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Why we should support the Heritage Council for another 20 years

Its funding has been decimated but it preserves our historical gems and pulls in tourists – what’s not to love?

Neil Jackman

TWENTY YEARS AGO in 1995, President Mary Robinson signed the Heritage Act into law, formally establishing the Heritage Council on a statutory basis. Over the last twenty years, the Heritage Council have played a pivotal role in helping to preserve and promote Ireland’s history, heritage and culture.

Ireland’s heritage is one of our country’s most important assets, and covers everything from our ancient megalithic tombs, to the ruins of our numerous ancient monasteries, our fine medieval castles and abbeys, to the echoes of our past in the architecture and layout of our towns and cities and everything in-between.

Heritage also covers our natural environment, our traditional music, storytelling, our literary and cultural wealth, our traditional crafts and industries.

Heritage is even more valuable than the preservation of the buildings from past cultures. Heritage is a vibrant and powerful engine for economic growth, civic pride and education.

It is our heritage that helps to define us, it is our heritage that makes our country look the way it does, it is our heritage (archaeological, architectural, food, music, literary, storytelling and crafts) that gives Ireland its unique soul.

Source: The Heritage Council

Our heritage pulls in the crowds – and a lot of money

In terms of economic growth, the value of heritage to Irish tourism in particular is of enormous importance. Tourism is one of the most sustainable and powerful of Ireland’s economic sectors. In 2013, the tourism sector supported approximately 200,000 jobs and brought in an estimated €3.3bn to the Irish economy (excluding airfares and ferry costs).

Those numbers increased last year with 7.6 million overseas visitors coming to Ireland in 2014. By 2025 it is aimed that there will be over 10 million overseas visitors annually bringing in an estimated €5.5bn.

But the key question is why do they choose Ireland? It certainly isn’t for the sunny weather, they can get beaches, cocktails, casinos and 30ºc sun elsewhere. They come to Ireland for the people and the place, prizing the beautiful landscape, the wealth of heritage sites and the authentic culture.

Source: The Heritage Council

A study by Fáilte Ireland found that nearly 90% of tourists who come to Ireland say our heritage is an important factor for their decision to holiday here. However all of that culture and heritage, be it the historic or archaeological monuments themselves, our towns and villages, our landscapes, traditions, traditional food, crafts and music all need investment and work to help them become accessible and to ensure their survival into the future.

The Heritage Council is a vital cog

Since it was established in the mid 1990s by then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D Higgins; the Heritage Council has become one of our most fundamentally vital and successful organisations that helps to ensure the future preservation and accessibility of our heritage and culture.

They have worked on a vast array of projects all over the island. From flagships like the Museum Standards Programme for Ireland that helps over 61 museums ranging from major national cultural institutions to local community museums, empowering them through training and management to reach extremely high standards of custodianship, conservation, and public accessibility and interaction.

Other nationally vital programmes instigated or aided by the Heritage Council include vital works and programmes for the archaeological profession in Ireland, such as the establishment of the Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research (INSTAR) programme.

The Heritage Council also are a vital cog for local community development, through the establishment of the regional Heritage Officer network. These regional officers work alongside the county councils with the local communities to help with a huge array of projects, open days, talks, promotion and marketing work as well as practical and professional advice and support through conservation and grant schemes.

Getting kids involved

The Heritage in Schools scheme is also another of the great success stories, with nearly 100,000 primary school children across Ireland benefitting from school visits from heritage specialists, who introduce the children to a variety of subjects and themes covering our archaeology, history, natural heritage and culture.

Source: The Heritage Council

Perhaps the most widely known output of the Heritage Council is the annual Heritage Week. Every year in the last week of August, hundreds of thousands of people attend thousands of events all across the country, ranging from free open days at particular monuments and sites, talks by experts and historians, concerts, guided tours and walks, fun-days, workshops and classes.

But…

However despite the Heritage Council’s vital role in helping to protect and promote our natural and built heritage, the council’s funding has been absolutely decimated since the economic downturn began.

An Irish Examiner article recently highlighted the savage nature of the cutbacks, stating that Heritage Council funding has been slashed by 90% since 2011. Back in 2011, during some of the worst times of the financial crisis, the Heritage Council were able to allocate grants totalling €4.6m for more than 400 projects. By 2012 that had been slashed to €2.25. By 2013, no money at all was made available to the Heritage Council in the grants programme. In 2014, a modest fund of €700,000 was allocated.

This funding apocalypse actively hampers efforts to boost tourism, Fáilte Ireland’s new initiative ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ is directly focused on heritage tourism, without the Heritage Council with the means to help develop and deliver the concept, this extremely promising initiative may not realise its full potential.

Source: Marc O'Sullivan for The Heritage Council

The future?

Despite the funding cuts, the Heritage Council continues to work diligently, and has actively increased the amount of community participation in recent years.

The Heritage Council has contributed greatly to Ireland over the last twenty years and rightly deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated for its achievements. Let us hope that it is given the environment and means to continue to help and contribute for another twenty years.

Neil Jackman is an archaeologist and the owner of Abarta Audioguides. He authors the Heritage Ireland series for TheJournal.ie.

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