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Cultural Heritage and Climate Change: Why Ireland’s Historic Monuments are at Risk

8 May 2019 – Ireland’s historic monuments, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Skellig Michael, are at risk of destruction due to climate change.

A Trinity Long Room Hub Research Incentive Scheme (RIS) project has supported an inter-disciplinary workshop looking at the effects of climate change on Ireland’s built heritage.

Dr Sarah Kerr, Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Projects Officer for two of Trinity’s Arts and Humanities-led research themes, Identities in Transformation and Making Ireland, has said that sites of historic and cultural significance are at risk of destruction with their stories being lost forever.

The fire which recently engulfed the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was a clear sign of the importance historic monuments and buildings hold in people’s hearts and minds. The outpouring of support and expressions of loss internationally for Paris’s most well-known building, was preceded by the fire that took hold of Brazil’s National Museum in 2018.

ODriscoll Castle

O'Driscoll Castle, Cape Clear, Co. Cork, is at risk from future storms.

Climate Change and Culture

Of increasing concern is the ability to preserve cultural assets and how to ensure historic structures survive when incidents such as fire or other damage occurs. But what about the forces of climate change which are threatening a slow destruction of heritage sites across the world?  

“Some effects are happening really slowly. Degradation of buildings occurs through acid rain, and it must be monitored closely and over time to notice the gradual damage. Those cataclysmic collapses of a building or the fire in Notre Dame are really sudden and dramatic and gut wrenching, and people don’t respond as emotively to the slow changes”, Dr Kerr says.

“Researchers should stress to the public that the slow changes can be just as detrimental to our cultural heritage as the big dramatic collapses.”

In a recent report from the United Nations body on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only one line is dedicated to cultural heritage: “There will be detrimental impacts to social and cultural assets.” Dr Kerr comments that this is “the only line in this detailed report that deals with our heritage, our past, our archaeology”, adding that “we risk heritage being left out of the discussion on climate change”, prompting researchers to come together to discuss these issues at the workshop funded by the Trinity Long Room Hub.

In recent years according to Dr Kerr, “Ireland, Britain and North West Europe saw these detrimental impacts in the form of record-breaking storms and record-breaking damage to our historic monuments.”

Dunbeg Fort in Dingle, Co.Kerry was one of the heritage sites which partially collapsed during the recent storms, which hit the west coast of Ireland particularly hard.

Dunbeg Fort

Dunbeg, Co. Kerry, a coastal site partially lost to storms.

“It’s an Iron Age fort, possibly 2,500 years old, and over the course of the past few years, a considerably amount has fallen into the sea”, Dr Kerr explains.

“The risks to heritage will only increase. Predictions indicate that we will have warmer wetter winters and warmer dryer summers, along with an increase in the severity and incidence of extreme weather events including cyclones.”

“If we want to protect our heritage, action must be taken now.”

Managing Loss

However, according to Dr Kerr, the impact of climate change on heritage is “not a battle that can be won” and this is why we need to start thinking about managed loss.

Dr Kerr outlines that a new Skellig Michael Site Management Plan, led by the Government, is underway which will consider the impact of climate change on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Discussions on the risks to the site have led to some suggesting reconstructing it somewhere safer, that is on the mainland, as has happened with some storm-damaged sites in Orkney, Scotland.

“The government have to weigh up how to preserve something and maintain its authenticity while still drawing in the high numbers of tourists to support the economy.”

“Skellig Michael is a world famous historic site and a real tourist draw, but it’s also an island and massively at risk from sea-level rise, storms and wind. As these risks are likely to increase, some have suggested reconstructing it on land, in order to preserve it.

Dr Kerr, who is an archaeologist, says “it raises the question of authenticity – if it is moved, does it become a 21st-century monument?”

Although, Dr Kerr concludes that this measure is unlikely to go ahead, it highlights the extent to which sites like this are under consideration.

Other measures include emulating what is happening in Scotland by engaging the community more around the cultural heritage sites being damaged. “There’s massive scope for getting the community more involved in mapping what heritage is at risk and letting the relevant bodies know when damage occurs.”

Identity and historic monuments

“When we lose cultural heritage, it does impact our identity; how we construct and perform our identity”, says Dr Kerr of the loss of cultural assets, and in light of the recent Notre Dame fire.

“Our buildings and the space in which we live are an integral part of our lives and sense of rootedness in the world. They really form part of our identity.”

She says that “the global response to Notre Dame was so strong because the cathedral is inextricably part of the city and the lives of the people who live there, the stones are imbued with cultural identity, albeit oftentimes contentious.”

Exploring further this topic of identity, she has recently been awarded an Irish Research Council (IRC) Creative Connections Award for a new research project ‘Examining European Cultural Identity through Interdisciplinary Methods.’

“We’re looking at the ways in which a shared cultural heritage can address the crisis of European identity. Many Europeans are unable to identify with European institutions and indeed with what it means to be European today, as we see with Brexit, and we’re looking at the role of our shared heritage in addressing the lack of European shared identity.”

Dr Kerr explains that a shared identity, more than just shared trade agenda, may be the key to uniting Europeans.

The Project, she says, will look at “different cultural aspects, including landscape and film, which contribute to our own individual and collective identities, and how these connect us to people across Europe, in the context of a shifting Europe, Brexit and the rise of populism.”

If the recent reaction to Notre Dame’s fire is any indication to go by, perhaps historic buildings such as this famous cathedral, do form part of a European identity, and even a global one.













Sarah is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and the Project Officer for two of Trinity’s Arts and Humanities-led research themes, Identities in Transformation and Making Ireland. Her research interests include medieval buildings, perception of architecture and communal living in Western Europe and her publications include work on Irish round towers, feudalism and lodging ranges of English castles. Sarah can be contacted with enquiries regarding funding, projects, communication and collaboration related to the themes.

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