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Skellig Michael: The Denial of History as State Policy

category kerry | environment | opinion/analysis author Monday November 06, 2006 14:02author by Hanshiro - The Tara Foundationauthor email thetarafoundation at yahoo dot ie Report this post to the editors

The Skelligs Rocks, 8 miles off the coast of Co. Kerry, constitute one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ireland. However, the Office of Public Works (OPW) is currently engaged in reconstruction work there. On the South Peak of Skellig Michael, an altar, dating probably to the ninth century, has been destroyed by unsupervised workmen. In addition, there has been extensive rebuilding carried out on the main complex, which has led to considerable damage to the original structures. The work has proceeded without an Environmental Impact Assessment; while the Department of the Environment and OPW have argued that, because the Skelligs are a national monument (thus covered by the National Monuments Act 2004) and because the current work is part of an ongoing programme of conservation dating back to the 1980’s, neither an EIA nor planning permission is necessary.

According to UNESCO guidelines, a Management Plan for each World Heritage Site must be submitted, and made available in published form, to direct the management of the site and any preservation work deemed to be necessary. A “management strategy” was submitted to UNESCO at the time the Skelligs were inscribed on the World Heritage List, and despite a statement by the OPW/Department of Environment management team that a “Management Plan” was approved by UNESCO in 2002, in fact no such plan exists as yet. The management team also failed to inform UNESCO of the rebuilding work on the Skelligs before it was commenced, even though UNESCO guidelines state specifically that “specific reports and impact studies” must be submitted “each time exceptional circumstances occur or work is undertaken which may have an effect on the state of conservation of the property.
In addition to being a WHS, the Skellings is a Sanctuary Preservation Area and a Bird Sanctuary, and as such any work carried out there without an Environmental Impact Assessment contravenes the EU Habitats Directive. No explanation has so far been forthcoming from the OPW on how it managed to secure a dispensation from the Directive.
ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) have issued a series of charters intended to serve as a guide for restoration work. The “Nara Document on Authenticity” from 1994 states: “Conservation of cultural heritage in all its forms and historical periods is rooted in the values attributed to the heritage. Our ability to understand these values depends, in part, on the degree to which information sources about these values may be understood as credible or truthful. Knowledge and understanding of these sources of information, in relation to original and subsquent characteristics of the cultural heritage, and their meaning, is a requisite basis for assessing all aspects of authenticity.” The Venice Charter (1964) is intended as a guide to the thinking behind restoration work. It states: “Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept… No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and colour must be allowed… The process of restoration is a highly specialized operation… It must stop at the point where conjecture begins, and in this case moreover any extra work which is indispensible must be distinct from the architectureal composition and must bear a contemporary stamp. The restoration any case must be preceded and followed by an archaeological and historical study of the monument… The valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of restoration.”
Despite the contention of the Department of Environment that the works being carried out are “minimal”, photographic evidence demonstrates widespread and systematic rebuilding of stonework in a manner completely at variance with the previously extant remains. Examples of the OPW’s cavalier interpretation of their international obligations are the following: in the main monastic complex, an altar that was in use by pilgrims up to the 1930s has been removed, on the grounds that it was “merely” built by the nineteenth century lighthouse keepers, and a nineteenth century wall was replaced by a new wall on the lines of the original early Christian retaining wall. The management team have referred to the deformation of the upper terrace walls and their reconstruction of the walls “on the original line of the wall being repaired”. This is reconstruction according to a preconceived notion of how the remains should look, not investigation of the existing remains; in other words, anything which does not fit the management team’s ideas of what is “early Christian” is removed, and worse, remains are dismantled and reordered into what the management team have decided they should look like.
This approach to archaeology, the idea that the accumulated layers should be respected rather than being simply stripped away as of no interest to reveal the “original” layer underneath, is based on a deeply flawed and mistaken ideology. Unfortunately, it seems to have attained to the level of a professional craze; in Italy, numerous masterpieces such as Michaelangelo’s Sistine ceiling and Last Supper have been “restored” according to the notions of art historians, with not the slightest appreciation of the importance of preserving the essence of an artwork as a historical fact. The layers of history cannot be stripped back to reveal a supposedly “original” essence; the desire to do this is a desire to deny that history has intervened between the creation of the work and its ultimate reception by the “restorer”, and it is also to deny that the ways in which a work was understood and received through the centuries has any importance to one’s own standpoint. The consequences of this can be immediately and painfully registered: just as the “restorers” of the Sistine ceiling have remade it according to their own limited aesthetic and historical perceptions, and in the process deprived it of much of its value, the OPW have engaged in a programme of dehistoricizing the Skelligs, thus asserting that there is no difference between the remains they reorder and their own understanding of them. In case there should be any dispute as to this understanding, all evidence of the intervening history must be cleared away, the slate wiped clean.
This denial of history, the notion that the accumulated layers of the past can be swiped aside to enable immediate access to the object, achieves the very reverse of what it professes: such an understanding reforms the object in its own image until it sees nothing but its own reflection there. Such an attitude can only be labelled cultural fascism, and it is the ideology that governs the State’s archeological and cultural policy.

