Battlefield Ireland

As those opposing the decision on the route of the M3 motorway gear up for a last, desperate fight over the Tara-Skryne valley, William Hederman revisits some of the major struggles to save Ireland's heritage during the past half century.




1Dublin once boasted the world's longest line of Georgian buildings, a stretch of 18th-century houses between Leeson St Bridge and Holles St Hospital. Then the ESB came along and proposed demolishing 16 houses on Lower Fitzwilliam St to build its new headquarters. Fearing – correctly as it turned out – that this would herald the start of the destruction of Georgian Dublin, 1,000 Dubliners packed into the Mansion House in January 1962 to protest against the plan. The board of the ESB claimed the houses were structurally unsound and even commissioned English architectural historian, Sir John Summerson, to condemn them. Planning permission was refused by Dublin Corporation, but in September 1964, the day before a new Planning Act came into force, Neil Blaney signed an order granting permission, and Dublin's "Georgian Mile" vanished. Probably the worst single crime perpetrated on Georgian Dublin.


2Dubliners who enjoy the Grand Canal today are probably largely unaware how close it came to being filled in 40 years ago. In 1963, when poet Patrick Kavanagh was still finding inspiration along the Canal's "leafy with love banks", Dublin Corporation announced plans to close the Circular Line of the Canal (the section from the Naas Road to the Liffey) and lay a six-foot-wide sewer pipe with a road on top. Six years of protesting followed, spearheaded by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. Finally, in November 1969, the Corporation announced that it would lay the sewer pipe to one side of the Canal. A rare victory for heritage campaigners.



3No doubt encouraged by the ESB's successful modernisation of Fitzwilliam St, Green Property Company began demolition work in 1970 on eight Georgian houses on Dublin's Hume St, on the corner of St Stephen's Green, to build an office block. Minister for Local Government, Kevin Boland, had granted permission to rebuild after planning permission was initially refused. But the demolition work stopped almost immediately when a group of students occupied the houses, beginning months of street protests and sit-ins, led by, among others, then students Marian Finucane and Ruairi Quinn. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the campaign marked a crossroads in the campaign for Dublin's heritage. Up to then only a small community of preservation advocates had been interested in such issues, but the Battle for Hume Street, as it became known, caught the imagination of the public, politicians and the media. School groups even came to visit the occupied house. Eventually the campaigners were literally dragged out by security firm staff, as gardaí looked on, and the houses were demolished.


4In 1968 Dublin Corporation held an architectural competition to design its new headquarters, the Civic Offices on a site beside Christchurch Cathedral, which was won by the already controversial architect Sam Stephenson. When digging began, the remains of Dublin's early Viking settlement were found and archaeologists were brought in, beginning what was arguably official Ireland's most infamous encounter with its archaeological heritage. International experts drooled over what they described as one of Europe's most important archaeological sites; historian and Augustinian friar FX Martin led an occupation of the site in 1979, just one of several "Save Wood Quay" protests during the late 1970s. But the Corporation was unmoved. When the High Court declared part of the site a national monument, the Corporation got the decision reversed in the Supreme Court. The artifacts were moved to the National Museum and the bulldozers got to work in March 1981.


5When Government plans were first announced for an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore, Co Clare in April 1991, a decade-long battle began, involving bitter local divisions and eventually bringing about one of the most fundamental changes in Irish planning law.

In 1993 the Supreme Court had ruled that the State agency, the Office of Public Works (OPW), could not be considered exempt from seeking planning permission. A local community group, the Burren Action Group, took a High Court challenge to the plan, which rendered the works at the Mullaghmore site illegal. In 2001, Government contractors demolished the incomplete visitor centre, begun in 1993, and restored the area to its original condition.

LOST GLEN O' THE DOWNS (1997-2000)

6One year ago Seamus Brennan opened the notorious Glen o' the Downs dual carriageway in Co Wicklow, 16 years after the road was first planned. In 1997 eco-warriors installed themselves in the trees for what turned out to be a three-year struggle against Wicklow Co Council, which sought to run the 5.5 km road through the Glen of the Downs nature reserve. The protesters lost a Supreme Court challenge in 2000. The tree-cutters moved in shortly thereafter.


7It was the revised routing of the final section of the M50 motorway around Dublin, directly over the ruins of the mediaeval Carrickmines Castle, that resulted in years of legal and political wrangling. The original route, planned in the 1980s, clearly made allowances for what was known at the time to be a major archaeological site. However, the route was mysteriously altered in the mid-1990s, moving it by several hundred metres – straight over the Castle. The fact that the revised route brought the road through the now infamous Jackson Way site has been the subject of inquiry at the Flood Tribunal. Heritage campaigners, including the "Carrickminders", staged a six-month occupation in 2002-'03 and have taken numerous legal actions to save the castle site, including three visits to the Supreme Court. Currently half of the archaeological site is gone and the remaining half is, according to campaigner Vincent Salafia, "a motorway ornament in the middle of a spaghetti junction". Motorists should be able to drive over the castle sometime this year.



8The ghost of Molly Malone will probably push her wheelbarrow for years to come, but her latter-day colleagues may soon be forced off the street. Earlier this month Dublin City Council (as Dublin Corporation is now called) announced plans to increase licences for street traders in Moore St by as much as 500 per cent. The street traders, undeniably a part of Dublin's heritage, have accused the council of trying to force them out of locations such as Moore St to make way for commercial development. The council has been reported as saying it was not trying to force traders out of business but was trying to "recast the fees on a more realistic basis". Could the Council remove the traders and build an interpretative centre in their place?



9While Co Meath has been busy arguing about cutting a few minutes off car journeys to Dublin versus preserving the Tara Valley, another prime heritage site in the county is under attack. Trim is dominated by the majestic King John's Castle, the largest and probably the finest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland.

The view from the ramparts is now dominated by a building site at the foot of the castle, where a four-storey, 58-bed hotel and a car park are being built. These are due to be followed by an apartment block next to the hotel. Local activists say they are angry that in March 2004 then Environment Minister Martin Cullen declined to accept a recommendation from Heritage officials that an appeal should be lodged against the development.


10Environment Minister Dick Roche's recent sanctioning of archaeological digs in the Tara-Skryne valley in Co Meath effectively gave the go-ahead for the M3, a four-lane motorway through what many regard as Ireland's most sacred piece of ground and one of the most important ancient landscapes in Europe. The scheme will include a large interchange close to the Hill of Tara, which contains burial mounds dating back 4,000 years. Academics, heritage experts and campaigners from around the world had urged the Irish Government to re-route the road away from Tara. The decision on the M3 is expected to be challenged in the High Court by campaigners, who say the battle is just beginning.


Although many of these battles were "lost" by the heritage campaigners, the protests won concessions, and more importantly raised awareness and made it more difficult for the authorities/developers to get away with it again. If there had been no campaign to save the section of Lower Fitzwilliam Street demolished by the ESB, might developers have gone on to demolish most of Georgian Dublin? Would Henrietta Street and North Great Georges Street still be standing?p