National Heritage Keepers: Inspiring people to care for their local area

Game Changers: The pandemic inspired us to make new connections to places we might have never discovered

What if our best days are ahead of us? It’s a big idea that I’m holding close to my heart after hearing Mary Robinson ask it on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio recently. The question is posed by an indigenous member of The Elders, the group chaired by the former president. As a lantern up ahead, it can guide us through the murk of culture wars, business as usual, despair and indifference. We know that the changes that will keep the planet habitable can create a world that works better for the greater good. Protecting our one and only home protects us all.

Paying attention to the past and acting with hope and care for the future are both central to a successful pilot project by the Burrenbeo Trust. Its National Heritage Keepers scheme works with schools, youth projects and local communities to generate interest in creating or caring for both the natural and built heritage in their local area. One fascinating aspect of the project is that they start with a blank page.

“Big ideas bubble up through the workshops,” Burrenbeo co-ordinator Áine Bird explains. This year they worked with 20 groups, starting with “active learning” workshops to help people navigate the resources, maps and other information about their local area, to hone in on one aspect that becomes their heritage keeper project. These have included building ponds, local heritage trails, and signage about biodiversity and local history. Boys from Oranmore National School wrote and illustrated a heritage booklet using resources in their library and stories collected from local experts.

The pandemic “both helped people appreciate what’s local and also for some people want to enhance and change things locally”, Bird says. Pandemic-inspired localism has made new connections to places we might have never discovered had the world not ground to a juddering halt almost three years ago.


The blank page enables groups to start from scratch, she says. “In Waterford I landed in on day one and said, ‘I know absolutely nothing about this place.’ So we’re learning together and moving away from the idea of needing an expert at the start.” The result has been creative and empowering for people.

“This helps foster a sense of pride, ownership and ultimately responsibility towards both their community and environment. This is more important than ever given the challenges the world currently faces.”

They plan to take on at least 30 new National Heritage Keeper projects in 2023. Schools, youth groups and local communities can apply for the free programme by sending a simple expression of interest: “who you are, where you are and why do you want to do this?” to the Burrenbeo Trust by Wednesday, November 30th.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests