Exploiting our heritage

 

IRELAND IS incredibly rich in archaeological remains but is failing to protect and to promote this diverse heritage.

A knowledge and appreciation of the many strands that make up the past is an integral part of national identity. Public awareness of – and pride in – that heritage can spur local initiatives and generate employment while contributing significantly to earnings from tourism. It is an area where commerce and scholarship can meet and secure mutual benefit.

The programme for government emphasises the need to develop niche tourism products and activity packages that, with assistance from a special fund, will attract international visitors. Equally important at this time of recession, however, should be the promotion of domestic tourism and the provision of new and interesting experiences for citizens. Happily, a range of archaeological sites from the megalithic to neolithic, monastic to Viking and on down through Norman and late medieval are scattered across the Irish landscape, awaiting exploration by native and foreign visitors alike. Access is generally free. But the experience itself could be greatly improved.

Progress has been made in developing and promoting a number of particularly important sites, such as Céide Fields, the Boyne Valley, Clonmacnoise and Glendalough, where the Office of Public Works provides interpretative centres. Many hundreds of other sites are marked, however, by a black 1950s-style plaque with a harp on it, declaring the structure to be a national monument and warning against vandalism. The importance of the site and its local relevance is rarely mentioned. In today’s world of near-instant communications, such an approach is no longer acceptable.

Ireland has the greatest concentration of megalithic art in Europe. Ornamentation at Newgrange and Knowth provide 5,500-year-old cultural links to communities in Spain, Brittany and the Orkney islands. About 1,000 years earlier, oscillating climatic conditions brought people to settle in the west. They left us one of the oldest enclosed field system in Europe at the Céide Fields in Mayo and the great megalithic cemeteries of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Sligo, wonderful monuments to a vanished past.

Centralising responsibility for the protection of national monuments and archaeological sites was an important legislative advance at the time. But an overarching political vision that links a knowledge and appreciation of the past with the provision of jobs, local development and a better future is lacking.

The construction of motorways during the boom years led to the discovery and excavation of important sites from different periods and revealed much new information. Because of pressure of work at the time, however, much of what was discovered was not written up. Transcription and publication of that material through a special scheme would not only provide employment – it would preserve important information for future generations and enrich local communities.