Opinion: successive governments make a huge deal about the significance of Ireland's rich culture and heritage, but rarely deliver

The latest divvy-ing out of ministerial spoils saw Heritage and Arts and Culture prised apart. Fianna Fail's Darragh O'Brien got Heritage along with Housing and Local Government, with the Green Party's Malcolm Noonan getting a junior ministry with special responsibility for Heritage. Meanwhile Noonan's party colleague Catherine Martin received a lucky bag of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, before Jack Chambers came along to share the spoils this week as Minister of State for Sport and the Gaeltacht. Meanwhile, the minister with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, who look after the country's national monuments, is Fine Gael's Patrick O'Donovan. It's hard to keep up. 

It seems to me that Arts, Culture, Heritage, the Gaeltacht and Sport regularly get handed out as consolation prizes, often tacked on the to the end of another portfolio to bulk it up. Successive governments have made a huge deal about the significance of Ireland’s rich culture and heritage and our great love for the arts (whatever that means). Ministers enthusiastically turn up to unveil plaques, attend premieres, cut ribbons but it’s lip service for the most part.

Dividing Heritage from Arts and Culture has been done before, but it seems like a retrograde step to me and it begs a number of questions. What department will have responsibility for our museums and heritage sites? Will the national cultural institutions (which are primarily based in Dublin) be separated from all other museums, galleries and heritage sites? If this is the case it’s potentially very divisive.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, then Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan discusses the Decade of Centenaries programme for 2020

And what about the Decade of Centenaries? We're about to head into a period of are some highly contentious anniversaries. Who will be responsible for these? Handling the centenary of the Civil War badly could bring this new government down. Just look back a few short months to the brouhaha that erupted when Charlie Flanagan, then Minister for Justice, wanted to have a state commemoration for the RIC at Dublin Castle.

One, of many, concerns I have is that putting Heritage with Housing and Local Government means that Heritage will be seen only in relation to the built environment. Clearly, the built environment is important, but it’s only one element of our heritage and it makes a lot more sense to have Heritage sit alongside Arts and Culture.

According to the Heritage Act of 1995, our national heritage includes "monuments, archaeological objects, heritage objects, architectural heritage, flora, fauna, wildlife habitats, landscapes, seascapes, wrecks, geology, heritage gardens, and parks and inland waterways." Many see heritage as something tangible "that you can touch and see, for example, a medieval town wall, market square or historic village green" but, as the Heritage Council have pointed out, there is also an enormous amount of intangible heritage "a process or skill, including folklore/mythology, storytelling and traditional skills such as thatching, stonework and the making of musical instruments" that should be recorded, protected and promoted. Whatever hope there is for tangible heritage alongside housing and local government, I have grave concerns for the intangible.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, the Heritage Council's Virginia Teehan discusses plans for National Heritage Week 2020 

But looking at the new ministries with a glass half-full perspective, perhaps there are some positives from moving Heritage in with Housing and Local Government. There are many innovative and talented Heritage Officers within the council structure and perhaps (wishful thinking, I imagine) they will be given control over bigger budgets.

Much of Ireland’s important built heritage is vacant and often derelict. Perhaps Darragh O’Brien will combine housing initiatives with the restoration of many of these buildings so that they become homes again? Perhaps the centres of Ireland’s cities and towns will become vibrant places where people want to live, rather than fleeing to the suburbs at the end of a working day (if we ever return to the old patterns of working)?

Perhaps, if Heritage is no longer attached to Tourism, the stranglehold that Fáilte Ireland has over museum and exhibition development will be relaxed. Fáilte Ireland’s focus isn’t primarily on museums and heritage sites, but these attractions form a considerable part of their key brands like the Hidden Heartlands, Ireland's Ancient East, the Wild Atlantic Way and the rather amorphous Dublin brand. The tourist body is primarily interested in destination marketing, ensuring a glossy, polished product, an Instagram moment and a snappy soundbite. Very little attention is paid to research, curation, collecting, preserving or educating. If these tasks are not a priority for the tourist board who holds the purse strings, they can’t be a priority for the museums and heritage sites who seek precious funding.

From RTÉ Six One News, a report on Ireland's Hidden Heartlands

And this is a problem. Fáilte Ireland are not only responsible for marketing Ireland as a commodity abroad, but they also control the largest amount of money available for heritage development in the country and they ensure developments and exhibitions are closely aligned with their rather prescriptive themes. Having visited over 200 Irish tourist sites over the past few years, it’s clear that this influence has skewed heritage development across the country.

Fáilte Ireland claims to be interested in attracting the "culturally curious" to the country, but packaging the past in pretty bows and telling similar stories in a multitude of sites is not what’s required. Museums and heritage sites need to be encouraged (and funded) to explore their own stories, to tell multi-faceted tales, to engage with complex histories and to prioritise the research and the content over the desire to fit everything into tidy branded bundles. Given that almost all visitors to Irish museums during the current crisis will be people already based in Ireland, it seems a shame that many of the museums they’re visiting were not developed with them in mind.

Over the summer many residents of Ireland will be engaging, perhaps for the first time, with some of the country’s 750 National Monuments which are in the care of the Office of Public Works.  There are many great sites run by the OPW - including Newgrange, Trim Castle, Charles Fort and Kilmainham Gaol - but the office has always had contradictory impulses.

From RTÉ Archives, Sean Egan reports for RTÉ News in 1963 on plans to restore Kilmainham Gaol, which had been abandoned and let fall into disrepair for years 

On the one hand, it’s charged with the preservation and restoration of historic buildings and landscapes. But on the other, it seems hell-bent on destroying much that should be treasured. An obvious case in point is the OPW's flood defence scheme for Cork which, far from embracing the city’s greatest asset, is determined to use concrete to hide the River Lee from view. Their plans for the Lee seems entirely at odds with all efforts to encourage tourists, visitors and locals to spend time in the city.

No one knows how this new government will cope with the crisis we’re currently in. My best hope is that the four new ministers develop a very strong working relationship, and that they are prepared to sit down and listen to those who have been working in the heritage, culture, and arts sectors (and not just the same old voices that are always heard). The danger is that people will continue to work in silos, departments will stick to rigid agendas and clear synergies will be ignored. This is a new government heading into uncharted waters so perhaps it’s time to think about new ways of doing things. There’s much talk of a "new normal". For the arts, heritage and cultural sectors, my hope is that the new normal is a better normal than the old one.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