Skellig Michael restored to death?—A response

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Letters, Letters, Pre-Norman History, Volume 16


—The ‘Platform’ article ‘Restored to death? Skellig Michael’s WorldHeritage Status under threat’ by Michael Gibbons (HI 15.3, May/June2007) calls into question the professional standards enployed in thecurrent conservation programme at Skellig Michael. As the seniorprofessional staff responsible for this project, we wish to respond tothe main points raised by Mr Gibbons.
Skellig Michael, which is a national monument in state ownership, hasbeen the subject of detailed study and conservation works since thelate 1970s. These works were necessitated by the serious structuralweaknesses that had become apparent in many of the drystone features,owing in part to the vicissitudes of time and weathering but also tothe impact of increasing visitor numbers. The project presented manychallenges over the years, both professional and logistical, but at alltimes a multi-disciplinary approach was taken, with the architects,engineers, archaeologists and other specialists working together as ateam. Preservation of the monastic structures for future generationshas been the underlying philosophy. Interventions have been necessary,but preservation of original material has been paramount and has beenthe guiding influence at all times. This year (2008) will be the finalyear of the conservation works at the monastic remains, and work hascommenced on a publication that will detail the engineering,architectural and archaeological works undertaken and will attempt toput this unique site into historical context.
Mr Gibbons implies that there has been a disregard for and widespreadremoval of nineteenth-century ‘layers’. There has in fact been nopolicy of removal of nineteenth-century layers or structures. Thecurrent entrance to the monastic enclosure was modified in thenineteenth century and its inner wall was in a state of collapse thatposed a serious danger to visitors entering the monument. Thedismantling of this wall involved detailed recording and fullarchaeological excavation, and the subsequent rebuilding was informedby the information gleaned during the excavation. A similar approachwas taken to a nineteenth-century retaining wall at the lower entranceand other works that had been carried out by the lighthouse-builders toretaining walls within the enclosure. Each section of walling wascarefully studied by the project engineer, Joss Lynam, who is one ofthe foremost experts in drystone construction, and decisions to repairor dismantle were not taken lightly. It is interesting to note thatalmost all of the structural failures related to nineteenth-centuryrepairs. During these works to the retaining walls there was no removalof original monastic remains.
There was no structural modification of the interior of any of thecells, which in fact are remarkably intact. Some minor repairs weremade to the uppermost layers of stone on the exterior of some of thecells where there was a failure of nineteenth-century repairs, wherestones had become dislodged or where they had been deliberately throwndown by visitors.
The altar referred to in the main oratory was a rough construction ofbrick and stone that partly obscured the east window (and longpost-dated the use of the site by pilgrims). Following full survey, thealtar was dismantled to allow serious problems with water egress to beaddressed. This involved archaeological excavation within the oratoryand repair of the uppermost layer of stones on the exterior of theoratory roof. In the final presentation of the oratory, a decision wasmade not to reinstate the altar and instead to allow the visitor tofully appreciate the original space. The altar was not removed becauseit was a late construction.
Mr Gibbons freely quotes assertions in an MA thesis completed in 2000,without checking the facts. Suffice it to say that all features on thesmall oratory terrace (steps, terraces, paving stones and leacht) areoriginal monastic features as revealed during excavation and the smalloratory itself was not rebuilt (repairs were carried out on theuppermost layers of stones on the exterior of the roof). Regarding theinfamous ‘monastic toilet’ which is described as a ‘work of fiction’,this structure was fully exposed during excavation and consolidated insitu. Its height was restored sufficiently to illustrate that it was abeehive structure—an interpretation that is supported by the excavatedevidence. No original masonry was removed. It is worth noting that oneof the fundamental requirements to satisfy UNESCO acceptance as a WorldHeritage Site is ‘authenticity and integrity’. The works described byMr Gibbons as works of fiction had been completed at the time ofinscription and had been deemed acceptable and justified interventionsby the UNESCO inspectorate.
The most recent phase of the work has been concentrated on thehermitage on the South Peak. This part of the monastery has beenstudied, surveyed and monitored since the early 1980s, and the fruitsof this research were published in 1990 as The Forgotten Hermitage ofSkellig Michael (University of California Press). Original features arenot being destroyed on the South Peak as Mr Gibbons suggests. Contraryto his assertions, the intact walls on the oratory terrace were fullyretained. They were not taken down and facsimiles built in their place.Given the steep terrain and the need to provide structural support forthe existing remains, it was necessary to repair some of the walls byadding to their height both to stabilise them and to provide supportfor the original layers which they retained. Genuine archaeologicalremains are not being replaced by ‘faux-monastic twenty-first-centuryimitations’!
The Skelligs project has been a lengthy and complex one and, inaddition to the core professional team, experts have been called in asappropriate. These have ranged from a geologist with specialistinterest in old red sandstone to the late Professor Walter Horn, anarchitectural historian of international repute. Work on the finalreport has commenced and, in the meanwhile, members of the team haveput some of the information in the public domain through publication,public lectures, radio and television interviews and teaching (theSkelligs project is used as a case-study in the UCD Masters in Urbanand Building Conservation course).
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was put in primary legislation inIreland in the Planning and Development Act (2000), and the provisionswere expanded by ministerial regulation in 2001. The conservation ofmonuments does not fall within the definition of a project in thecontext of this directive, nor are conservation works to monumentslisted in the annexes or regulations which detail the types of projectsthat are subject to EIA. Notwithstanding the inapplicability of the EIAdirective as amended, however, the fundamental tenet of thedirective—i.e. that environmental issues are considered in the courseof constant procedures—has been adopted during this project. Since theinception of the project, advice has been sought from the NationalParks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to ensure that there is no adverseimpact on the flora or fauna (particularly the birdlife) of the island.The birdlife is monitored on an annual basis by experts from the NPWSand at no time has there been cause for concern.
Mr Gibbons states that the Operational Guidelines for theImplementation of the World Heritage Convention require a detailedmanagement plan for each World Heritage Site. He is quoting selectivelyfrom this document and leaves out ‘or other management strategy’. Amanagement strategy was formulated in advance of the application toUNESCO and has been in place ever since. This formed an integral partof the discussion on the site with the UNESCO representative. UNESCOwas fully satisfied with the management strategy and Skellig Michaelwas duly inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1996. A review of thismanagement document commenced in 2006 and a draft of a more formalmanagement plan is currently at public consultation stage.
Mr Gibbons states that requests by UNESCO for information fromDEHLG/OPW remain unanswered—this is nonsense. Any communication fromthe World Heritage Centre has been responded to without delay. Thesuggestion that the site may be de-listed is mischievous.
In conclusion, we would reiterate that the works carried out on SkelligMichael are of the highest professional standard. We regret that MrGibbons has chosen not to engage in any meaningful debate with theproject team but instead seeks to publicise ill-informed and factuallyincorrect accusations.—Yours etc.,
Senior Conservation Architect
Heritage Service
Office of Public Works

Senior Archaeologist
National Monuments Service
Dept of the Environment, Heritage & Local Govt


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