The Skelligs Rocks, 8 miles off the coast of Co. Kerry, constitute one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ireland. However, the Office of Public Works (OPW) is currently engaged in reconstruction work there. On the South Peak of Skellig Michael, an altar, dating probably to the ninth century, has been destroyed by unsupervised workmen. In addition, there has been extensive rebuilding carried out on the main complex, which has led to considerable damage to the original structures. The work has proceeded without an Environmental Impact Assessment; while the Department of the Environment and OPW have argued that, because the Skelligs are a national monument (thus covered by the National Monuments Act 2004) and because the current work is part of an ongoing programme of conservation dating back to the 1980’s, neither an EIA nor planning permission is necessary.
According to UNESCO guidelines, a Management Plan for each World Heritage Site must be submitted, and made available in published form, to direct the management of the site and any preservation work deemed to be necessary. A “management strategy” was submitted to UNESCO at the time the Skelligs were inscribed on the World Heritage List, and despite a statement by the OPW/Department of Environment management team that a “Management Plan” was approved by UNESCO in 2002, in fact no such plan exists as yet. The management team also failed to inform UNESCO of the rebuilding work on the Skelligs before it was commenced, even though UNESCO guidelines state specifically that “specific reports and impact studies” must be submitted “each time exceptional circumstances occur or work is undertaken which may have an effect on the state of conservation of the property.
In addition to being a WHS, the Skellings is a Sanctuary Preservation Area and a Bird Sanctuary, and as such any work carried out there without an Environmental Impact Assessment contravenes the EU Habitats Directive. No explanation has so far been forthcoming from the OPW on how it managed to secure a dispensation from the Directive.
ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) have issued a series of charters intended to serve as a guide for restoration work. The “Nara Document on Authenticity” from 1994 states: “Conservation of cultural heritage in all its forms and historical periods is rooted in the values attributed to the heritage. Our ability to understand these values depends, in part, on the degree to which information sources about these values may be understood as credible or truthful. Knowledge and understanding of these sources of information, in relation to original and subsquent characteristics of the cultural heritage, and their meaning, is a requisite basis for assessing all aspects of authenticity.” The Venice Charter (1964) is intended as a guide to the thinking behind restoration work. It states: “Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept… No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and colour must be allowed… The process of restoration is a highly specialized operation… It must stop at the point where conjecture begins, and in this case moreover any extra work which is indispensible must be distinct from the architectureal composition and must bear a contemporary stamp. The restoration any case must be preceded and followed by an archaeological and historical study of the monument… The valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of restoration.”
Despite the contention of the Department of Environment that the works being carried out are “minimal”, photographic evidence demonstrates widespread and systematic rebuilding of stonework in a manner completely at variance with the previously extant remains. Examples of the OPW’s cavalier interpretation of their international obligations are the following: in the main monastic complex, an altar that was in use by pilgrims up to the 1930s has been removed, on the grounds that it was “merely” built by the nineteenth century lighthouse keepers, and a nineteenth century wall was replaced by a new wall on the lines of the original early Christian retaining wall. The management team have referred to the deformation of the upper terrace walls and their reconstruction of the walls “on the original line of the wall being repaired”. This is reconstruction according to a preconceived notion of how the remains should look, not investigation of the existing remains; in other words, anything which does not fit the management team’s ideas of what is “early Christian” is removed, and worse, remains are dismantled and reordered into what the management team have decided they should look like.
This approach to archaeology, the idea that the accumulated layers should be respected rather than being simply stripped away as of no interest to reveal the “original” layer underneath, is based on a deeply flawed and mistaken ideology. Unfortunately, it seems to have attained to the level of a professional craze; in Italy, numerous masterpieces such as Michaelangelo’s Sistine ceiling and Last Supper have been “restored” according to the notions of art historians, with not the slightest appreciation of the importance of preserving the essence of an artwork as a historical fact. The layers of history cannot be stripped back to reveal a supposedly “original” essence; the desire to do this is a desire to deny that history has intervened between the creation of the work and its ultimate reception by the “restorer”, and it is also to deny that the ways in which a work was understood and received through the centuries has any importance to one’s own standpoint. The consequences of this can be immediately and painfully registered: just as the “restorers” of the Sistine ceiling have remade it according to their own limited aesthetic and historical perceptions, and in the process deprived it of much of its value, the OPW have engaged in a programme of dehistoricizing the Skelligs, thus asserting that there is no difference between the remains they reorder and their own understanding of them. In case there should be any dispute as to this understanding, all evidence of the intervening history must be cleared away, the slate wiped clean.
This denial of history, the notion that the accumulated layers of the past can be swiped aside to enable immediate access to the object, achieves the very reverse of what it professes: such an understanding reforms the object in its own image until it sees nothing but its own reflection there. Such an attitude can only be labelled cultural fascism, and it is the ideology that governs the State’s archeological and cultural policy.