European Year of Industrial Heritage to be celebrated

Published in Editorial, Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Volume 23

Heritage Week, 22–30 August 2015

During this year’s Heritage Week (22–30 August) Ireland, along with twenty other countries across Europe, will be celebrating the European Year of Industrial Heritage. Upwards of 100,000 sites of industrial archaeological interest survive on this island, varying in size from small rural limekilns (probably the most common) to Ballincollig gunpowder mills, Co. Cork, which, at 435 acres, is the largest industrial archaeological site in Ireland and the second largest of its type ever to have been constructed in Europe. Many of these sites are commonly found within incredibly rich and varied landscapes, which, up to the advent of the Celtic Tiger, had survived with little human interference. This extremely fortunate state of affairs is, for the most part, a consequence of the general lack of industrial development in Ireland. While this has enabled a large number of important sites to survive—even within the environs of the major towns and cities—these have been hidden from view, although this is not always the case. The former Poolbeg electricity generating station chimneys, built in 1971 and 1978 and decommissioned in 2010, are now seen as ‘iconic industrial heritage’ by an increasing number of Dubliners. There is also a growing awareness that, in addition to their importance as industrial archaeology/heritage, the loss of these 680ft (207m) monoliths would remove two of Dublin’s key landmarks. This is exactly the kind of foresight that all aspects of our industrial heritage will require in the future.

The landscapes of industrial and industrialising Ireland have remained as much undiscovered as they have been unimagined. Up to very recently, they had barely been acknowledged by legislation in the Republic of Ireland, where all post-1700 buildings had long been seen as ‘colonial’ and thus iconic of British rule. Fortunately, this misplaced sense of national identity has long since ceased to influence most people’s perception of Ireland’s built environment in the period of European industrialisation. While historic industrial sites and monuments are still ‘undervalued’, in the sense that they have been subject to much less scrutiny relative to sites of earlier periods, within the last two decades both local and national government in Ireland has begun to act more favourably towards them.

Fancroft Mill, near Roscrea, Co. Tipperary: a multi-storey flour mill of c. 1780, magnificently conserved and restored to working order by its present owners, Marcus and Irene Sweeney. As part of Heritage Week it will be open to the public on Saturday 29 August. Booking @ Fancroft.ie. (Marcus and Irene Sweeney)

Fancroft Mill, near Roscrea, Co. Tipperary: a multi-storey flour mill of c. 1780, magnificently conserved and restored to working order by its present owners, Marcus and Irene Sweeney. As part of Heritage Week it will be open to the public on Saturday 29 August. Booking @ Fancroft.ie. (Marcus and Irene Sweeney)

Owing to severe resource restraints in Ireland—principally the lack of coal and iron ore—eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish industries tended to be concentrated around port towns. Most of the centres of production and consumption, indeed, were on the east coast, where some four-fifths of the coal imported into Ireland was consumed. Yet some industrial activities, such as mining, were generally located quite some distance from existing centres of population. As early as the seventeenth century, Irish ironmasters had been obliged to provide, in varying degrees, accommodation, land and a basic social infrastructure for their skilled workers. These latter measures were largely an inducement to attract the requisite personnel from English—and even European—ironworking regions to settle in this country, and by this means relatively large immigrant communities were to become temporarily settled throughout the island. This same settlement pattern was to be continued in the nineteenth century in key Irish extractive industries, where again English and Welsh mining specialists were housed in what were often self-sufficient industrial communities.

Mining settlements, then, tended to be sited away from existing settlements, but so also were early factories and other industrial installations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in order to harness a reliable supply of water power. In this way, whole new villages were created in which housing and other amenities were provided by companies anxious that their workforce be close at hand and also, to a certain extent, easier to control. Workers’ housing in nineteenth-century Ireland could also be built under the auspices of philanthropic societies or local authorities, although the accommodation provided was intended to improve the living conditions of the working classes in general and was not specific to any factory or, indeed, industry. Ireland’s partial and largely incomplete industrialisation was truly one of bold contradictions. Her shipbuilding, linen, brewing and milling industries were of international significance. But in other sectors industrial growth was extremely limited, which was not to significantly change after independence.

The contribution of voluntary organisations in Ireland, north and south, as in the UK, to the preservation of industrial heritage has been enormous. And here, as elsewhere in these islands, the predictable complacency of the state authorities entrusted with the protection of historic buildings and landscapes towards nearly all structures associated with the later historic period has provided an extra fillip to their efforts. But for how long can such a ‘hands-off’ approach be sustained, where the state heritage authorities continue to value archaeological sites and monuments grouped in the conventional (one might say ‘safe’) chronological categories more highly than those of the later historic/industrial period? The perception that a building’s historical value is directly related to its age (regardless of the frequency with which similar building types occur elsewhere or even within a particular locality) is, unfortunately, an erroneous but deep-rooted one.

Colin Rynne is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology, University College Cork.

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