Historic Navan building could become ‘empty ruin’ after roof collapse

Meath council urged to save unique pre-Famine structure after years of neglect

The old St Patrick’s Classical School and former St Finian’s Diocesan Seminary in Navan, Co Meath, known as the Power’s Duck Egg. Photograph: Barry Cronin

The old St Patrick’s Classical School and former St Finian’s Diocesan Seminary in Navan, Co Meath, known as the Power’s Duck Egg. Photograph: Barry Cronin

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An architect has sought legal advice regarding what he believes are failings by Meath County Council to protect a unique pre-Famine building, the roof of which recently caved in.

Paul Leech fears that the former Classical School on Academy Street in Navan, which is on the list of protected structures of national importance, could now become an “empty ruin” after years of what he describes as “passive neglect”.

He also alleges that some material alterations, apparently in breach of the planning laws, have been carried out in order to secure the building since the roof collapsed.

The 1837-42 building is affectionately known as the Power’s Duck Egg and is so called after its former patron Rev Nicholas Power and the structure’s unique elliptical shape, which is unlike any other building in the country from the time.

The curved timber at each end of the former school is more akin to techniques used in shipbuilding rather than construction, Mr Leech says, but these have been demolished in recent weeks.

The building was the study hall of St Finian’s Diocesan Seminary up to 1908 and later a post-primary school until the 1970s, after which it was used for light industry.

County archive

It was bought by Navan Town Council around 15 years ago for €603,000 in order to protect it, with impressive plans to eventually turn it into a county archive. Some remedial works were carried out in 2006 but the building has largely been left while numerous attempts were undertaken by the council to get funding. The roof caved in last June.

Mr Leech, who went to school in the building and later founded architecture firm Gaia Ecotecture, says he is appalled at the demise of the listed structure and has sought advice from specialist environmental lawyers on the matter.

“In my mind, how it has been left to rot over the years, and now what I allege is unpermitted material alteration, is a travesty of the statutory duty of care of the local authority,” he said.

“It may now become another empty, ruined husk which may never be restored, due most likely to scarce national funding in post-Covid times... I fear the damage is now done and the fate of the building is most unclear and uncertain.”

An Taisce is also urging the council to put in place systems to ensure better maintenance of this and other historic buildings in future.

“The onus is now on Meath County Council to restore and secure the future of this unique geometrically designed building,” the heritage group’s head of advocacy Ian Lumley said.

Critical

Sinn Féin councillor Eddie Fennessy described the situation regarding the building as critical.

“The collapsed roof has left the interior of the building exposed to the elements and valuable roof timbers have since been lost,” he said. “There is a very real danger that the building will collapse in on itself.”

In a statement, the council said funding of €250,000 had been approved under the Urban Regeneration Development Fund for designs and studies for the area, which include the restoration of the derelict building for use as a county archive, genealogy research centre and lecture and study space.

It says a graduated approach to stabilising and protecting the structure has been initiated on foot of inspections and recommendations from a design team which includes a conservation architect and structural engineer, who carry out regular checks on the ongoing work.

The council said it was “imperative” in order to avoid further deterioration of the structure that the conservation works proceed without delay.

“Notwithstanding the unfortunate collapse of the roof structure, this important and unique mid-1800s building has the potential to contribute to the cultural and built heritage of Navan, and its speedy stabilisation and conservation will provide the town with an asset of significant value,” it said.