Finding new uses for Irish demesnes: authenticity and integrity issues
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The demesnes of Ireland occupy a central place within the evolution of the modern Irish landscape. They were constructed by a confident and self-assured landed gentry who enjoyed absolute economic, political and social power on the island. For them, gardens were a very visible means of proclaiming newly found status and wealth, as well as authority on the island. The recreation of space in accordance with practical and fashionable aesthetic norms had the dual role of asserting the landlord’s status as members of the elite, while at the same time emphasising the social distance, which separated them from the remainder of society. Progressively, the demesne form was raised to the level of art by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where demesnes became masterpieces of architecture and landscape design. They frequently comprised of unique areas of outstanding architectural, archaeological, botanical and landscape importance. In the decades up to World War I, the landownership system began to change radically. With these changes, the animating and unifying forces behind demesne construction crumbled and disappeared. In the newly established Irish Free State, few people saw demesnes as part of a shared heritage worth preserving. As a result, country houses and demesnes, the very symbol of British power in Ireland, came under direct attack. Demesnes were acquired compulsorily by the Land Commission and the newly formed Forest Service for use in agriculture, forestry or congestion relief. They paid little if any regard to their historic designed landscapes and, for a great many demesnes, their original context was frequently lost. This attitude continued up to the early 1980s, with the burning of a number of country houses in response to the republican hunger-strikes in Northern Ireland. As passionate memory faded and later generations began to objectively examine the cultural heritage surrounding them, a new appreciation of these eighteenth and nineteenth century xvi landscapes began to emerge. However, the survival of demesnes remains under threat as development pressures, especially during the “Celtic Tiger” era, have resulted in a significant number of demesnes undergoing radical changes of use. These threats range from holiday home developments, road building exercises carried-out under the National Development Plans (NDPs) 2000-2006 and 2007-2012, urban and suburban expansion and, above all, golf and spa hotel resorts. Such developments impact upon the continued authenticity and integrity of such important cultural landscapes and, as a result, many have been needlessly destroyed. However, conservation policy in Ireland is still dominated by conservation tools used to protect architectural structures, rather than cultural landscapes. Cultural landscapes cannot be conserved in the same manner as structures, as they are inevitably in a continual state of change through the seasons; their component plants grow and die, and they require significantly higher levels of maintenance to preserve their integrity. Such landscapes create a unique set of conservation challenges that can only be addressed though appropriate conservation legislation and policy guidance. In order to effectively conserve remaining demesnes, a new understanding of their complex composition and design interdependencies needs to be initially acknowledged before appropriate conservation tools are used to conserve them. In addition, if a demesne is to be adequately conserved in the longer-term, the potential consequences of fragmentation of land ownership and, resultant, uncoordinated development must also be addressed. Such an approach would allow for an appropriate new use to be found for a demesne, replicating the original animating and unifying forces. Only then would it be possible to maintain a demesne’s authenticity and integrity. This is an essential prerequisite and the chief role for conservation policy in Ireland. This dissertation aims to uncover a greater understanding of the original functions that they served xvii and their intricate design interdependencies before making conservation policy recommendations aimed at safeguarding their continued authenticity and integrity. To address these issues in a chronological manner, this dissertation is separated into distinct chapters, as follows: Chapter One: Introduction This chapter introduces this dissertation’s main research question and methodology. Chapter Two: Irish Demesnes This chapter sets the scene with an examination of the existing definitions for demesnes. Chapter Three: Historical Context: The Development of Demesnes in Ireland This chapter traces the historical development of demesnes in Ireland from the twelfth to the twentieth century uncovering their historical form, function and layout. Chapter Four: Demesne Structure in the Irish Landscape This chapter summarises the significance and common characteristics of demesnes. Chapter Five: The Abolition of Landlordism in Ireland This chapter examines the decline of the system of landownership that brought demesnes into existence and their subsequent reappraisal in the 1980s. Chapter Six: Current Threats to the Integrity of Irish Demesnes This chapter outlines the vulnerable design elements and current development threats to the continued integrity and authenticity of demesnes. xviii Chapter Seven: Conservation Legislation in Ireland This chapter undertakes a detailed examination of current conservation legislation in operation in Ireland. It will uncover how well Irish conservation legislation copes with the intricate design complexities of demesnes since it was overhauled a decade ago. Chapter Eight: Case-study Analyses This chapter examines the ability of current conservation legislation to protect the integrity of demesnes from the threat of erroneous development using three case-study examples. Chapter Nine: Conclusion The final chapter will make recommendations for future legislative and policy amendments with the aim of further solidifying legislative reform begun in 2000.