Image of Tully Church by Stephen Cross 


An Taisce appeared before the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government, and Heritage to give an analysis of the effects, to date, of the National Monuments Act (1930 – 2004), and future challenges for the proposed new legislation, the Monuments and Archaeological Heritage Bill.

Read An Taisce's Opening Statement Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government, and Heritage.

Read An Taisce's full submission to the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government, and Heritage.

Read the Revised General Scheme of Monuments and Archaeological Heritage Bill.

Introduction and Background

The National Monuments Act was passed in 1930. Over the ensuing years, there have been periodical amendments made to the Act. Special reference should be made to the sterling work conducted under the auspices of Ministers Michael D. Higgins and Síle de Valera in 1987 and 1994, respectively.

All amendments to the Act were passed with one motivation, and that was to perfect, strengthen, and streamline the protection of our National Built Heritage. Indeed, so successful had these amendments been, that the Heritage protection legislation of this State reached the point of being the envy of colleagues from most other European jurisdictions. And then in 2004 another amendment appeared that,
from a Heritage and Cultural perspective, undid all the good work of previous generations and cast us in legislative terms, if you’ll forgive the expression, back into the Stone Age.

In 2001 the Heritage Council had published ‘Archaeological Features at Risk: A Survey measuring the Recent Destruction of Ireland’s Archaeological Heritage’. The survey established that 34% of the State’s archaeological monuments had been destroyed since 1840, and that the destruction was continuing at an alarming rate. Land ‘improvement’ work bearing a large responsibility for the ongoing destruction.

Yet, despite this warning, the 2004 Amendment determined that:

(14A. -1) ‘The consent of the Minister … shall not be required where the works involved are connected with an approved road development’

But! What if a totally unsuspected monument of clear archaeological and heritage importance was discovered during the course of said development? The answer provided by the Amendment was:

(14A. – 4d.) ‘The Minister may, at his discretion, issue directions to the road authority concerned for the doing to such monument …’
(i) ‘Preserve it’ – [Comment: As would be expected in the case of an exceptional discovery].
(ii) ‘Renovate or restore it’ – [Comment: Same response].
(v) ‘Demolish or remove it wholly or in part or to disfigure, deface, alter, or in any manner injure or interfere with it, And the Road Authority shall comply with such directions’.

One might suggest, that it was remarkable and horrifying that these words should have ever appeared in a “Monument and Heritage Protection” Act. It is, therefore, of great relief to find that the latter clause will be consigned by the proposed Bill to the dustbin where it belongs. We are left, however, with an enduring negative impact and legacy by the ethos created by the 2004 Amendment.

This State has never failed to promote and trade on the great history and heritage of the island. Fáilte Ireland relentlessly sells it abroad. ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ being one example. Tourists are encouraged to visit our ancient monuments and historic sites. And yet, as tourism has constantly grown our menu of sites to visit remains painfully static.

A few simple questions: How many archaeological licences to excavate have been issued by the State in the past 20 years?

Answer: Over 20,000. How many new archaeological monuments were discovered as a result? No official figures are compiled but on cursory study, approximately 75% of licenced excavations have produced archaeological remains of some description. So, approximately 15,000 new archaeological sites of varying significance have been discovered over the past two decades.

But! Where are they? The truth is that most have been physically removed. Are we to believe, therefore, that practically all of them were not worth keeping? That none of the thousands of newly discovered monuments deserved nothing more than a dusty report on a shelf? That evaluation would mean that a serious financial investment in archaeological field investigation, and we’re talking multi-millions here, has had the most miserable return in terms of visitor-destination-creation value for money.

Clearly, we need more and more new sites of historical and/or archaeological interest to cater to an ever-growing number of visitors to our shores. Yet, while the archaeologists have been busy finding these new monuments of interest, the State has been busy facilitating their systematic removal, resting on the full support of blatantly discriminatory legislation. But what now? If, as hoped the legislation is rectified, as the current proposed Bill is designed to achieve, there would still be residual problems.

One simple question: How can it be appropriate for a minister who has granted an excavation licence on strict archaeological conditions, be the authority who can subsequently issue the destruction order for the same monument, in direct contravention of the terms of the original licence?

Surely, it should be unacceptable that the fate of a monument that is thousands of years old is subject to the decision of one minister de-la-jour? The current Act states that, in considering the fate of a monument, ‘the minister is not restricted to archaeological considerations alone but is entitled to consider the public interest’.

But who exactly is to determine what ‘the public interest’ is? It is apparent from cases that have arisen to date, that the decision making, as recently practised, is firmly rooted in terms of financial considerations alone. Who can determine that the cultural and heritage aspects of an exceptional monument or historical landscape do not transcend base financial criteria?

The relevant minister will invariably be guided by political designs. The minister’s officials and employees will inevitably have to service the agenda of the incumbent. They would be brave to do otherwise! Their independence is therefore stymied. It should be acknowledged, however, that there have been some very brave individuals over the years.

‘Archaeology’ is a broad church. There are multiple subdivisions within the discipline, as a result of the lengthy list of monument and artefact types. It would be generally accepted that the majority of the recognised leading authorities on the various elements of ‘Archaeology’ are to be found outside the
Public Service. A look through the relevant published textbooks will make that plain.
It is a nonsense not to avail of the expertise of these exert individuals when it comes to the evaluation and fate of an exceptional monument or landscape.

How can it be acceptable that there is no ‘Cultural/Heritage Court of Appeal’ or Cultural Ombudsman to adjudicate on the fate of disputed sites and monuments of

Read An Taisce's Opening Statement Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government, and Heritage.
Read An Taisce's full submission to the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government, and Heritage.
Read the Revised General Scheme of Monuments and Archaeological Heritage Bill.