Wednesday 21 February 2018

John Greene: Communities must be allowed shape their environment and sport is a central part of the process

John Greene

John Greene

“When we speak of heritage today, we are talking about our interaction with the world around us, both real and abstract, our identity and our need to tell our own story in our own way.” Michael D Higgins, June 2015

In February 2014, the GAA club in Slane lodged a planning application with Meath County Council seeking permission to build a two-storey clubhouse on its grounds. It’s a small club, with limited means, and the plans were modest, but ambitious. There was no desire to build a white elephant nor to incur major debt, just an adequately-sized building to house its growing number of members and teams.

Since the foundation of the GAA, the club has had an almost continuous presence as a sporting and cultural organisation in Slane parish. But around the time the plans were being drawn up, the club had reached the lowest point in its history. In the previous two years, its only adult team had failed to see out the competitive season because it didn’t have enough players to field for games. Having competed in a senior championship semi-final in the mid-90s, the fall all the way to junior B status was a bitter pill to swallow.

As is typical of clubs all over the country, in many sports, volunteers knuckled down, put their shoulders to the wheel and made extraordinary personal sacrifices to turn things round. In 2006, the club had just 147 registered members, and needed to partner with a neighbouring parish just to field underage teams. By 2014, however, there were over 300 members and a new ladies’ football section. At this point I should say for the record that I am a member. Now, the club has two adult male teams and underage teams for both boys and girls at all ages. This year, Slane and neighbours Rathkenny had a women’s team in the Meath championship too. And the proposed clubhouse was part of a bright new future.

The club’s home is Toddy Harding Park, in the townland of Monknewtown. It consists of a full-size pitch and a training pitch, a small building with two dressing rooms no longer fit to cater for the club’s needs, and several ugly old containers used variously as spillover dressing rooms, treatment rooms, a kitchen and storage facilities.

The club’s home also happens to be located in the buffer zone which has been drawn up around Brú na Bóinne, one of only two world heritage sites in the Republic of Ireland (the other being Skellig Michael). Brú na Bóinne is “one of the world’s most important prehistoric landscapes”. The buffer zone around it more resembles an exclusion zone, as it extends to over 3,000 hectares and is hugely controversial in the area because of the restrictions it has led to.

Because another nearby club — St Mary’s in Donore — had just been through an arduous and very costly planning process for a clubhouse of its own, and because of the experience of so many people born in the area being forced to leave it, the GAA club in Slane was expecting that it would have to enter into difficult talks with the council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to secure permission to develop.

On the flipside, the club felt that there are few communities in Meath — especially those living in the commuter belt — as poorly served in terms of facilities as Slane. This was the first major proposal of its kind for the area and it was envisaged that the clubhouse would not be kept solely for GAA use, but that it would be available to the whole community. The dream was to create a focal point in the area that everyone could identify with and feel a belonging to.

Nothing, however, prepared the club for the vehemence of the Department’s opposition to the project. In a strongly worded letter to Meath County Council in March 2014 recommending that permission be refused, one paragraph stood out: “The proposed development is for a large new clubhouse (896sqm) in the form of a bulky generic-style two-storey shed, and associated site development works, it is the Department’s opinion that the proposed development would compound the damage caused by construction of the earlier pitch, and would impact adversely on the Outstanding Universal Value of the cultural and archaeological landscape of the World Heritage Site.”

The Department tends to make great play on the viewshed from the world heritage site, and this causes a lot of frustration because it is not an absolute position, more a subjective one.

The great irony was that the minister with responsibility for this area at the time was a man steeped in the GAA and community life, Jimmy Deenihan. I often wonder what he would have made of that letter, if he had seen it.

Apart from the carefully worded insult describing the clubhouse as a “bulky two-storey shed” — it was anything but — the deeper concern here was the assertion that not alone should there be no clubhouse, there shouldn’t even be a playing pitch.

