Statement regarding the significance and development of the site at
Beechpark, Scholarstown, Knocklyon, Dublin 16
First published 1st May 2019; Revised 10th May 2019
Context and purpose of this statement
Ardstone Homes Ltd are seeking permission from South Dublin County Council to demolish the former home of late Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, known as ‘Beechpark’, and to carry out enabling ground works including the diversion of existing foul drainage at the site at Scholarstown Road, Knocklyon (SDCC, 2019; Lyne, 2019; Feehan, 2019). It has also been reported that Ardstone Homes Ltd intend to develop the site by building approximately 600 new homes (Lyne, 2019; Feehan, 2019). This document is concerned with highlighting (i) the archaeological importance of the site, which the present author believes has been underappreciated, and (ii) the potential value of partially developing the site for heritage tourism purposes. This will be achieved with reference to the published archaeological report, relevant government policy documents and academic literature. This document has been prepared and is being published in advance of the decision due date of 9th May 2019 in the hope that those in public office, including the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan TD, will act appropriately so that private corporate interests will not be prioritised over the interests of the wider public, including the local community.
The significance of the early medieval archaeology
The archaeological report prepared by Archer Heritage Planning Ltd describes the significance of this site as “medium high” (AHP, 2019, p. 10). This assessment is based on criteria including the rarity and condition/preservation of the archaeological evidence uncovered, as well as its amenity value. Importantly, the present author, a specialist in early medieval Ireland who also has a background in economics and business, disagrees with the report’s assessment in relation to these criteria and believes the site to be of high significance, and a viable candidate for government protection as a national monument, and potentially for future development as a heritage site to encourage local, domestic and international tourism.
The report appears to be correct in identifying the enclosure uncovered at the site as a “settlement/cemetery” (AHP, 2019, p. 9). Such sites are “complex” but have the potential to enhance our understanding of early medieval Irish settlement and burial, as well as the political history of different areas (O’Sullivan et al, 2013, p. 317). Settlement-cemetery sites, like that in Knocklyon, are yet to be fully understood, but some have been linked to the transition period between the Iron Age and early medieval period – a time for which there is little documentary evidence (Kinsella, 2010). This accords relatively well with the preliminary dating evidence from the site which assigned some skeletal remains to the period 617-688 AD, and it may be that other remains will be dated earlier (AHP, 2019). It is also important to recognise that archaeological evidence for Iron Age burials is rare in Ireland (Rafferty, 2005; Cahill Wilson et al, 2014). Crucially, the report’s assessment of the Knocklyon site’s rarity fails to consider the site as a settlement-cemetery. Rather, it discusses its rarity in the context of it being an early medieval “ringfort” – a very inclusive term which refers to different types of settlement enclosures, many categories of which can be commonly found in the landscape, especially outside of Dublin (O’Sullivan et al, 2013). The report states: “Ringforts are the most common type of early medieval monument and the second most common field monument in the country” (AHP, 2019, p. 10).
Settlement-cemeteries cannot be described as common like ringforts can. Aside from Knocklyon, only five early medieval burial sites with an outer enclosure and associated settlement are recorded for Dublin (Bronk Ramsey, 2010). None of these sites are in South Dublin County, and crucially, only three are readily comparable to the monument at Knocklyon in terms of burial archaeology: Mount Offaly/Cabinteely, Cherrywood and Oldtown (Bronk Ramsey, 2010; Ó Néill & Coughlan, 2010; Baker, 2010). The latter site is located in Swords in the north of the county, while the other two, which are possibly related sites, are in Rathdown in the south-east (Bronk Ramsey, 2010). Unfortunately, the Mount Offaly/Cabinteely site is now a petrol station and therefore no longer has any amenity value (Bronk Ramsey, 2010). This information highlights that the Knocklyon site is much rarer than a reader would appreciate after reading the report's assessment, which treats it as a common ringfort.
Some attention should now be paid to the condition/preservation of the archaeological evidence found. When explicitly addressing the issue of condition/preservation, the report initially concerns itself with a separate criterion – visibility: “There is no visible surface expression of this monument… The main elements of the monument (i.e. the enclosure ditch and associated burials) are not visible…” (AHP, 2019, p. 10). The text continues by highlighting that these elements “yielded no evidence for excellent preservation of ecofacts… or extensive survival of artefacts” (AHP, 2019, p. 10). This arguably gives the reader the false impression that anything short of “excellent preservation” is not of value, despite the monument being judged elsewhere, apparently based on the surviving evidence, as a “good example of its type” with “significant associated archaeological potential in the form of human burial” (AHP, 2019, p. 10). It is also noteworthy that other features discovered within the enclosure, namely the furnaces, potential kiln, postholes, pits and linear ditches are not explicitly commented on in relation to their condition/preservation (AHP, 2019).
