Heritage comes in from the cold

County View

County View
John Healy

It’s fair to say that heritage has not always been among the nation’s priorities. The common view had been that – apart from a dedicated elite – a people struggling to make ends meet had little time to spare on the luxury of preserving our heritage.
But all of that has changed, and heritage has come in from the cold. Thanks to the initiative of bodies like the Heritage Council, and in particular to the appointment of Heritage Officers in each local authority, a welcome appreciation is emerging of the need to value our heritage and take pride in our past.
Heritage is a broad umbrella, and under the three headings of built, natural and cultural heritage is a myriad of strands all making valid claim for scholarly attention as expressions of times past.
Thus, National Heritage Week just ended saw projects as diverse as local waterways to traditional storytelling, grandparents’ stories to church mosaics, the history of childhood to Irish croquet and lace, Traveller culture to old Irish goats.
The County Mayo winning project for Heritage Week was the Bronze Age Experience, near Finny and Lough Nafooey – a short film exploring a recently discovered ancient hilltop enclosure, believed to have its origins in neolithic times. Collated by Yvonne Finn of the Joyce country and Western Lakes Geo Enterprises co-operative, the film centres on a presentation by Trish Walsh on the unique geology and landscape of Lough Nafooey. Enhanced by musical contributions from Seán Finn, Riona Conboy and Molly Ní Cadhain, with the backdrop of the spectacular, mountain-ringed lough, the film is a stirring piece of work.
Another jewel in the Heritage Council crown is the Michael Davitt Museum in Straide. It seems not that long ago since the future of the museum was in serious doubt, with predictions that lack of support would force its closure. And then, in 2014, under the guidance of curator Yvonne Corcoran Loftus, all that began to change. An ambitious strategic plan was drawn up in conjunction with the Heritage Council, and annual action plans and achievable targets were set.
In 2019, it was awarded full accreditation from the Heritage Council after achieving the highest standard possible the national Museum Standards Programme for Ireland. Now, a bright future beckons, with an auditorium and an international research centre being planned, and an additional highlight being a twinning with the Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, India, in recognition of the shared principles of Michael Davitt and the Indian leader.
But when it comes to heritage-led urban regeneration, Westport still remains the poster child in the Heritage Council hierarchy. The town that got everything right; the town that ticks all the boxes; the undisputed masterclass in how to implement urban regeneration while still remaining true to the authenticity of its architecture.
Heritage-led regeneration has been a slow starter for many towns, due in part to the perceived restraint that an emphasis on heritage would have on commercial priorities, but Westport was early out of the blocks. The transformation of a town that 50 years ago had a thriving seasonal tourism industry, but little more, into a year-round visitor location has been remarkable.
But as the Heritage Council points out, none of this happened by chance. It required hard work and deliberate effort; it required vision and leadership; it required community buy-in; and it required, above all, the building of trust between the local community, the local elected Town Council (until its regretted abolition) and local commercial interests.
For Westport, more by design and planning than by accident, all of the pieces came together, at the right time, in the right way.