Threats to cathedral repair after budget

VITAL conservation work on one of the country’s finest cathedrals could grind to a halt within weeks after savage cuts in heritage funding.

Rev Nigel Dunne, the Dean of historic St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork, described the Government’s decision to cut by 77% the funding it gives to the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government’s Heritage Unit, as “daft” and “short-sighted”.

The William Burges-designed cathedral, which was consecrated in 1870, is one of Cork’s most iconic structures.

A symbol of the city, it is a protected structure, a national monument, and one of the city’s most visited tourist attractions.

But following decades of under-investment, it fell into a serious state of disrepair, presenting its trustees with serious maintenance problems.

Its towering limestone spires were leaking, with individual stones splitting, threatening the integrity of its priceless stained glass windows and interior marble panels. Chunks of plaster-work began to fall, and today, dust still rains down from its ceiling.

A 10-year €4 million conservation and management plan was drawn up three years ago, setting out a phased approach to repair and protect the structure, and it has benefited from heritage funding in recent years.

The spire exteriors have been completely repaired but the funding cuts mean that vital repair work to the lower walls, as well as crucial interior work may now stop.

And hopes that state funding could be secured to repair its historic organ have also been dashed.

Dean Dunne said the cathedral’s trustees may not even be able to afford to carry out the smallest of dozens of minor but essential projects contained in the conservation masterplan plan next year.

He said the cuts also threaten jobs in highly specialised building and conservation companies.

“This work is absolutely essential. And there has never been a better time to do it, or better value to be got in the construction industry,” he said.

“If we had proper funding, we could finish the work sooner for half the price.

“We are constantly being asked by Bórd Fáilte to fill in survey after survey about heritage and cultural tourism. But there’s not a bean coming our way to do any promotion.”

Cíara O’Flynn, a senior buildings archaeologist with Southgate and Associates, is overseeing the St Fin Barre’s conservation project.

“St Fin Barre’s is recognised nationally as one of Ireland’s mostimportant buildings and is of international significance,” she said.

“And because of this its conservation will cost more due to the requirement for best practice standards in terms of craftsmanship, materials and supervision.”

She said while the maintenance and conservation of historic buildings must be the responsibility of the owners, it is not realistic to expect private owners and minority religious groups to shoulder the expense of such works, especially when it involves one of the city’s most cherished buildings.

“This is why the conservation grants are so vital,” she said.

It emerged in the December 7 budget that the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government’s Heritage Unit, which has responsibility for protected structures, including world heritage sites, suffered a 77% budget cut.

The Heritage Council, whose role is to protect, preserve and enhance Ireland’s national heritage, suffered a 47% cut. This is on top of a 30% cut in 2010.

The Heritage Council described its funding cuts as “punitive”.

They said the cuts will decimate the heritage sector and close many small enterprises that are dependent on it.

This will have detrimental effects on both our national heritage and the quality of our tourism offering, they said.

Michael Starrett, the council’s chief executive, said he is extremely concerned about the disproportionate nature of the cuts to the heritage sector.

“While the heritage sector recognises that it must share the burden of the cuts required to tackle the country’s economic crisis, the cuts announced in the budget are completely disproportionate in comparison to other departmental cuts,” he said.

“As a result, the future of heritage initiatives nationwide which have created hundreds of jobs, empowered local communities and enhanced the value of heritage as a tourism resource, are severely threatened.”

He pointed out that in 2009, over three million overseas visitors engaged in cultural/historical visits while in Ireland, and spent an estimated €1.9 billion while here.

“In particular, 76% of tourists identified landscape and nature as the primary reason for visiting Ireland, and heritage is what defines the uniqueness of a country,” he said.

“Funding will now no longer be available to protect and manage our iconic buildings, unique and threatened species, landscapes, cultural collections and rare artifacts, or indeed to support local communities in taking care of their everyday heritage.

“These punitive cuts put at risk, not just jobs which are critically important, but also vulnerable aspects of the nation’s unique natural and cultural heritage which now may be lost for ever to the country.”

An estimated 20,000 people visited St Fin Barre’s Cathedral this year.

Dean Dunne said because of the funding crisis facing the cathedral’s trustees, a decision has now been taken to invest significant resources in promoting the cathedral next year.

“We need the income,” he said.

Mr Starrett said the Government cannot talk about the importance of marketing our heritage and promoting tourism if it cuts the funding to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to care for our heritage.

In 2009, the Heritage Council spent €600,000 on conservation works to significant churches and cathedrals of all denominations.

This single scheme created direct employment for 16 people.

Each grant required at least 50% match funding. The St Fin Barre’s project has also benefited from Cork City Council funding.

Other projects in Cork to benefit from Heritage Council grants include restoration work at St Coleman’s Cathedral and the restoration of the promenade railings in Cobh, the protection of records of St Joseph’s Cemetery in Cork, the restoration of Suez Pond in Passage West, a folklore project on Cork Docklands, an archaeological survey of Glandore Harbour, and a conversation plan for Blarney Castle.

The cuts also mean that conservation works to historic walled town defences such as in Kilkenny, Cashel, Drogheda, Dublin city, Wexford), will be scaled back with the loss of 25 contracting and supervisory jobs.

The scrapping of grants to historic buildings and thatched houses will put this architecture at risk and result in the loss of highly skilled thatchers.

A spokesman for the Heritage Council also said that its work on the control of invasive species such as laurel and rhododendron, is under threat, as is its weed clearing work on Lough Corrib.

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