The report’s assessment of the site’s amenity value will be discussed in a subsequent section. With regard to the significance of the archaeology though, the information highlighted above illustrates that the report’s assessment of the site’s significance as “medium high” was inappropriate as it was based on the site’s rarity as a ringfort, not as a settlement-cemetery (AHP, 2019, p. 10). Problems have also been highlighted in relation to the report’s treatment of the condition/preservation criterion. The report states that further work might “enable a fuller assessment of its significance”, suggesting its authors are open to their assessment being revised in light of additional information (AHP, 2019, p. 10). This additional information has been provided here and as such the site’s significance should now be revised to high. In the context of Dublin’s heritage landscape it represents a unique site and a unique opportunity for engaging local communities and tourists alike in the archaeology and history of early medieval Ireland. This is particularly the case given Dublin’s relative lack of remaining undeveloped sites and its continuing urban sprawl. Therefore, the monument at Knocklyon is a viable candidate for legislative protection and it is the opinion of the present author that this should be granted by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht without delay, as it falls within her power to do so.
Governance issues and the decision not to protect the monument in-situ
The report highlights that following an initial investigation in August 2018, a decision to fully excavate the site was made by the National Monuments Service following consultations with the developer’s representatives (AHP, 2019). The report explains that the proposed development plans required service lines to be laid in the interior of the archaeological enclosure (AHP, 2019). It also states that: “…avoidance of the archaeological site recorded in the pre-development archaeological assessments would have required a very substantial revision of the layout of the development, which would have been difficult to achieve given the nature and type of the development proposed” (AHP, 2019, p. 12). This highlights that there was an unwillingness to alter the proposed development plans to safeguard the archaeology at the site and that subsequently a decision was made to engage in the destructive process of excavating the archaeology in full in order to preserve it by record. In economic terms, this appears to reflect the destruction of a public resource to facilitate profit maximisation by a private firm. This is particularly concerning given that this decision appears to be inconsistent with a number of the Heritage Conservation and Landscapes (HCL) Policy objectives. These objectives are outlined in full in the South Dublin County Council Development Plan 2016-2022 Written Statement (SDCC, 2016). Specifically, the full excavation of the archaeology at the Knocklyon site to facilitate private development appears to be at odds with these objectives:
HCL1, Objective 1: To protect, conserve and enhance natural, built and cultural heritage features and restrict development that would have a significant negative impact on these assets.
HCL2, Objective 1: To favour the preservation in-situ of all sites, monuments and features of significant historical or archaeological interest in accordance with the recommendations of the Framework and Principles for the Protection of Archaeological Heritage, DAHGI (1999), or any superseding national policy document.
HCL2, Objective 2: To ensure that development is designed to avoid impacting on archaeological heritage that is of significant interest including previously unknown sites, features and objects.
HCL2, Objective 5: To protect historical burial grounds within South Dublin County and encourage their maintenance in accordance with conservation principles.
(SDCC, 2016, p. 153)
Though the reasons behind the decision to fully excavate the site are not known to the present author, one would hope that if there had been an accurate appreciation for the significance of the archaeology found at the site the aforementioned objectives might have been adhered to more faithfully, and as a consequence the archaeology might have been preserved in-situ. In any case, it seems likely that greater consultation with the local and academic communities might have led to the preservation of the archaeology in-situ. Interestingly, literature on governance proposes the possibility for conflicts of interest when those carrying out an investigation are being paid by those who have a particular financial interest in the investigation’s results (du Plessis, McConvill & Bagaric, 2005). While there is absolutely no suggestion here of wrongdoing on the part of the compilers of the archaeological report, these realities highlight the need for independent assessments in cases such as these prior to decisions being made in relation to full excavations or the granting of planning permission. Such reports would benefit from the input of experts from different fields, including archaeologists, heritage experts, historians, conservation biologists, economists and representatives of the local community being impacted.
The site’s amenity value: a preliminary argument for its partial development as a heritage attraction
The report determines that the Knocklyon site has no amenity value. Its assessment reads: “None. The site is privately owned and not visible at ground level” (AHP, 2019, p. 10). The Guidelines for the Assessment of Archaeological Heritage Impacts of National Road Schemes, from which the assessment criteria used in the report are derived, directs that in relation to the assessment of amenity value: “Regard should be taken of the existing and potential amenity value of a monument” (NRA, 2005, p. 51). The present author strongly disagrees with the failure of the report to identify any potential amenity value for either the monument or the larger site. The report is correct, of course, in highlighting that the site is currently in private ownership. However, in the interests of safeguarding the site and partially developing it as a heritage attraction, the government may wish to purchase the property from the current owner. From an economic point of view, capital expenditure of this nature can be justified in the context of the public benefit it creates, which is, to some extent, reflected by contribution to the achievement of policy aims and macroeconomic objectives. While a definitive analysis is outside of the scope of this statement, a few comments on the potential benefits and costs associated with developing this site as a heritage attraction will now be made.
