Opinion: heritage has massive benefits for all of us, but it needs adequate support and funding

By Marion McGarryGalway Mayo Institute of Technology

Heritage fosters community identity, is central to our tourism industry and studies show it plays an important role in wellbeing. Yet in Ireland, heritage is treated as something nebulous and has been chronically underfunded by successive governments

UNESCO define heritage as the "entire corpus of material signs –either artistic or symbolic – handed on by the past". Traditionally, heritage has been understood as inheritance, but it has been more recently defined as not only relating to antiquities, roots, identity and belonging, but also to "inherited characteristics" transmitted by past ages and ancestors.

In Ireland, the Heritage Act (1995) provides a more wide-ranging definition that includes monuments, archaeology, art and industrial works, documents and genealogy, as well as heritage gardens, flora, fauna, wildlife habitats, landscapes, seascapes, geology, parks and inland waterways. To add to the mix, cultural expressions may also regarded as a form of heritage, and the expression of the current culture is likely to become the heritage of the future.

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

A brief history of heritage

The ideas surrounding heritage are fairly new. It was initially largely a 19th century western concern, but is now a global phenomenon. Heritage is now seen as a responsibility of modern society and governments around the world have devoted unprecedented time and investment of late towards history and heritage.

Heritage now involves organisations such as UNESCO, ICCROM, ICOM and ICOMOS, and the definition of charters, recommendations, guidelines, conventions, awareness campaigns and training activities.  Concepts of cultural heritage now not only include historic monuments and artworks, but other entities which require the reassessment of the meaning of cultural heritage and the policies for its protection.

History vs heritage

Heritage provides links with our past, but it is not quite history. People who find the study of history quite a struggle can find their imaginations ignited by heritage, because they identify with it as a concept meaningful to them. Heritage is more of an assertion of faith in the past and its stories are not subject to the same critical analysis or scrutiny as history. People may be of the view that they need and are owed a heritage, too.

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From RTÉ Archives, Mary Butler reports for RTÉ News on the opening of a new heritage centre in Bray, Co Wicklow in 1985

In Ireland, concepts of heritage have been important in resisting colonial oppression, for example, and providing a galvanizing, unified shared past for Irish people to unite behind. It has also provided a positive Irish identity at times in history when the confidence of the nation was low. A fine example of this is the idea of the island as one of saints and scholars that kept the light of education burning in Europe during the so-called Dark Ages. In many ways, this does not stand up to historical scrutiny, but the concept has become embedded in the national psyche.

Heritage and wellbeing

In recent years, there has been increased knowledge of the connection between heritage and wellbeing. Research conducted in the UK has found that visits to historic towns, ancient places and archaeological sites have similar effects on blood pressure and general wellbeing as social and sporting activities. They also found that this fostered a sense of citizenship among isolated and disadvantaged groups.

During the Covid-19 lockdown in Ireland, the Know Your 5K initiative from the Heritage Council and National Museum of Ireland provided an opportunity to discover local heritage. People confined within 5km of their homes could see their immediate area through the prism of heritage and those cocooning were encouraged to look in their homes for forgotten letters, photographs, and other artefacts and memorabilia. The initiative proved widely popular, with many taking part and rediscovering their local heritage, empowered by a wealth of digitised resources made available to help them do so.

How we fund heritage

Yet for all the succour, community spirit and great national pride we get from heritage, the sector has been increasingly starved of funding in Ireland in recent years. Because heritage is protected by law, there seems to be an idea amongst the general public that heritage is well served in Ireland. There is also a notion that some expert somewhere is employed to 'take care' of it.

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From RTÉ News in November 2018, public invited to have its say on €285m National Heritage plan

However, this may not always be the case. That stunning coastal ruin about to tumble into the sea, the medieval church with its unique sculpture about to be swallowed by ivy, or that beautiful vernacular shopfront in your town that is crumbling away may not have any guardian or funding to mitigate its demise.

Many sites are overrun with busloads of visitors. There are remote sites permanently open to the public, often unguarded and lacking in security, which are subject to damage due to apathetic neglect or unwitting damage by walkers or tourists. There have even been worrying cases of deliberate destruction of monuments

Many of our monuments are in urgent need of conservation works because of growing visitor numbers putting increasing pressure on heritage sites. With every passing year, the necessary interventions grow larger and more complex.

The fact is that the key guardians of our heritage are grossly under-resourced. Without adequate funding for conservation and maintenance, our tourism industry is threatened by potential loss or closure of sites. Some archaeological and built heritage sites also face catastrophic damage and loss from climate change.

Heritage Week

If you look at events on the National Heritage Week calendar for this and past years, you will see they are free to the public. This shows the dependence to a large extent on volunteers for the dissemination of local heritage. People in the local community that are so passionate about our heritage are willing to offer their own invaluable time and expertise for free. Yet this is an unsustainable approach and can lead to volunteer burnout with many projects now run on shoestring budgets thanks to successive cuts in funding over the years.

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RTÉ Countrywide podcast on Heritage Week 2019

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, many heritage professionals produced a huge volume of materials for public engagement. Yet many companies involved with heritage have also suffered enormously from lack of funding and economic downturns. The heritage industry will cease to be viable without supports and grant schemes.

What we can do

Heritage matters and it is up to the public to demand that it matters to the government too. Heritage is not just for decoration for marketing material aimed at tourists – it belongs to the people. It needs resources, and voters need to be proactive in demanding it is adequately supported.

Talk to your local politicians, ask the political parties what are their heritage policies and demand that our heritage is funded. Demand that your county's heritage office is adequately staffed with adequate supports in place do their job effectively. Our heritage is there for us to enjoy today but should also be enjoyed by future generations. Heritage should matter to us all.

READ: what's the government's problem with heritage?

People can also follow the work of Heritage Voice, a newly formed group advocating for recognition of heritage to all people and communities of Ireland on a local and national level. A voluntary collective, their goal is to ensure that the voice of Irish heritage is heard and acknowledged at both local and national levels. 

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology.


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