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Dublin: 18 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Column: Proposed road through Kilkenny shows the lack of value placed on heritage

Building a central access road in the heart of historic Kilkenny while simultaneously trying to encourage tourism based on the city’s architectural heritage makes no sense, writes Geni Murphy.

Geni Murphy

THE DEVELOPMENT OF the historic and very lovely city of Kilkenny is currently at a crucial and significant point in its history. The demolition of a possible national monument within the historic ‘Irishtown’ in order to make way for the development of a Central Access Scheme (CAS) will be the first step in a process which will alter the character and integrity of the city forever.

The City and Borough Councils are intent on the development of a scheme which will cost the tax-payer approximately €10.7 million, is opposed by the majority of those who are aware of it, will exacerbate traffic issues in some parts of the city and will negatively impact on Kilkenny as the popular tourist destination that it is.

I am part of a group in Kilkenny which has come together organically from within the community in order to fight to have this development stopped. The group is comprised of local residents, heritage specialists and local representatives and we have had huge support from the people we have met, both while petitioning on the streets of Kilkenny and on our Facebook page. Collectively we are appalled that this road is to go ahead, it is to run right through the most historic and archaeologically sensitive area of the city, effectively cutting the  St. Canice’s Cathedral Close site off from the rest of the city.

Monumental structures of national importance

One of the highest points in the town, the site is now home to a number of monumental structures of national importance, including the early-Gothic St. Canice’s Cathedral, an eminent Round Tower dating from as early as the C9th and some of the finest C16th monuments in the country. Spreading out from within the inner monastic enclosure a visitor can immerse themselves in the eclectic assortment of peripheral dwellings which developed in order to house those associated with the site – the C14th Bishop’s Palace, the C16th Sexton’s house, the C17th Organist’s Cottage, the C17th Library and the C17th Deanery.

This is a special place with so much to offer both those from Kilkenny and from further afield – it has stunning architecture, exquisite art, ancient archaeology and is spiritual in nature. The idea that anyone would build a heavy-duty, concrete road at the foot of what has been designated, by the Borough Council, as an Area of Architectural Conservation site is a monstrous one.

This road would split in the community

The curving street pattern of the original settlement which grew up around the Canice’s site is still extant today and is part of what gives the area known as ‘Irishtown’ it’s very unique and cosy character. Irishtown is the oldest part of the city, dating from at least the 7th century, when the monastic site of Cill Chainnigh was founded. I have been living in Irishtown for the past four years and it’s a solid little community that has lots to offer – it’s sociable, it’s diverse, it’s creative and supports many sustainable businesses. This new road will create a fissure between the two halves of the whole that constitute this special and unique place, so why are the local authorities so adamant about going ahead with it?

This appears to be a difficult question to answer, the original plan for an ‘inner relief road’ goes back to 1980, but clearly the social, economic and cultural requirements and aspirations of the city have undergone significant change in the interim.

According to the Council, the overall objective of the scheme is to relieve traffic congestion and to provide increased access to a number of retail and industrial sites within the city. For instance, the road was to provide improved accessibility to the Diageo site which is situated in the heart of Irishtown, however the Diageo site is now due for closure in December of this year. This is a 14-acre site and considerations for the immense possibilities relating to its future use are utterly absent from the current plan.

It was envisaged that the new road would also provide access to a brown-field site on the eastern side of the River Nore, in which a retail park was due for development, however An Bord Pleanála refused permission for the development in 2009. For many, the arguments relating to the easing of traffic congestion are valueless as the scheme will ultimately result in bringing increased heavy-duty traffic through residential areas which are not designed for accommodating these kind of loads.

Expensive and unnecessary

The fact that the scheme is now going to cost the tax-payer in the region of €10.7m, an increase of 25 per cent on the original budget allocation should also raise cause for concern. The Complete the Kilkenny Ring Road group (CKRR), of which I am a member, are calling for the local authorities to complete the western section of the Kilkenny Ring Road in favour of developing the CAS.

The group, along with a growing number of city residents and, thankfully, Borough and County Counsellors, believes that this is the more viable option. The completion of the ring road would keep HGVs and other heavy-duty traffic out of the historic core of the city, maintaining both its integrity and its unique aesthetic appeal.

These are the attributes which make Kilkenny one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, an industry which is as valuable to the County as its return on its agricultural activity. It is ironic then, that the County Council’s own County Development Plan (2008-2014) should state that “the tourist potential of Kilkenny focuses sharply on its distinctive architectural and historic heritage”.

There is yet more irony in the fact that the Council announced plans in 2012 for the development of a ‘Medieval Mile’, which would run from St. Canice’s Cathedral in the south, to Kilkenny Castle in the north of the city. The development of the CAS scheme would effectively sever the medieval connection between the two dominating architectural features at either end of the city and would render this proposal laughable.

Lack of value placed on our cultural heritage

The issues at stake here are wider than those around the lack of intrinsic value that we place on our cultural heritage, or the economic returns that it can be encouraged to deliver. Four out of the five people interviewed for a vox-pop in this week’s Kilkenny People were vehemently against the scheme, with the fifth being undecided. The wishes of the majority of residents in Kilkenny are being wilfully misrepresented by the majority of their Local Representatives and by the Executive of the County Council, this is unacceptable – as a Democracy, the Republic of Ireland should be a place in which the active participation of the citizens in civic life is both facilitated and encouraged.

The proposals put forward in this scheme go against both the local authorities’ own ‘best-practice’ guidelines in terms of the preservation and management of the city’s historic environment and the European Commission’s ‘Aarhus Convention’ which sets out the right of citizens to meaningfully participate in the planning process regarding their environment. If the outer ring road is completed as a priority over the development of the CAS, as our group is proposing, the city will remain uncompromised and with a much wider range of options for its future development.

An online petition to complete the outer Ring Road as a priority over the development of the CAS can be found here.

Geni Murphy, M.A., B.Des, is an independent Communications Consultant with particular interest and specialism in the arts and heritage. She has a Master’s Degree in Arts & Heritage Management from Waterford Institute of Technology and a Degree in Visual Communication from DL-IADT. Geni Murphy can be contacted at genimurphy@gmail.com

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