Interview published in the current edition of ‘Business Sligo’, Sligo County Council’s Siobhan Ryan, talks about the role of the Heritage Office in Sligo County Council.
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Heritage includes everything that we have inherited from our past and want to maintain for our future. If there was to be a heritage county in Ireland, you wouldn’t have to look further than Sligo. We have an exceptionally rich and diverse heritage, be it Carrowmore, Carrowkeel, Inishmurray, the rich variety of wildlife habitats that range from mountain top to the seashore, or our built heritage tradition – Sligo literally has it all. Heritage also encompasses, landscape, place names, local history, geology, so at a local level, heritage is what makes our county special.
Yes, it is important to all people who live and work in the county. Heritage is of value in itself in that it is a non renewable resource. It was valued in the past and will continue to be valued by the wider community today for the following reasons. It provides us with the rich tapestry that is Sligo, it is what sets Sligo apart from other counties and provides it with a distinctiveness that is particularly captured in its landscape. Our heritage ultimately provides us with an exceptional quality of life, and if our environment is of benefit to and valued by the people of Sligo, then this will also benefit those who take time to visit our county. Less obvious are the aesthetic, health, economic and social benefits of the heritage resource. Getting the heritage balance right is of benefit to tourism, but getting it right for the citizens of Sligo is even more important.
In 1999, Sligo County Council in partnership with the Heritage Council was one of the first Local Authorities in Ireland to pilot the employment of a Heritage Officer. There are now 26 Heritage Officers in place across Ireland, each responding to the particular heritage needs within their counties. The Heritage Office is based at County Hall, Riverside and its work includes the development and implementation of the County Heritage Plan 2002-2006, and supporting the County Heritage Forum in the implementation of the plan.
While it is recognised that there are many state agencies with a remit for heritage within the county, Sligo Local Authorities were aware that there was a significant heritage role to be developed and facilitated at county level. The Heritage Forum was established in April 2001 to oversee and advise on the preparation and implementation of the County Sligo Heritage Plan. The membership of the Heritage Forum has been drawn from the following sectors:
The Forum, which has 17 members, operates on the basis of real and meaningful partnership for the benefit of heritage. In 2002 the Government published the first ever National Heritage Plan and National Biodiversity Plan and both recognise the key role Local Authorities can play in heritage management at local level and in turning National heritage policy into action on the ground.
The County Heritage Plan is the mechanism through which coordinated action for Sligo’s heritage takes place at county level. It is an action plan, and a wide range of actions from the current heritage plan (2002-2006) have already been implemented. In fact through the Heritage Forum, local groups and agencies, over 90% of the key actions have been addressed. The Heritage Plan has focussed on collection of heritage information, working with Sligo Local Authorities in their management of heritage, raising awareness and promoting best practice. The current Heritage Plan is in its final year of implementation and work is currently underway to consult widely on what heritage issues are to be included in the next Plan (2007-2011).
Some of the projects undertaken, or in progress, have been the establishment of a Field Monument Advisor, provision of training opportunities for communities in relation to graveyards and museum collections, conservation plans for Carrowkeel and Inishmurray, village design statements for Ballisodare, Grange, Collooney and Easkey, Inventories of thatched buildings, geological heritage sites, industrial heritage sites, archaeological objects held in museum collections, natural heritage publications and an award winning schools heritage and IT programme.
Placing heritage at the heart of public life is one of the key challenges, but of equal importance is engaging with individuals and communities, so that the citizens of Sligo are involved in their heritage. If we as the wider Sligo community know and value our heritage, then we can take steps towards caring for that resource.
We also need to address our understanding of what constitutes heritage, we readily identify heritage as being a historic house or archaeological sites, but less so wildlife habitats, plants and animals. Interestingly at a recent public consultation programme undertaken as part of the drafting of the new County Heritage Plan 2007-2011, landscape and its protection was the primary issue raised. It is evident that the people of Sligo consider landscape very much part of their heritage and are concerned that it is particularly vulnerable at a time of unprecedented change.
Achieving a balance between heritage and development will always be a challenge as it is increasingly accepted that you cannot or it may not be appropriate to retain everything. That challenge can be met through developing heritage inventories at county level, so that the heritage resource is known. There is still a lot of ground to be covered in this area, but progress is being made.
Timing of appropriate heritage advice in planning developments is crucial to allow for the proper scoping of a project ahead of detailed plans and implementation. Time spent scoping a project properly will ultimately same time and money. Increasingly it is not a situation of never the twain shall meet, but rather what opportunities are being presented for heritage, whether through direct conservation, mitigation, or indirect benefits.
About half of the work undertaken by the Heritage Office relates to the County Heritage Forum and delivery of the County Sligo Heritage Plan. This represents the offices input to policy formulation and programme planning at a county level.
A key role is undertaken in contributing to heritage policy formulation within development plans and providing professional heritage input where heritage issues arise at preplanning, special projects or senior management level within the Local Authority. In addition, the Heritage Office provides an ongoing heritage advisory role to all Local Authority staff, elected members and members of the public.
The Heritage Office also administers a series of heritage grant schemes on behalf of the Local Authority and continues to liaise with other heritage agencies nationally in seeking future benefits and opportunities for Sligo’s heritage.
The outlook is good, but Sligo has such a wealth of heritage that it would be easy to become complacent about it, the decline of the corncrake is perhaps an evocative example of how easily an aspect of our heritage can be lost. Ultimately, we need to be informed and aware of our heritage, while all the time looking to the future at the opportunities and possibilities that present themselves to create a new heritage for our county.