Last Saturday, the Irish Times carried an interview with Ian Lumley, Heritage Officer of An Taisce – an organisation which, in its role as a prescribed body under Irish planning law, was one of the few to attempt to slow down our Great Dance. Here’s a part of what the article has to say;

“To be committed to the environment in Ireland, where even archaeology has been compromised, excavation reports are merely part of development plans and many EU environmental and wildlife directives have been ignored, would appear a hopeless battle.

Wood Quay, Tara and now the massive bridge planned for the Boyne, which will have a devastating impact on the ancient landscape, show that heritage suffers at the hands of vested interests. Many of the planning decisions taken during the past 20 to 30 years defy intelligent discussion, never mind aesthetics. But Lumley sounds surprisingly positive: “I put the effort into clear-cut cases where there is a breach of European law, as well as national and local policy.”

…“Local authorities in Ireland,” he says, “are entirely at the mercy of vested backyard interests and systemically disregard EU law, national policy and, most dramatically of all, their own development plans in making planning decisions.”

Local (and national) politicians considering only the next few steps (or ballot), compromised archaeology, ‘developer-directed’ excavation, the sanctification of the quick euro – you may be aware of a lot of this already, or will have guessed. Unfortunately, gloomy as it is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. His closing words are also worth repeating;

I believe in Ireland; it is as Praeger said in his 1948 radio address on the founding of An Taisce, when he referred to the heritage as needing ‘protection against dilapidation, against injury, whether caused by carelessness, ignorance or ruthlessness, against sequestration for private ends, and in recent times often against the action of public bodies’.”

It’s not just the high-profile cases – such as Tara and the Boyne – or the ‘in-your-face’ methods of destruction. A lot more monuments are destroyed by private individuals, or through simple carelessness, ignorance and neglect. Do you recall last year’s ‘Condition and Management Survey of the Archaeological Resource’, in Northern Ireland?

“When one focuses on sites that were largely complete, substantial or had some definable features, it was found that a much higher figure – 48% – had been damaged in the previous five years. Agricultural activity was identified as being the main cause of such damage, along with the growth of vegetation.”

Or the Heritage Council study, in County Clare;

“Scrub was found to be damaging archaeological monuments at a structural level, whereby important built elements were being displaced and dislodged, where sub-surface deposits such as cremations and burials in tombs were at risk of being disturbed and where monuments once intended to be visible as markers in the landscape were gradually becoming shrouded by dense vegetation. Moreover, there is a danger that monuments would be at risk of future loss/damage through inadvertent scrub clearance.”

I know – it could be argued that no life is at stake, or that no species is in danger of extinction, but where else have we, ourselves, acted as true creators other than in our art? The quote reminded me of a book that I bought recently; Micheal Hoskin’s ‘Tombs, Temples and their Orientations – A New Perspective on Mediterranean Prehistory’. There are few that study, or visit, these monuments who fail to be affected by them, or by their evocation of past lives, and in the following paragraph Micheal Hoskin (2001, 10) puts across this feeling (powerfully). As well as explaining – like Ian Lumley – the range of dangers that our prehistoric heritage faces; 

“Equally importantly time is not on our side. Not only do we as individuals age and decline (and this fieldwork calls for health and agility), but the destruction of tombs is appalling and relentless. In measuring orientations we are in fact engaged in rescue archaeology, for vandalism by individuals and corporate vandalism in the form of new roads, new buildings, and especially the mechanical clearance of land for eucalyptus and other cultivation, is destroying tombs on a tragic scale. In central Portugal a local archaeologist acting as our guide was frequently reduced almost to tears when, of a dozen or so tombs existing at the time of his last visit, only one or two were now to be found. In Huelva in southwest Spain we visited one major tomb, spoke to the man clearing adjacent land with massive machinery, and found that had our visit been 24 hours later the tomb (whose presence was unknown to him) would have been destroyed. And at the other end of the spectrum, some well-meaning archaeologists intent on ‘restoration’ will not hesitate to set about rearranging the monument to conform with their ideas; sometimes the liberties they take are so great that for ‘restored’ we should read ‘vandalized’. 

What can we do, except keep on visiting, writing, speaking and hoping? Well said, Mr. Hoskin. Well said, Mr. Lumley.