For decades An Taisce has been fighting a battle to protect our natural heritage and to save many threatened aspects of our built heritage. This has been an uphill struggle, often carried on in the face of great hostility because of public and political attitudes, too often governed by concern for short-term economic or financial gain, and too rarely influenced by recognition of the crucial importance of preserving what we have inherited from the past.

So crude and widespread has been neglect of and even hostility to attempts to preserve both aspects of our heritage that An Taisce has had to fight on too many fronts at the same time – sometimes having to make difficult choices as to where to concentrate its efforts in the face of the need to counter so many threats.

The national neglect of our heritage has been influenced by several different forces. One of the most potent – although in recent years somewhat less prevalent than in the past – was a concern to give absolute priority to economic development over any other consideration. If an investor wanted to plonk down a factory in a beauty spot, he must be allowed to do as he pleased: no attempt should be made to ask him to locate it more suitably, lest that put him off the project.

Secondly, the pattern of dispersed rural development outside of villages, dictated by the predominantly cattle economy of our past, must be continued and replicated despite a quite different modern social environment, and this regardless of its impact on pollution of our rivers and water supply through often unreliable septic tanks, and the burden thus imposed on our postal, telephone, and electricity services.

Third, for several decades our society was strongly influenced by some single-minded engineers, and very little by architects with a sense of social needs, of history, and/or of beauty. This led to such monstrosities as the Clanbrassil Street near-motorway, the destruction of the vista of Lower Fitzwilliam Street, the Wood Quay disaster, and most recently the insensitive routing of the M3... Fourth, there survived, right throughout the 20th century, an animus against the former ruling class and their houses – many of which had been burnt down between 1920 and 1923. And monuments erected in the pre-independence period were blown up or torn down.

As someone both of whose parents were engaged in the struggle for Irish independence from 1913 to 1922, I could never understand this latter form of iconoclasm, the effect of which has been to deprive us many reminders of the fact our parents – or nowadays for most people, grandparents or great-grandparents – had to undergo great hardships and dangers in order to achieve an independent Irish state.

The cumulative impact of all these negative influences upon the environment of our new state was appalling – and nearly all of it was irrecoverable. An Taisce, its members and the officers who led it throughout the past 40 years, were unsung heroes of late 20th century Ireland. I am happy to have an opportunity today to sing their praises.

But so much more could have been done about saving our heritage if enlightened governments had endowed it with the kind of resources that would have enabled it to operate more effectively.

I tried in government in the mid-1970s to persuade my colleagues to offer a generous scheme to owners of great houses to restore and maintain them. There is no better way to preserve this part of our built heritage than to draw on and support the extraordinary commitment of the hereditary owners of such houses, or in some cases people who have taken over a commitment to such a swelling out of a sense of public duty, to save them for future generations. The economic situation in the 1970s and 1980s made this impossible, but some progress has since been made in this direction.

I should have loved to have been able in the 1980s to save the Kildare FitzGerald’s great house at Carton, but this was simply not possible then. I am greatly relieved that this has since been skillfully and sensitively undertaken by a wonderfully committed entrepreneur and his family who has done a better job than the state could ever have done with all the constraints under which it is required to operate.

At least we live in a somewhat more enlightened time today, although much yet remains to be done to help An Taisce to fulfill its self-imposed mandate.