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Martin Brennan 2007
Martin Brennan 2007
In some counties of Ireland over 60% of Ireland's Ancient Mounuments have been destroyed.
Mary Raftery reports.

Professional archaeologists are attending a conference in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, this weekend to discuss the alarming rate of destruction of the country's ancient monuments. Tens of thousands of monuments are at the mercy of farmers and land developers. Archaeologists estimate that in each of the 26 counties between 30 and 40% have been destroyed in the last 150 years, and the figure is sometimes as high as 60%.

The monuments which have suffered most are ring forts (homestead settlements which date from 500AD and no longer appear to be protected by superstition), megalithic tombs (from 4,000BC) and early Christian and medieval churches and castles.

Under present legislation, there are two ways in which a monument may be preserved. It may be taken into State care and designated a national monument (there are 650 of these in the country) or it can be included in a county's Development Plan and listed for preservation. There is nothing to prevent the destruction of an unlisted monument but a licence is necessary to excavate it.

One of the problems facing archaeologists at this weekend's conference is that there are no comprehensive figures available on the numbers of ancient monuments in Ireland. In 1963, the Archaeological Survey was set up in the Office of Public Works to establish the location and nature of every monument in the country, a figure estimated to be in excess of 150,000. in the last 20 years, however, the OPW completed detailed surveys of only four counties: Louth, Monaghan, Meath and Westmeath.

When the survey was established it was decided that all resources would be concentrated on the completion of the detailed survey. To date, the survey has published none of its findings, and nor has it provided the local planning authorities of the counties surveyed with maps giving locations of monuments.

Local authorities must rely for their information on the results of a quick preliminary survey carried out in the early 1970s by An Foras Forbartha, which they themselves freely admit is far from complete or adequate. It was also An Foras Forbartha and not the Office of Public Works, who produced an advisory leaflet designed to make farmers more aware of the possible presence of monuments on their land.

Archaeologists point out that we could be well into the 21st century before the Archaeological Survey, which is severely understaffed, competes and publishes its findings. In the meantime, with the increase in intensive farming and land development, the majority of unprotected monuments will have disappeared. "God knows how many years it takes them to do a county," says Ken Mawhinney of An Foras Forbartha. "they're orientated towards the academic side, not towards conservation. The main reason we're active in the area is because no one else is."

Under the National Monuments Act, 1930, the Minister for Finance must appoint a National Monuments Advisory Council (NMAC) every five years. The NMAC was established to advise the Office of Public Works and local planning authorities in the country on the preservation of monuments. It was not re-appointed in 1980, and there appear to be no plans to do so in the near future. The demise of the NMAC has convinced archaeologists that the need for legislation to protect ancient monuments is now more urgent than ever.

"The destruction is proceeding at a horrifying rate," says Dr Michael Herity, a lecturer in archaeology in UCD. "We need legislation similar to that in Denmark and Scandinavia which simply protects all monuments."

Dr John Waddell, president of the Irish Association of Professional Archaeologists, agrees. "Legislation is crucial, but what is also needed is more money and staff to be given to the archaeological survey to enable them to do a preliminary study of the country and publish their results."

"The destruction of a monument," he adds "is similar to someone going into the National Library and ripping a page out of a valuable manuscript. It's sheer vandalism and it must be prevented."

The Rate of Destruction

Figures for the destruction rate of ancient monuments over the last 150 years, available from the Office of Public Works, Indicate that in Louth it is up to 39%, Monaghan 17.5%, Meath 25% and Westmeath 23%. These statistics relate to surveys of the late 1960s, and, according to Michael Herity, they would now be considered under-estimates.

The Archaeological Survey has undertaken preliminary surveys of counties Cavan and Longford, which have had, respectively, 46% and 29% of their ancient monuments destroyed.

Results of preliminary surveys independently carried out by groups of archaeologists indicate that in Donegal 29% of monuments have been destroyed, in Dublin 27%, in Kerry 44%, and in Tipperary 31%; one of the most shocking figures comes from the Cork harbour area, where a staggering 66% of ring forts no longer exist.

Apart from the better-known monuments under threat, such as the giant ring fort at Sillagh in Kildare (which has already been two-thirds destroyed), or the remains of the ring at Fourknocks in Meath, the burial records of an entire era are in danger, according to Michael Herity.


Irish Passage Graves Irish Passage Graves: Neolithic tomb-builders in Ireland and Britain 2500 B.C by Michael Herity. Published in 1974 by Irish University Press, Dublin, Ireland. The book presents a description of the tombs, art, burials and grave-goods, and then attempts a reconstruction of the everyday life of their builders: subsistence, habitations, technology, even the industries of this remarkable people, the remains of whose civilization we call the Boyne Culture. More ...

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