Related Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpXgBveqnjY
author by C Murraypublication date Tue Nov 07, 2006 20:00author address author phone Report this post to the editors

They stopped that policy and built an on-shore interperative centre, I travelled to Skellig Michael
and did the climb. The reason for halting tourist groups was the 'fragility of the landscape'-
which we interpret as 'risky insurance' claims.

A few years ago you could pick up a fishing boat for the cost of a few beers and land on
the island.

Skellig Michael was under the remit of the OPW*, National Monuments section -based in Ross
Castle (Killarney) . It was part of the project that was based where I worked. The guys stored
Climbing ropes and dry stone tools for the Staigue Fort and Skellig Michael at our HQ.

Now wtf is going on?

Every single decision relating to the minutest detail in restoration and conservation
was discussed at length with the conservation architect and not a stone could be
replaced unless it was completely impossible to fix, a template would be taken in situ
and an exact replica made for the whole stone or the missing piece. Right down to the
hand finishing- masons and journey men from all over the country trained and worked on
these pieces of our heritage with the utmost respect for the ethos of conservation.

Since the FF(ers) came in, they have eroded every protection in the book.
They have introduced laws that are anti-citizen and involve a one-stop
planning'shop' for the corporate lobby. They have not shown a separate
and equal interest in conservation. One by one our protections for natural and built
heritage have been eroded.

In 2003 Martin Cullen abolished Duchas - the statutory agency which ensured implementation
of the National monuments Act.
He divided Duchas between the Commissioners for Public Works/DOE.
He amended the NMA to allow for the destruction of our monuments.

Roche continued the JOB with the SIB.

There has been no commitment to protection and sustainability in relation to our historical
environment. When I asked Roche he said' good question- no answer'

The importance of these buildings and the stories that go with them is that they
are the places where our stories and poems and songs come from and in order
too make a fast-buck they are destructible. It indicates the worst type of person-one who
is willing to sweep away our culture- debase our collective memory and sell out
our country to kow-tow to corporate greed.

We sit and watch the erosion of our rights and freedoms and the destruction of our children's
inheritance. I would like my kids to visit Skellig mIchael and see the huts, the ingenious
water collection system and hear the stories about the monk's 'day off'
This is not anti- progress it is about valuing what is precious and knowing that the
shower of shit that puppet for the corps are willing to sweep away so much because they are worthless people.

author by Liberty Hall Langerpublication date Thu Nov 09, 2006 14:50author address author phone Report this post to the editors

An interesting article, thanks. One pedantic point: there are three World Heritage Sites in Ireland, Skellig Michael, the Newgrange complex, and the Giant's Causeway in NI.

author by C Murraypublication date Thu Nov 09, 2006 15:56author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Since 2003 when the then Minister for 'Environment' Martin Cullen abolished the
only statutory agency charged with implementing the National Monuments Act
the role of 'conservation' and 'preservation' of built heritage has been divided
between the Dept of the Environment (Dick Roche) and the Commissioners of
Public Works in Ireland.

On seeking reports about another heritage case, I was told that the files for
archaeological excavations were not updated or data based- because the transfer of powers
had created a vacuum and there was a delay in filing reports.

Martin Cullen then amended and updated the National Monuments Act, leading to the
infamous Dail debate between himself and O Snodaigh. That work being done, he
moved onto the Critical Infrastructure Board- which was the original 'one-stop shop'
for corporate lobbying and planning. after intense lobbying by Minister Mc Dowell
the CIB was dumped in favour of the SIB. Roche moved in. SIB- in brief allows for
the divison of An Bord Pleanala and a re-structuring of the Irish Judicial system
to fast-track infrastructure projects- the torn up National monuments Act allows
for the alteration/removal/ defacement of national Monuments. There are effectively
no protections for the Skellig, no more than for Tara or the habitat around Rossport.

Ireland has been consistently fined for breaches of the Habitats directive by the
EU, but no position has been taken on the Governments failure to introduce
a statutory body for protections, nor the inherent failures by the state with regard
to judicial processes. Minister Roche has promised to transpose 'elements' of
the Aarhus convention into law- as part of the SIB, however it comes along with
the further erosion of access to courts by interest groups- in that they must be
incepted 12 months before seeking judicial review of planning decisions and have
as their statedaim the protection of the environment within their constitution.
Only recognised NGO's will have the right of appeal in planning decisions.

Therefore-as it stands (legislatively), the works on the Skellig cannot be
tested in the courts unless there is a focus /action group prepared to take it on.
Affordable remedies in the courts are also done away with.

Publicising these issues or lobbying for a statutory agency which is separate to
DOE would draw attention to the appalling neglect of the legislature for our

Mr Roche contends that there will be no such body within the life of the present
government- in effect no committment to heritage protection-though both
himself and Cullen were very quick to ensure legislations to uphold and protect
the rights of the corporate lobbies -even to the extent of envisaging a re-structuring
of the judicial system to fast-track those specific interests.

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