This position was adopted in the name of heritage and culture. Ireland’s bureaucrats are skilled at doing things by the book, so in the confines of its own worldview the Department will convincingly argue it acted within its brief. Indeed, over a series of meetings in the last few years with club members and also with the community, it did exactly that. The question though, like so often, is who is the brief written for? Or in this particular case, who is the Boyne Valley for? Somewhere along the road the term ‘public servants’ has come to mean something entirely different.

Permission was refused.

This part of the country has a rich history and is central to Ireland’s Ancient East. The Stone Age monuments at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth all lie within a few miles of each other. Nearby also is the site of the Battle of the Boyne, the heritage village of Slane, the monastic site at Monasterboice, the historic hill of Slane where St Patrick is thought to have lit the first paschal fire. And it all nestles in the Boyne Valley, surrounded by history, as well as stories of myth and legend.

The importance of these sites is acknowledged by the local community. The problem has been that over the years the community’s ability to co-exist with them has been hampered so effectively that Slane remarkably went into decline at a time when other towns and villages in the commuter belt thrived.

Attempts by local community groups to level the playing pitch for people living in the area and to create the sort of environment that will allow it to regenerate have been largely stonewalled.

It is no wonder then that the GAA club’s fortunes plummeted. Many people who grew up in the area were forced to move away, unable to get permission to build homes for their families, sometimes even on family-owned land. The buffer zone covers around one-third of Slane parish, yet a few years ago less than 15 per cent of the club’s juvenile members lived within it. Between 1979 and 2002 the number of children at Slane National School fell from 406 to 138 — a stark indication of the decline.

To grow, communities need people. But the feeling for many in Slane is that they are not wanted in the area, that the monuments are more important. When you travel to other world heritage sites outside of Ireland, it is clear that local communities have been allowed to grow with them. Why isn’t it the same here?

What is heritage? And why do some seem to take such a narrow view on what exactly it is?

Heritage, in my view, is the story of us. It is the sum of all our parts, living and dead, our stories and memories, our achievements, our language, our music, our monuments . . . and our games. What of Ireland’s sporting heritage, something that appeared largely absent from the hundreds of events which formed part of Heritage Week recently? And what can be more part of “our own story”, as President Michael D Higgins put it, than our very own indigenous games of Gaelic football and hurling? Why do we not celebrate sport in the way we celebrate our other cultural achievements?

The excellent book Places We Play: Ireland’s Sporting Heritage, by Mike Cronin and Roisín Higgins, takes this up. The problem, they say, for sporting sites in particular is that they are constantly evolving and, “while they may be much loved, their existent heritage potential is unclear”. Their story, in other words, is still being told.

“For most heritage sites in Ireland and elsewhere, the two major considerations relate to landscape, or effectively, what is being preserved. The aim in identifying Kilmainham Gaol as a heritage site, for example, is to preserve it. Walking through the Gaol on a tour, one is looking at a site as it was when Parnell, Pearse or De Valera were imprisoned there. The same is true, to a degree, of areas of natural heritage, such as the Burren. The agenda for the carers of that site is to preserve its natural beauty, to control access and development, and to ensure that its unique flora, fauna and geography can thrive unimpeded. Again, as with Kilmainham, the object of the exercise, in heritage terms, is to preserve it as it was, and is, for future generations.

“The same cannot be said for sporting sites. As the majority are the ongoing homes of sports, players and spectators, they have to evolve constantly to support contemporary requirements. Stands that house thousands of spectators have to be safe. Facilities for players have to be state of the art. Clubhouses have to grow to accommodate bars, restaurants, hotel rooms, banqueting suites and even conference venues. What this means is that sporting spaces, as they are constantly evolving, cannot be preserved in aspic in the way of many other types of heritage buildings and spaces. Given that, we have to rethink what heritage means within the sporting context, and reach a definition that can be applied to sporting heritage.”

The GAA club in Slane understood this; and understood the importance of its role in the community as a whole. Equally, it acknowledged the significance of the history around it. Seeking to build dressing rooms, meeting rooms and a gym showed a realistic ambition to grow within the confines of what has been imposed on the area.

