Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Coolbanagher Castle Revisited

It is my great pleasure to introduce the first blog post of the New Year. Sean Murray runs the Laois Archaeology Facebook Page [here]. He recently approached me with the desire to revisit the events surrounding the partial collapse and subsequent demolition of the Coolbanagher Hall house in early February 2014 [here], and offer some thoughts on the future prospects for similar structures – of great cultural significance, but in need of urgent repair – around the country. I commend the piece to your attention

Robert M Chapple

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Coolbanagher Castle Revisited

Sean Murray

Looking back on 2014, it was quiet a sad year with regard to a number of our National Monuments. In particular the loss of a 13th century  Hall House at Coolbanagher, Co. Laois during storm Darwin in February, struck the local community and the wider public to the core. During that fateful night on the 12th of February, the southwestern corner of the neglected monument blew to the ground. The cracks had been in the wall long before the storm struck. Indeed, these old walls had stood the tests of time and the many gales that went before, she still stood hard and fast. These events were not a result of a freak storm but the culminations of years of oversight coupled with rampant neglect on behalf of government. The owners had, in recent years, applied for grant aid funding and had been turned down on numerous occasions, even during the boom years when money could easily have been more made available.

Coolbanagher Castle as it was before the storm. Image © Mike Searle (Source)
Coolbanagher in February 2014 

In the days after the storm, the owners contacted the National Monuments Service, who gave tacit approval for unsafe portions of the building to be levelled off. Unfortunately, this was misconstrued on the ground and the entire structure was bulldozed into a neat pile of rubble, the cairn of which marks the site today.

It would be unfair to blame any group or body for what had happened at Coolbanagher, but the fact that such an important cultural monument disappeared from the landscape in this manner has to be highlighted for the safety of remaining monuments throughout the country. Such structures provide us with a sense of cultural identity as well as providing important revenue for tourism. Coming on the back of the year of “the Gathering 2013” when such monuments provided a focal point for this tourism-led initiative in Ireland, it seems shameful that resources haven’t been allocated for the upkeep of such important centres of attraction.

After total demolition

Are we to sit idly by and let this happen again? The loss of Coolbanagher should be a wakeup call for us all. Resources are needed to save these buildings in a cost effective way. A new robust “Buildings at Risk Register” is needed to create a reference for monuments most in need of care and attention, be they in state ownership or on private lands. Perhaps changes in legislation are needed, in that maintenance of privately held monuments are not fully borne by farmers and other land owners who can ill afford to spend the many thousands to consolidate neglected structures throughout the country. Indeed, consultation costs for building examinations are often extremely expensive and deter private landowner investment, even before any physical work commences on a building. As a starting measure, perhaps the government needs to invest in a dedicated team of building conservators, which could examine each building without incurring costs on landowners. These professionals could advise on potential working practices on site as well as oversee adequate conservation procedures being implemented. Ideally, such works would be centrally funded from government alongside private owner funding on a case by case basis. This would provide a cost effective method of operating, alleviating the financial burden on the landowners, that currently acts as a disincentive for investment. Ultimately more funding is needed from government to achieve these goals and keep our monuments preserved for future generations. These funds would be offset by tourism revenues which will come in the years ahead. Coolbanagher may have fallen, but we can pay her due respects by insuring this neglect is limited and minimized in the future.

The Coolbanagher rubble cairn © Tom and Maria Nelligan

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