built heritage

Does Ireland need an overhaul of its protected structures system?

There are currently around 1,470 buildings waiting for protected status from Dublin City Council, latest figures show.

IN EARLY JULY, a lifeguard shelter on Bull Island in Dublin was demolished.

The demolition of the shelter – which Dublin City Council said was due to anti-social behaviour at the isolated spot – came in for criticism as the design for the shelter dates from the time Herbert Simms was lead architect in Dublin Corporation’s housing department.

download (11) Before demolition. Bull Island Action Group Bull Island Action Group

download (10) The site after demolition Bull Island Action Group Bull Island Action Group

Under Simms’ tenure, Dublin’s housing in the city and suburbs underwent huge change, as the corporation tried to solve an ongoing housing crisis. His work was both socially and architecturally notable, and he is now celebrated for having an important impact on the built heritage of Dublin city. 

Similar conversations occurred in Cork city early this year when the Sextant pub was demolished. This bright blue pub on the corner of Albert St was a striking sight in part of the city that is undergoing redevelopment. 

The pub was built in 1877 and was believed by many to add character to the cityscape. It was knocked as part of site works after permission was granted for a 25-storey residential build-to-rent scheme. However, it subsequently emerged in a report in The Examiner that the apartment plans had to be scrapped as they turned out to be “not financially viable”. The site will now become a 16-storey office block under new plans. 

There are many other recent examples of buildings being knocked that generated some sadness, questions or even disquiet. In 2018, it was announced the Tivoli Theatre on Francis St in Dublin was to be knocked down so that an aparthotel could be built on the site. Another Dublin city centre cultural venue, Andrews Lane Theatre, was also knocked, to be replaced with an eight-storey hotel. 

The demolition of a Dublin distillers structure in May 2019 was slammed by An Taisce, which called it “unjustifiable”. The eastern wall of the building in Smithfield was supposed to be retained, but this was knocked. The developer was instructed to rebuild the eastern wall.

In September 2019, The O’Rahilly’s (the 1916 leader) house near Herbert Park was demolished, leading to huge criticism and a court case. Permission had been granted for the demolition on 8 September, but on 14 September Dublin City councillors voted to add the building to the Record of Protected Structures. This was validated the following day but on 29 September the house was demolished. Dublin city councillors have sought the reconstruction of the house. 

Over in Limerick, this summer the demolition of Curragower House came in for criticism. A campaign had been set up to save the redbrick building on the banks of the Shannon after its demolition was announced in 2018. The building was not a protected structure, but An Taisce and other groups believed it should have been. 

Record of protected structures

001-o-rahilly-house-3-390x285 The O'Rahilly houses before demolition Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

In Ireland, buildings can be placed – after going through a certain procedure – on the Record of Protected Structures (RPS). The buildings on the list are considered “structures of architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, social, scientific or technical importance”. Each planning authority in the country is obliged to keep an RPS as part of its development plan. (Read our interview with the Chief Architect at the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH) about their work on conserving buildings on the RPS here.)

The point of putting structures on the RPS is to protect them from harm but also to control all future changes to them. It means the owner or occupier must carry out the works necessary to protect the structure from things like neglect, harm or decay. In addition, planning permission is needed for work that “would materially affect” the building’s character. 

The latest figures given to Dublin City councillors show that there’s a large number of nominated additions to the RPS – around 220 proposals requested by elected representatives and members of the public since 2006, and more than 1,250 recommendations made by Minister since 2014. That’s a slight drop on the waiting list from 1,700 in March 2019, but shows that there are hundreds of buildings at risk of demolition even though they’re being considered for protection. As they’re not on the list yet, just nominated for consideration, they are at risk of demolition.

Anyone can write to a planning authority to recommend a structure be placed on that area’s RPS, but the final decision on it is made by the elected members of the planning authority. 

But is this system of being on or off the RPS fit for purpose – and what do the controversial demolitions listed above say about Ireland’s relationship to its built heritage?

To list or not to list

Green Party TD and former Dublin city councillor Patrick Costello believes that Ireland should move more towards the British system of classifying protected structures. 

“The area is not properly resourced and the area most at risk is 20th century architecture,” said Deputy Costello. “Dublin’s industrial heritage is grotesquely neglected at the best of times.” 