The key point, as Cronin and Higgins note, is this: Sporting venues, large and small, “are important for the games that were played there, the historical forces that shaped them and the people who played and watched. In this vein, we suggest that sporting sites are heritage sites. This is not necessarily contingent on whatever stands on the site now (in all likelihood, modern, functional structures), but rather in terms of what happened there.”

Communities must be allowed to grow and shape their environment. Sport is part of that, in fact it’s central to it.

A few miles from the GAA pitch in Slane, and under the shadow of the monument at Dowth, lies the imposing 18th century country house, Dowth Hall, where a recent development is a fine example of sport, heritage and culture coming together in perfect harmony.

The house was built by Viscount Netterville around 1760. It sits on 420 acres which is also part of the Brú na Bóinne world heritage site. It is now in the ownership of the Brennan family, who are currently restoring the house to its former glory and opening the estate up to the public more. Last month, for example, a family fun day attracted around 1,200 people to walk a trail discovering the land’s archaeology and architecture and learning how food and farming have influenced the landscape over the past 6,000 years.

And next month, on October 30, thousands will again pass through the gates for the second annual Point-to-Point and Country Fair. Dowth Hall hosted race meetings in the 18th century but the tradition had long since died out.

Last year, the venue hosted racing again for the first time in centuries and the hope is that this event will build on its success to help firmly establish it on the calendar. It combines racing, food and history and with activities for children too — including pony races — it is just the kind of community event to be celebrated.

The fact that it is taking place in the heart of a world heritage site just adds to the sense of occasion. And the fact that it has incorporated a festival of locally-produced Boyne Valley food makes it a unique occasion too. It is a local celebration of so much of what the area has to offer.

The Brú na Bóinne site is special. It is special not just because of the monuments, but also its history and mythology, and also because of what the people in the area have brought to it over the centuries. And will continue to bring. The races at Dowth, the activities of the GAA club and the other sporting and cultural organisations are all part of this rich tapestry, not separate from it. There is a strong culture of volunteerism in Ireland which has benefited not just sport, but many other aspects of Irish life, and which is largely embarked upon in pursuit of the common good. This is the real foundation stone of much that is good about Ireland, even if it isn’t always valued by the State.

The refusal by Meath County Council hit the club hard, and caused anger in the community. Another setback in a long struggle. The development was seen as a modest one, particularly when set against what other sporting clubs in the county have been able to do, but more importantly it was seen as vital to the growth and development of the area. In the past, individuals had fallen foul of the Department’s hard line, but this was the first time a community-based initiative was thwarted.

The Department may have ticked its boxes, but it singularly failed to acknowledge the wider context of what was at play, not least the role of an institution like the GAA in preserving Irish culture. “What all sporting sites have in common, whether for players or spectators, is that they are part of the fabric of Irish history and society,” write Cronin and Higgins.

There is a view within the area that the local population facilitate and support the site as a major visitor attraction, but there is a feeling too that enough is enough. There is a duty of care to the living as well as the dead.

Speaking at an event to mark 20 years of the Heritage Council last year, Michael D Higgins said: “An integrated approach, which is based on that vital connection between people and place, offers rich benefits in terms of enabling and empowering local communities to use heritage to improve their sense of well-being and quality of life.”

Well, as a country we need to practise what we preach.

The refusal did not change the underlying need for development. The club continues to grow. A series of meetings sought to progress the impasse, and although the council acknowledged the community need, the Department’s view remained that this was a threat to the landscape. As a result of these meetings, the club made a number of concessions, such as going from two-storey to single story, going from four to two dressing rooms, reducing the function room to a third of its original size, as well as adding a number of costly architectural features. And still the Department complained to Meath County Council, seeking further reductions in size which would have left the building close to useless.

In the Department of Sport, officials took a different, broader view of the club’s plans, assessing the community need and deciding that it was deserving of grant assistance. In the meantime a sum equivalent to over 10 per cent of what the club was awarded by one government department was spent satisfying another. That, I guess, is what makes the world go round.

Sunday Independent

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