Opinion: we have a shameful tradition of eradicating buildings and archives which would give us more information about our history

An awareness of the past is crucial in order to have a critical outlook on the present and, indeed, the future. Buildings and archives are material forms of heritage that have endured and are physical gateways to the past, allowing us to gain more informed interpretations of our history. However, their survival is often vulnerable to man-made disruption and Ireland has demonstrated a shameful tradition of eradicating its tangible past.

Kilmainham Gaol, a site where many Irish revolutionaries, including the leaders of the 1916 Rising, were imprisoned and executed, has sustained its position as one of the top tourist sites in Dublin for many years. It was decommissioned as a prison in 1924 and the Irish government considered demolishing the building.

Numerous proposals for the preservation of the site by organisations such as the National Graves Association and Department of Education were rejected. The voluntary Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Committee was established in 1960 to preserve the Gaol as a monument of Irish nationalism and the government eventually approved a restoration project.The voluntary work lasted for almost 30 years until the Gaol was handed over to the State in 1986. 

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From RTÉ Archives, Sean Egan reports for RTÉ News in May 1963 on the challenges facing volunteers trying to restore Kilmainham Gaol.

Today, Kilmainham Gaol is both a location for state-sponsored events and commemorations and a heritage site for domestic tourism and public events. While the OPW now safeguards Kilmainham and many other historical sites, its very survival can be accredited to grassroots volunteers and persistent lobbying, not because of the State’s conscious preservation and promotion of historical memory.

This is just one of many examples of public disagreements surrounding the cultural memory of modern Irish history. More recently, there was controversy over the O'Rahilly House, at Herbert Park in Dublin, which was bulldozed to make way for luxury apartments

Michael Joseph O'Rahilly, known as The O'Rahilly, lived there before he was killed during the 1916 Rising and city councillors voted to list the building as a protected structure in August 2020. Since its demolition by the developer Derryroe Ltd, there has been calls for the house to be rebuilt. However, what made the house special was its survival through time and it resisted natural weather disasters, difficulties and damages. Its connection as the last abode of a renowned figure in the 1916 Rising has now been reduced to rubble and any rebuilding would be a re-enactment of the past, rather than an actual performance of it.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, architect Orla Hegarty on the demolition of the O'Rahilly house in Dublin

A row over the treatment of sensitive data currently in the possession of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation has caused widespread distress for adoptees and survivors, and led to political backlash and public anguish. The Mother and Baby Homes Bill, which was recently signed into law, transfers 60,000 records from State and religious sources to Tusla, with the Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman keeping a full copy which will be sealed for 30 years.

Survivors of Mother and Baby homes have called for greater transparency, over fears their files will be sealed. Perhaps the most difficult aspect is that many who endured the trauma of Mother and Baby Homes have not lived to see any opportunity of redressing the past. Protests and campaigns continue in the hope of survivors being given access to their own testimony, files and records.

There are many other examples where decisions on remembering the past have been reconsidered, reversed or withdrawn. These include the exhumation and repatriation of The Forgotten Ten and the establishment of a gender equality commission to examine the issue of equality for women in Irish theatre.

But there are also many cases in which it is far too late to undo actions or reverse decisions. The destruction of a Viking settlement at Wood Quay and the loss to Ireland of the consolidated Yeats Family collection, which was sold at auction by Sotheby’s in London in September 2017, are some of the regrettable instances of historical losses that were entirely preventable. Many cases are still outstanding including plans to turn James Joyce’s house of 'The Dead’ into a hostel.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, author Colm Toibin on the campaign to conserve the house at the centre of James Joyce's most famous short story 'The Dead'.

So how do we address this troubled tradition of bulldozing Ireland’s history and making ill-informed decisions on accessing the past? Firstly, consultation with historians is crucial in preventing the dissemination of important aspects of the past. Those in decision-making positions over the future of historical sites, archives and artefacts are not expected to be unconditional experts on every aspect of the past. However, discussion with those who are knowledgeable on particular subjects is a minimum requirement before making significant decisions that affect how the past is preserved or shattered.

The designation of municipal historic areas and stricter regulation on preservation may help to protect built heritage in the aggressive pursuit of valuable land. The tension between heritage preservation and urban redevelopment is a lingering problem which can only be addressed through collaboration and consultation with relevant stakeholders.

In order to gain a better understanding of the past, it is necessary to contextualise the relevant political, social and cultural discourses. This also helps to understand what role the past plays within these discourses and also how they can influence the future. The government vote over legislation to govern the handling of records created by the Commission of Mother and Babies Homes demonstrates an absence of empathy and consideration for those who have suffered at the hands of State institutions. It is time for officials to face more uncomfortable aspects of our history in order to secure a better correlation between the reality of the past and the present.

History is about being open to new interpretations of the past and allowing access to memories that have been distorted by various barriers

History is not just about preserving buildings and collecting memorabilia. It is about being open to new interpretations of the past and allowing access to memories that have been distorted by various historical barriers. Sometimes this involves the reawakening of past traumas so that a more comprehensive understanding can become widespread.

Often people know about things in the past but they do not understand. Until those in decision-making positions understand and realise the value of our past- whether it be a historical building or a sealed document in an archive- the shameful bulldozing of Ireland’s history will continue.


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