“Our approach to this very black and white. It’s you are on the list or you’re not on it.”

By comparison, Britain uses a graded system for listed buildings, with three grades:

  • Grade I: Buildings of exceptional interest
  • Grade 2: Particularly important buildings of more than special interest
  • Grade II: Buildings that are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them

“There is a need for denser cities,” said Costello. “It’s not as simple as the RPS gets in the way but a more subtle thing: the UK has a grading system and [certain buildings on it] need to be preserved exactly as they were. A lot of our 20th century buildings don’t need to be preserved to that extent. Perhaps they could undergo modernisation, allow changes internally while keeping the outside. That would be an appropriate approach for some structures but not others.”

The black and white doesn’t help things. It creates a perception that the RPS gets in the way, even though it doesn’t always.

But he said that the RPS “can make preservation much more expensive – it needs to be done in a more specialised way”. He suggested that the legislation underpinning the RPS could be changed to allow some more leeway along the lines of the British system. But at the same time, he wants stronger powers for restoration. 

This ties in with the area of planning enforcement, and Costello, a former councillor, said that councils don’t generally have the resources to go to court over every case. Instead, they often take enforcement cases they can definitely win, due to the potential costs. He said that tied in with this is “a weakness of enforcement”. 

However Graham Hickey, conservation officer at the Dublin Civic Trust, said that introducing the British listing system in Ireland wouldn’t be ideal. He said that the British system is “completely different”, as they have a different built heritage, including buildings like palaces. 

“Ireland’s buildings are much more homogenous. If we bring in a grading system it needs a huge amount of more resources in the local authorities to manage it. But also we know the main intention of it would be to strike thousands of buildings off our protected structure list.”

He said that “very often it’s perceived that the RPS means you can’t put a nail in a wall  – it couldn’t be farther from the truth”.

“Our system is more flexible than the British system,” said Hickey. “In Dublin Civic Trust we are hugely concerned at proposals to deregulate our protected structure system under the guise of producing more housing.”

Conservation work

download (9) NIAH NIAH

Hickey said that conservation and good building practice has “improved enormously” and that the standards of works have improved.

But he added: “In terms of the under the radar [work] that goes on, that’s as prevalent as ever. In a strange way it’s almost a parallel system if you decide not to go in for planning permission. We know in areas like Dublin’s historic core and Dublin 1 there is rampant unauthorised works on protected structures and Georgian houses. That kind of work has always gone on and continues to go on.”

He said that the issue of enforcing such behaviour comes down to whether it is reported or not. “If the public doesn’t submit to the council, nothing happens. It’s not proactive, it’s reactive,” he said.

He said that conservation is better resourced in Britain, with more conservation officers in local authorities – although that said, there has still been a large decline in the numbers of these officers in the last few decades. 

Hickey also believes that the issue in Dublin is that the planning enforcement system is based within the planning section, so a planning officer is appointed to deal with planning enforcement cases, not a conservation officer.

Hickey said that there is “the perfect storm of our housing crisis conflating with a lot of vacancy in buildings”, and that the Civic Trust is seeing a lot of conversion of Georgian buildings in the city centre without planning permission. 

He believes some structures in parts of the city like Merrion Square would be dealt with differently to buildings in inner city areas like Mountjoy Square and Gardiner St. 

“It’s a lot got to do with attitudes as well as REITs or investment funds being compliant and having the resources to engage people. In the north Georgian core it’s a free-for-all, much as it always has been.”

A study done on conservation grant funds found that “it’s the middle class south suburbs where people apply for them”, said Hickey. 

“Our most vulnerable buildings are based in Dublin 1 and 2 and there’s scant grants [going there]. It needs a joined-up approach.” 

They’re part of our physical identity and in Ireland we tend not to put as much emphasis on our built heritage as we do on intangible forms of culture.

Hickey said that the heritage buildings are important for many reasons, including how they were “made from handcrafted materials in a way that will never be produced in humanity again, in terms of craftsmanship and quality of materials used”.

Caring for these buildings would have benefits for the community and wider city, he indicated.

