Today on the 'Today with Pat Kenny' radio programme on RTE1 one of the guests, Armin
Somali, highlighted the actions of Sligo County Council in looking to compulsorily
purchase the back gardens of eleven houses in the town of Cliffany for the purposes
of building new housing. Aside from the several objections raised - it will be a
backland development (which is grounds for refusing according to the regulations
anyway), it is objected to by at least eight of the eleven householders, and no
efforts have been made to compulsorily purchase other lands - the area contains a
As Ireland has 40,000 such structures *at least* (if you include possible sites and
already levelled ringforts, the total number of sites can rise to c.60,000 or more),
it can perhaps be said 'hey, we can afford to compromise just one, yes?'. I am
inclined to disagree. There are regulations which require a safe zone around the
structure (20 meters, if I remember right) which in this case will seriously reduce
the amount of land available to development (the total area is c.10 acres I believe).
We also - and I think more importantly - need to begin considering the nature of
structures such as ringforts, and indeed many other types of monument in this
country. As most or all of you no doubt know, ringforts are not isolated objects
which can be fenced off (or incorporated into a nice landscaped leisure area) and
thus remain intact. They are the remains of farmsteads over 1,000 to 1,500 or more
years old, part of the legacy left us by our ancestors. They also, like all farms, do
not terminate at the ditch surrounding the actual dwelling place, but instead lie at
the heart of what was once a working farm with all the fields, abandoned detritus and
more that goes with such sites.
Yes, of course the whole thing in this case needs to go through several stages of
approval and arbitration before being finally signed off, and the actual work will be
preceded by an impact assessment, archaeological survey, monitoring, and rescue
excavation if necessary. This will apply to the whole site, too, and not just the
ringfort itself, which the council have agreed will be respected as required.
Fair enough, but... but, but, but. Is there *no* hope at all that archaeological
sites will ever be considered in terms of their wider context? In the case of a
ringfort or other rural settlement site in particular, it is unarguable that the
identifiable site is only the visible part of a larger area of past human activity.
Rescue excavation is never the best type of excavation as it is constrained by
factors other than just research. There are time constraints, publishing issues and
the sometimes tantalising results where a portion only of the site is unearthed,
damaging the integrity of the site while not providing information about the site as
Where a housing development - as in this case - is intended for the immediately
surrounding land, aside from the damage and loss of context for the actual structure,
we have to factor in the effect of concentrated human activity from this point
onwards on the site itself. Nestled within a housing area the site will inevitably be
subject to increased damage from people and animals (even be they pets) using the
space for leisure purposes.
In this specific case, and in many other settings where ringforts are found, the
surrounding area is rural. Is it perhaps time to reconsider the weight afforded to
such sites when assessment is made of where development work can or should be
undertaken? Even disregarding the impact on the existing residents in this case,
there is no doubt that land to either side rather than *around* the ringfort would be
infinitely preferable from an archaeological perspective. Is there space here for new
or improved legisltion providing greater protection to archaeological sites, stating
that where a plot of land free of such a site could be used, the importance of the
site is such that *all* efforts *must* be taken to ensure the site *and its context*
are not only not directly affected, but that developments must be placed as *far*
away from such sites as is possible. Such a regulation, in a rural or semi-rural
setting seems to me to be not unreasonable in most cases.
In this specific example the added objection of the existing residents, and the issue
of contravening backland development regulations must, surely, provide sufficient
weight to the argument against. The wider picture which this one case highlights,
though, also requires thought for the future. Thoughts?