The development of this site as a heritage attraction could contribute to a number of heritage and education policy aims. At a national level, although the government’s Heritage 2030 policy is in the consultation stage, the “Minister’s foreword” to the Heritage 2030 Public Consultation document states that the government’s “vision is simple – that heritage is valued and protected” (DCHG, 2018, p. 3). This proposes that there should be a political commitment to protect the Knocklyon site if this vision is to be respected and fulfilled. At a more regional level, the South Dublin Tourism Strategy product audit identifies the “shortage of tourism products and experiences – ‘things to see and do’” in the area as a weakness to be addressed (SDCC, 2015, p. 5). This strategy also sets high targets in relation to growth of the tourism sector. Specifically, it aims to achieve “a doubling of visitors to South Dublin County over a ten-year period reaching a quarter of a million... with expenditure of between €60 and €65 million”, while also doubling local employment figures to approximately 5,000 (SDCC, 2015, p. 2). The development of the Knocklyon site, which is of particular historical and cultural significance, would contribute to achieving these strategic aims, not least by helping to attract the large and growing, “Culturally Curious” audience segment identified by the Grow Dublin Taskforce (SDCC, 2015, p. 7). Moreover, due to the location of this site, it could simultaneously serve as a gateway to Ireland's Ancient East, promoting the success of this initiative by encouraging visitors based in the city to explore more rural sites. In relation to education, this heritage site would be a resource for teachers and students in both primary and secondary schools. It could be expected to facilitate student engagement and the teaching and learning of learning outcomes pertaining to content areas like early Christian Ireland and archaeology (DES & NCCA, 1999; DES & NCCA, 2017). Similarly, the former Taoiseach’s home on the site provides an opportunity to engage student audiences with topics such as “government, economy and society in the Republic of Ireland, 1949-1989” (DES & NCCA, 2003, p. 39).
With respect to the macroeconomic objectives, the partial development of the Knocklyon site as a heritage attraction has the potential to increase employment in both the construction and heritage/tourism sectors. The government funds used in furtherance of this project can be expected to enter the circular flow of income and are likely to result in a multiplier effect, ultimately benefiting households and firms in the economy. The benefits of this are likely to manifest at both local and national level. The site’s development and operation would also contribute to gross national product and could be expected to generate revenue for the government. For context, expenditure by out-of-state tourists visiting Ireland has been growing in recent years and, excluding spending on carriers, it was estimated to be worth €5.3 billion in 2017, with Dublin being the region where the most money was spent (Fáilte Ireland, 2018). In the same year, the tourism industry directly contributed 3.9% of all tax revenue (Fáilte Ireland, 2018). The €5.3 billion mentioned above represented the spending of over 10 million out-of-state visitors (Fáilte Ireland, 2018). Importantly, 85% of respondents to a Fáilte Ireland port survey in 2017 indicated that interesting history and culture were important factors in holidaymakers visiting Ireland (Fáilte Ireland, 2018). Together this information highlights the size of the potential non-domestic market which might be served by a well-interpreted multi-period heritage site in Knocklyon. It should also be pointed out that the site is highly accessible and is served by three bus routes, the 15, 15b and 175, the M50 motorway, and is only 20 minutes from Dublin airport.
In relation to the cost of partially developing the site as a heritage attraction, it should be noted that a decision to protect the location of the early medieval settlement-cemetery, and even that of the former Taoiseach’s home, as national monuments would remove the potential for large-scale residential development at the site. This would likely lead to the owner wishing to liquidate the asset. The fact that the land would not be suitable for residential development should be reflected in the market value of the property, minimising the financial cost for the exchequer of acquiring the land for public use. If necessary, the use of a compulsory purchase order would also remain an option provided there was an intention to carry out public infrastructure development at the site in the form of a public heritage attraction. Similarly, in relation to the development and operational costs associated with a public heritage attraction at the site, it can be remarked that there is a potential for cost savings through economies of scale if the development and management of this site are carried out effectively in conjunction with the proposed development and management of another site at Montpellier Hill (Armstrong, 13 February 2018). In terms of opportunity cost, while one can argue that an increase in the supply of housing is required to lower Dublin house prices and/or rental prices, the 600 or so new homes in this case are unlikely to have much of an impact on average prices. Moreover, these homes, which are likely to be offered for occupation at fees which take full advantage of current high market prices, will not impact on key issues like poverty and homelessness; only significant investment in social housing is likely to make inroads here. In any case, the archaeological significance and amenity value of this site, which has been established here, makes it entirely unsuitable for residential development based on the Heritage Conservation and Landscapes (HCL) Policy objectives expressed in the South Dublin County Council Development Plan 2016-2011 Written Statement (SDCC, 2016).
Ultimately, the early medieval archaeology discovered at the site should be appreciated as being of high significance, as the archaeological report’s communication in relation to monument rarity, preservation/condition and amenity value have been called into question. This highlights the cultural importance of the site itself. Serious concerns have also been raised about the decision to fully excavate the settlement-cemetery monument instead of preserving it in-situ.
It has also been shown that the Knocklyon site offers a unique opportunity to develop a multi-period heritage attraction in South Dublin, which is likely to have significant economic and policy benefits. The present author believes that Josepha Madigan TD, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht should make immediate provision to protect this site as a national monument, given that it is in her power to do so. No further works in relation to private residential development should be permitted on the site.
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