‘We seem to just disregard our heritage as unimportant’

This is something that was also brought up by Frank O’Connor, who is based in Cork City. When he and his partner Jude Sherry (they run the Anois systems design agency, and are passionate about sustainability) moved to Cork in 2018, they were struck by the depth of its built heritage – and the amount of derelict buildings they kept seeing.

They started to keep track of these buildings, sharing them on Twitter. He and Sherry have even made a request for the Sextant to be rebuilt, and he noted these kinds of requests (which don’t guarantee a result, but which do show there is local interest) can be done through the local council.

PastedImage-30627 Frank O'Connor / Twitter Frank O'Connor / Twitter / Twitter

He said that there seems to be a bit of a “lack of understanding around heritage and its importance for our economy and our people”. He and Sherry want to shine a light on the dereliction and its impact: “We seem to just disregard our heritage in Ireland as unimportant.”

“You come somewhere like Cork, which is an absolutely stunning city, walk around and sadly we’re knocking it down or allowing it to decay or replacing with glass boxes. I am all about development and progress and that combination, but if you destroy all that heritage what makes Cork, Dublin or Limerick significant?” he said.

“I think we need a fundamental shift to our mindset in Ireland before it’s too late. Future generations will try and rebuild our cities, they will go back on old photographs. It’s happening in some other countries, the Dutch are beginning to rebuild certain things.”

It’s only as you get older we get more emotional about these things and recognise them, but we also have a responsibility to ensure future generations can also appreciate it.

He said that Cork “is far more significant from a heritage point of view than I realised”, and he noticed that Corkonians don’t seem to realise it either. 

For example,the use of limestone and sandstone distinguishes Cork city from other areas, he said.

There are influences from Italy, from the Dutch. 1750-1840 was a key period in Cork, we had all this wonderful architecture built.
It’s only in the last 50 years where a lot of the stuff has been destroyed.

O’Connor believes Cork city should be taking care of its historic core, which differentiates it from other competing locations when it comes to business and tourism. 

“If you are surrounded by derelict and decaying heritage, it affects people’s mental health,” he added. 

O’Connor also pointed out that “the most sustainable [building] is an existing one”. Rather than tear down a building to build another, the focus could be seeing on what could be done with the existing building. 

He believes that there will constantly be discussions and upset over buildings being knocked “until we take a shift in understanding” in Ireland. 

“If you were living in Belgium and the Netherlands there would be a whole different perspective. We lived in Amsterdam and they know every building, all the materials, the dating, the ownership, it’s all controlled – you have to maintain your building, you have a custodial building, your responsibility is to maintain the cultural heritage.”

But he cautioned that it’s “not just about the old church building or old State building, old institutions – it’s about that small terrace in the city that’s there for 200 years. It’s just as important to maintain those as well.”

With regard to dereliction, he said there are lots of existing policy measures, but ”the problem is there no political will to implement them, or cultural will”. 

Economy and wellbeing

John Hegarty, an architect based in Cork, works with Save Cork City, who are “trying to protect the heritage of the city of Cork”. 

“I would say we are failing in Cork to capitalise on what heritage could mean for our economy and for the wellbeing of citizens,” he said, echoing the thoughts of O’Connor. He too believes that maintaining the historic core of the city would have multiple benefits for the people living here, and for attracting business and tourism.

The development of the docklands in the city – where the Sextant pub was – “needs to be hand in hand with protection of heritage”, he said. “The historic core will support the potential of the docklands.”

He added: “When we think about necessity and how we didn’t have enough resources in the past, we don’t think to think about heritage protection, but heritage protection is protecting the resources of the future.”

He surmised that as Ireland has known austere times ,”we may be reacting too quickly and we may be losing what are our best assets”.

Whereas the idea [of protecting heritage] is being degraded into some idea of backwardness, the reality is the backwardness is the development that doesn’t consider the asset that is the historical city.

 ”We’ve had a lot of societal issues in this country that we’ve been working through in the past 50 years. We are now facing this situation where we have to take our environment more seriously because we are harming our own citizens in the way we are treating heritage and the way we are not looking after our heritage towns and cities,” he said.

For Hegarty, focusing on protecting built heritage isn’t about getting stuck in the past.

“We can care for our historic environment and embrace technology and progress while also feeding our creative souls that come up with the ideas that make us a vibrant economy.”

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