Carrickmines Castle and the heritage war

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), News, News, Volume 12

As many readers are doubtless aware, attempts to complete a section of the M50 motorway in south County Dublin have been stalled by a heated dispute between the authorities and conservationists over the remains of an important medieval frontier fortress in Carrickmines Valley. Either side of the Christmas holidays the campaign to save Carrickmines Castle received two setbacks in the High Court, with the lifting of a temporary injunction preventing further interference with the site, and the refusal of the protestors’ application for a judicial review. The fate of the castle grounds, it seems, is sealed, and the hugely rewarding excavation carried out there will end prematurely, with only part of the site properly explored. Yet perhaps not. Despite their recent reverses, the castle campaigners have vowed to fight on. As I write, they are considering an appeal to the Supreme Court, and they hope also to secure the intervention of the European Parliament, which funds part of the motorway construction project.

Why do the campaigners bother? Certainly not for the publicity. In return for their efforts they have been widely criticised. Politicians, businesspeople and now the Irish Times have accused them of ‘opposing progress’, of trying to ‘stop the motorway’, thereby compounding Dublin’s chronic traffic problems—and all this while ‘wasting millions’ of euros in ‘pointless’ legal action. What a dastardly lot they seem, what cranks! What bunkum!
The castle campaigners should be applauded, not condemned, for what they are trying to do. Notwithstanding the ill-informed comments of the Irish Times editorial, the ‘Carrickminders’ have never sought to oppose the completion of the M50. All they ask is that the present route (adopted in 1998) be changed back to the original (approved in 1993), which avoided the castle site.

That this modest position has led to protracted legal proceedings is due to the refusal of the authorities to negotiate. Even when it was pointed out that the proposed works at Carrickmines were in breach of both Irish law and European conventions the authorities maintained a stance of truculent rejection. The legal action taken by the campaigners has drawn the most flak precisely because it is the most important thing they have done. On paper Ireland has some of the best heritage protection laws and guidelines in Europe. Not that you would notice. In practice they are often ignored—and sometimes broken—by a central and local government that behaves as though it is above the law, and apparently will do almost anything, tell any lie, to get its way. As with Wood Quay in 1977, when an official said the site was of no interest because the Anglo-Normans were ‘British’, officials and politicians have made the crassest comments about Carrickmines (the castle was ‘unknown’ before the roadworks commenced, there is ‘none of it left’, it ‘can’t be found’, etc.). Sadly, some of these opinions are derived from an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) carried out by archaeological contractors. An investigation of the EIS commissioned by the European Parliament found that the statement was flawed, having managed to miss much of what was known in easily available sources about the extent of the castle site and its historical importance. So much for commercial archaeology!

For a hundred years or so the site of Carrickmines Castle has been a recorded monument. As such it is protected by the National Monuments Act that stipulates that it can only be tampered with (a) in the interests of public health and safety or (b) in the interests of archaeology. Neither applies: the castle site is a field, offering no threat to man or beast, and it hardly benefits archaeology to cover it in concrete. But no matter: to push ahead with the road plan the National Roads Authority, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council and the ministers for transport and environment simply denied that the castle site was a monument. (Strangely, the monument symbol previously attached to the castle disappeared from maps of County Dublin in the 1990s.) When in February 2003 in the Supreme Court the campaigners won a temporary injunction by proving that the castle was a monument, and so was protected by legislation, Minister for the Environment Martin Cullen—who also has responsibility for heritage—performed his great conjuring trick. Before going on his summer holidays he asked himself as heritage minister whether it was acceptable for him as environment minister to grant consent for the demolition of the site. To cheers from the watching crowds of builders and developers—not to mention the property speculators who stand to make a fortune through ‘compensation’ for nearby lands—he said ‘Yes’, and the castle was doomed. In accordance with the law, his order was laid before the Dáil, but there was no vote; there wasn’t even a debate. The Oireachtas Policy Committee on Transport refused to hear evidence by the campaigners because there was ‘no time available’. And so the National Monuments Act was circumvented, just as it was in the 1970s over Wood Quay.

This has got to stop. Why is it so ‘unreasonable’, so ‘irresponsible’, to ask that our authorities respect historical sites and monuments when designing roads and roundabouts? Failing that, why can’t they just uphold the law, and stop trying to circumvent it? By being so bloody-minded about Carrickmines, the authorities have now made it a test case for all monuments, many more of which are in grave danger. Unbelievably, the archaeological landscape of Tara, one of our greatest treasures (and a major tourist attraction), is now threatened by the M3 motorway in County Meath, which will go straight through the Tara–Skreen Valley, destroying 70 buried monuments that lie directly in its path and adversely affecting another 70 that lie to either side. Other road projects elsewhere have also been designed without regard for heritage. Good luck to the Carrickminders. Let’s hope other sites are defended as stoutly.

Since this article was written the Carrickminders have appealed successfully to the Supreme Court. Granted a judicial review, they proved that the government had acted beyond its powers in consenting to the destruction of the site. The authorities have reacted by saying that the laws are too inflexible and must be changed.
David Edwards lectures in Irish history at University College Cork.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568