This semester, I’ve been taking a class in (American) Historic Preservation at the University of Colorado Denver. Learning about the ways in which historic preservation works in the United States has made me even more appreciative of our historic sites and public history efforts. Public outreach is such an important part of the history field, and it is up to us as historians to communicate what makes the study of history important today. Given the current political climate, knowledge of history, civics, and global connections over time seems ever more vital. The built heritage that surrounds us is a large part of that – it brings character and identity to our communities, and helps to bring history to life for the public.
I’ll be taking a look at different ways in which historic preservation is practiced in Ireland, starting with the highest level a historic site can reach – the World Heritage Sites recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. These are sites of cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.
Ireland has two sites recognized as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, Sceilg Mhichíl (or Skellig Michael) is a monastic complex perched on a rocky island about seven miles off the coast of County Kerry. The site is extremely remote and, as the World Heritage listing highlights, it “illustrates the very spartan existence of the first Irish Christians.” It is considered an exceptional and in many ways unique example of an early religious settlement, preserved because of its relative inaccessibility.
The rock was home to a small group of ascetic monks who withdrew from civilization to found their monastery. Buildings constructed include the monastery itself, a hermitage, and, later, two lighthouses. The monastic community appears to have moved to the mainland by the 13th century.
The Office of Public Works has held the monastic remains in state guardianship since 1880.
Sceilg Mhichíl is also renowned as one of the most important sites in Ireland for breeding seabirds. It is designated as a Statutory Nature Reserve and Special Protection Area.
Brú na Bóinne
Designated in 1993, Brú na Bóinne – Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne is a complex of Neolithic mounds, tombs, standing stones, and other prehistoric structures. Human settlement at the site dates to at least 6,000 years ago, with built heritage dating from about 5,000 years ago.
At Brú na Bóinne, three large passage tombs known as Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth dominate the landscape alongside an additional 90 monuments. The tombs contain the largest group of megalithic art in Western Europe. The tombs fell into disuse around 2900 BC, but the area continued to be the site of activity including the building of large earthen embanked circles, pit circles, and pit and wooden post circles (henges).