In 2020, government responsibility for heritage moved from the Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht to the Department of Housing. As stated in the Heritage Act (2018), the department is responsible for “promoting interest in and knowledge, appreciation and protection of the national heritage.” Other Government departments and agencies also impact heritage, such as the Department of the Environment and the Office of Public Works (OPW). The OPW responsible for the day-to-day maintenance and presentation of all national monuments in state care and national historic properties.
The Heritage Act of 1995 established the Heritage Council as a public body with the task “to propose policies and priorities for the identification, protection, preservation and enhancement of the national heritage, including monuments, archaeological objects, heritage objects, architectural heritage, flora, fauna, wildlife habitats, landscapes, seascapes, wrecks, geology, heritage gardens and parks and inland waterways.” The Council has a small staff of circa twenty. The Heritage Council coordinates circa 2,200 events across the country as part of an annual national heritage week to celebrate Ireland’s built, natural and cultural heritage.
At regional level, there are 27 county heritage officers employed by local authorities in partnership with the Heritage Council and under the auspices of the Heritage Officer Programme, which was initiated in 1999. Their role is to promote heritage awareness, to develop policy and provide advice and information on local as well as national heritage issues.
Although intangible heritage was never clearly defined under the Heritage Act, there is a history of protection and preservation of intangible heritage. The National Folklore Collection at the University College Dublin, with circa two million manuscript pages, is recognised as one of Europe’s largest archives of oral tradition and cultural history and inscribed to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. This recently digitized collection documents many aspects of local Irish language, traditions, and customs from the early twentieth century.
In 2018, the Minister of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht launched a four-month public consultation process to inform the development of the new national heritage plan for Ireland, Heritage Ireland 2030. There were some welcome minor changes in policy direction reflective of contemporary concerns around climate change. However, An Taisce (an independent charity that preserves and protects Ireland’s natural and built heritage) responded with grave concern that the Government was not taking climate change into account sufficiently. They called for a plan that “recognises the scale and urgency of the threats facing our natural world through mass extinction and climate change.”
The Department’s policy intent with Heritage Ireland 2030 is to have an integrated approach to heritage across the whole of Government where relevant to other policy areas, which is similar to the approach proposed in the Culture 2025 policy framework and tied under the objectives of Project Ireland 2040. The difficulty with this approach is that subsequent governments need to follow this same strategy. More often, the incoming government makes changes or rewrites the national strategy to match their political manifesto.
According to An Taisce, “the vision in Heritage Ireland 2030 lacks any clear objectives, or any real targets […] Promulgation of policy, and the promotion of partnerships, community projects and engagement is irrelevant unless legally effective and adequately resourced and timetabled actions are put forward. These actions will need to be targeted and measurable, and should address, amongst other things, biodiversity loss, and threats to cultural heritage.”
Lack of funding is one of the biggest issues impeding the protection of Ireland’s natural heritage, according to An Taisce. In comparison to other EU countries of comparable wealth, support for the protection of landscape and cultural heritage in Ireland is poor.
Heritage at the Heart is the title of the Heritage Council’s strategy for the years 2018-2022. Beyond the aspirational language of ‘nurturing belonging’, the strategic plan is short on clear goals and targets that reach beyond maintaining the status quo.
Heritage and tourism
The impact of tourism on cultural heritage and heritage policy is an ever-present policy challenge in Ireland. While Ireland currently enjoys a low population density, there is a belief that tangible and intangible cultural heritage assets offer an endless resource to promote tourism while still offering such assets as meaningful amenities for local communities. The Heritage Act could offer better support for the common ownership and responsibility for the national environment, intangible heritage and recent heritage. There are a number of areas in the legislation that offer too much protection to the landowner.
As recent urban development has affected the capital city Dublin, urban cultures such as nightclub culture have been negatively affected with a recent trend of venues being developed into hotels. At times the protection of this less tangible cultural participation is inadequate against the tide of development of hotels for the tourist economy.
In 2020, the newly formed coalition government has further increased the potential for instrumental use of cultural heritage to achieve tourism goals by placing responsibility for culture and tourism under the aegis of the same department.
The Irish Landmark Trust is a non-profit organisation founded in 1992 that finds interesting and unusual properties that are in need of conservation and protection. The Landmark Trust’s mission is to ‘nurture the symbiotic relationship between heritage and tourism’. While the relationship between tourism and heritage is an important one, it is also understandable that tensions exist within this relationship around the balance between protecting fragile heritage for present and future local communities and developing a robust and sustainable tourism offer.