by Mr Wallace, best known for TV series such as Home of the Year and The Great House Revival, “could pose a threat” to the ongoing bid for WHS status, said the group.
The key sites in Sligo’s neolithic landscape are Carrowmore, the passage graves of Carrowkeel, Knocknarea, Cairns Hill, the Ox Mountains, the Ballygawley hills, and Keash. The relationship between them and with the landscape are what makes them special, say archeologists.
Eugene Flynn, who grew up on Cairns Hill and who was involved in the campaign 14 years ago to block the road plan, says councillors voted then to protect an important landscape, and should not, 14 years later, reverse that.
Councillors are being told that a No vote on Monday would be a vote against housing, but, in fact, it would be a vote to prevent “irreversible damage”, while allowing time for consideration of the new county development plan and time for the WHS application to continue.
“Many people do not realise that Cairns Hill is just as important as Knocknarea is and no one would consider building a housing estate half way up Knocknarea today,” Mr Flynn said this week.
Meanwhile, residents argue that the Novot development “on the highest point of Cairns Hill”, 2.5km from the centre of Sligo town, would be the most elevated housing in Sligo and would worsen existing flooding in a nearby estate, where gardens are already flooded constantly.
They also argued that the project is contrary to all regional and national planning guidelines, given that other sites closer to the town are zoned as residential, and given that there are 20 local properties on the Vacant Sites Register.
“It’s deeply ironic and hypocritical of Sligo County Council and councillors to laud the unique landscape and tourism and jobs our neolithic landscape bring, but on the other hand actively promote excessive development,” said residents’ spokesman Graham Glynn.
NUIG-based archeologist Stefan Berg, who helped write the WHS application, has complained to the county council that his objections were not included in the planning file available for public scrutiny, even though he submitted it on April 19th, the deadline for submissions.
Mr Berg said he been told by a council official that his submission was not included because a €20 fee had not been paid, though he says he left the necessary details, and other applications made after his were included in the file.
Asked whether county councillors had been stopped from getting the views of a Neolithic landscape expert, Sligo County Council says his submission had been circulated to elected members on June 17th. Planners approved the development on May 10th, subject to the councillors’ vote.
Local residents, says Mr Glynn, were acutely aware of the housing crisis, but had valid concerns about the height and density of a plan that would bring up to 120 extra cars to an already busy road.
“We have letters from two local primary schools saying they have no capacity,” added Mr Glynn, “We are asking councillors for due diligence and not to panic. Will we look back in years to come and wonder why they built on top of Cairns Hill?”
Questioned about his own views on the controversy, architect Mr Wallace told The Irish Times that there were two existing housing estates between the development he has designed and the cairns.
Referring to Sligo’s “well-documented” housing need, Mr Wallace said there were currently nine new houses for sale in Sligo: “I think Sligo is amazing but if you look around even the main street, there are so many shops vacant there.”
Flood risks had been examined during planning, he said, and the Novot plan posed no risk to any other homes: “It is a very appropriate place to construct new housing to serve the chronic undersupply in the town,” he added.