Monday 23 October 2017

To conserve and protect

Restoring heritage buildings is not for the faint hearted - you need deep pockets and a deeper belief in what you're doing. That's why the work of the Irish Landmark Trust is so crucial.

Wicklow lighthouse
Wicklow lighthouse
Wicklow lighthouse interior
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

Mary O'Brien, CEO of the Irish Landmark Trust, recalls the restoration of one their most popular buildings, the Wicklow Lighthouse. "I remember being in Wicklow when we took it on and there was a floor-and-a-half of bird droppings," she says. "It had been empty since the early 1800s."

Unlike most restoration projects, which retain some sense of their former layout, the Wicklow Lighthouse was never a home, just a tower and a wooden stairway to the roof, where 20 tallow candles burned. So the architect on the project, Maura Shaffrey, one of Ireland's foremost conservation architects, had a clean slate, rare in a conservation build.

"The architect took a very creative approach to it. Each bedroom has a different ceiling. One has a domed ceiling, and another has a flat ceiling. Down on the ground floor, the walls are at least six feet thick so we were able to cut out a guest WC in the walls of the tower where a window had been."

The rebuild was installed floor by floor, with the next connecting steel staircase being added in bit by bit, as each new level was completed. The bedrooms are lower down, with the living room and kitchen at the top, taking advantage of the panoramic views.

"In a nutshell, our purpose is the conservation of Ireland's architecture," Mary O'Brien says. When the organisation was established, in 1992, there was little in the way of protection for heritage buildings. It was set up to answer a perceived need "to save buildings", explains Mary, who has worked with the Trust since its foundation. "It was clear that throughout the country, buildings were being neglected or demolished."

Employees of the Trust travelled the country, identifying sites in need of help. Amongst the 26 properties currently run by the trust are castles, towers, gate-lodges, a Georgian townhouse, a mews, a lighthouse, a restored mill and several lighthouse keepers' cottages. Alongside the perennial favourite Wicklow Lighthouse, the tiny Merrion Mews in Dublin 4 and Helen's Tower in Co Down are two of the most popular properties.

Unlike other conservation projects, the Trust doesn't preserve the buildings to be viewed by the public from the other side of a velvet rope. Instead, they conserve and update these architecturally interesting buildings with modern comforts - electricity, heating, showers, and then rent them as short-term let holiday homes, working "particularly with the smaller properties which can get overlooked", says Mary.

Now, with increased legal protections on such structures, owners tend to contact the trust about taking over a site, typically on a 50-year lease. "They may not have the expertise or the finance," Mary explains.

Working on a conservation project is a labour of love for all involved. For starters, it tends to take longer and cost more than a new build. And it involves "a real challenge", according to architect Eamonn Monaghan from Keys & Monaghan Architects - installing the levels of comfort expected by a modern holidaymaker while staying true to the original nature of the building.

Eamonn has worked on several projects for the Trust, including Annaghmore Schoolhouse in Sligo and the CIL (Commissioners of Irish Lights) lightkeepers' cottages in Co Donegal. "Every building is different; every building demands a different response. You can't just make a uniform solution that will fit all," says Eamonn.

Making an old building work for 21st Century requirements is tricky. Adding wires and pipes into hollow ceilings or through six foot thick walls is not easy, nor is complying with fire safety regulations, reconfiguring a heritage building to provide universal access, or finding crafts people who have specialist skills such as lime rendering.

"It's getting hard to find people skilled in that area but the ones that you do find are disciples," Eamonn says of the contractors who work on this sort of project.

Normally, a project begins with a period of extensive research about the building, what its last use was, how it was constructed, the materials used.

And then there's the specific needs for each type or location of building. Working on the lightkeepers' cottages in Donegal was typical. "We had to just strip it back, and then look at reasonable levels of accommodation for tourists," he says. "They're both two bedroom houses, with very generous living accommodation. But also because of the particular location of St John's Point, which is famous for its diving, we have provided external showers. So it's slightly different from other accommodations. More suited to outdoor types."

When the recession began, government funding to the Irish Landmark Trust was cut, so today, beyond what they receive from the Heritage Council, the trust relies on charitable donations and the money raised from rentals.

Two years ago they launched the Irish Landmarker initiative, which for an annual contribution (€150, €300 or €500) gives you various perks, including discounts on holidays with the trust and entry into a monthly raffle for a weekend for two, as well as entry to a community dedicated to protecting some of our most beautiful structures.

"We've got something unique that nobody else has," Eamonn reflects, summing up the appeal of properties looked after by the Trust. "The satisfaction of bringing new life to an older protected structure is immense."

The Irish Landmark Trust, (01) 670 4733;

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