Annual General Meeting Review
After a welcoming coffee and biscuits at the Dunluce Hotel, the opening tour of the IPCRA 2007 AGM weekend began at Dunluce Castle. Constituting some of the most extensive ruins of a medieval castle in Northern Ireland, it is located on the edge of a basalt outcrop on the north County Antrim coast between Bushmills and Portrush. We entered the castle, an Historic Monument in State Care, with our guide via the 17th century mainland court which contains a number of domestic buildings. A steep path leads down from the court to a narrow bridge connecting to the rest of the castle complex which is built dramatically on the top of the sheer outcrop. This crossing would originally have consisted of a drawbridge leading to the Gatehouse. The buildings on the rock are mainly of 16th/early-17th century date. Our guide deftly brought us around the three castles and retold the stories of its various inhabitants. The site is most famous for a dramatic fall of its kitchen into the sea, in 1639, soon after which the site was abandoned. Following the tour we took the opportunity of the dry weather to marvel at the stunning views along the Antrim coast from the parapet to Skerries and Inishowen peninsula in Donegal.
After our lunch in Bushmills town we took the short trip to Bushmills Distillery. The tour began with a film presentation in the huge store rooms of the distillery and told the history of this world-famous whiskey. The license to distil was granted in 1608 to Bushmills but it is thought whiskey-making goes back to the 13th century in the area. Bushmills will therefore celebrate their 400th year in 2008 and will produce a special blend to mark the occasion. Our guide then carefully brought us through each part of the distilling process from grinding the course flour (or grist), mixing it in huge vessels with hot water to triple-distilling in copper pot stills. The overpowering smells of barley, yeast and alcohol changed as we walk along the route and eventually outside to the store where the whiskey is aged in oak casks attained from as far away as Spanish bodegas for a minimum of three years. The art of whiskey blending was for us to appreciate at the end of the tour with a taste of the tipple in the warm and cosy surroundings of the bar.
Our day ended with a sumptuous meal at the Causeway Hotel with huge portions of all kinds of everything and a good chat.
The next morning, it was time to get down to business at the AGM meeting. Following official business, members discussed various subjects such as the Theseus Proposal, one unified conservators’ association and sub-committee activities. Following this, Elizabeth Crooke gave a very interesting presentation on the new PgDip/MA Museum Practise and Management programme through the School of History and International Affairs at the University of Ulster. Elizabeth explained the opportunity to study online through the Campus One portal. This course has been created in collaboration with the Heritage Council and is designed to develop skills necessary for the Standards and Accreditation Scheme. The twelve modules covered by the course discuss best practice with examples from here and abroad on collections care and management. Elizabeth was keen for conservators in Ireland to contact the course if they are willing to discuss case-studies of relevant topics and in general to set up an open relationship with IPRA members and the programme.
After a wholesome lunch of soup and sandwiches, we set off to visit the Giants Causeway. Our jovial 70 year old National Trust guide shared with us the myths, legends and geographical facts of this astonishing sight. He also shared his vast local knowledge of the area, especially the fishing activities his family were involved in. The sun appeared as we made our way down the road, past the camel and to the truly awe-inspiring causeway area. We carefully clambered over the rocks to take in the Wishing Well, and the Giant's Granny among other aptly named rock formations.
The details of how Fionn McCool, a giant living in the area and his great rivalry with Benandonner across the sea in Scotland created the causeway is as varied as any great Celtic myth. One version is that after a dispute about their respective fighting ability, Fionn grabbed a rock and threw it towards Scotland issuing a challenge to settle this claim. Benandonner responding with another rock, saying he could not swim. Fionn McCool then tore slabs of volcanic rock from the plateau around him to pave a causeway to get across to his rival. Benandonner had to accept his challenge, came across the causeway and entered Fionn McCool's house to find the comparatively small (by giant standards) Fionn dressed as a baby. Benandonner was terrified at the thought of the size of this baby’s father and so ran back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway as he flew. Today the remnants of this path remain on the coast of Antrim and Staffa (an island off the coast of Scotland with similar rock formations).
Despite this lovely guided tour, IPCRA’s visit to the Giant’s Causeway took place during a period of considerable controversy regarding the future development of the site. Most of the causeway is owned by the National Trust with access to the site in the ownership of Moyle District Council. The Site occupies approximately 70ha of land and encompasses a further 160ha of sea and lies on the North Antrim Coast.
The Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast site was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. One of just three World Heritage Sites on the whole island, the others being Brú na Bóinne in County Meath and Skellig Michael off the coast of south-west Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site. UNESCO have described the site as being of “outstanding universal value both for its geological phenomena and its natural beauty.” As with all World Heritage Sites UNESCO requires that a comprehensive management plan is put in place to monitor and control any development in the area of the site. Usually interpretative facilities or visitors’ centres at World Heritage Sites are developed by the local authority or other public bodies.
The visitors' centre, at the entrance to what has become Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction, was destroyed by fire in April 2000. Some years later an international architectural competition was promoted. With the assistance of the Union of International Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects, the competition was organised in two parts. First, architects around the world were invited to design a building for the new facilities. The competition drew a huge response and 201 entries were received. A second stage of the design competition was for the exhibition and interpretative facilities in the centre.
The winning design was announced on 11 October 2005 by Secretary of State Peter Hain who unveiled the design for the new visitor centre at the Giant's Causeway. The successful design, selected by a panel of eminent architects, was submitted by Roisin Heneghan of Heneghan Peng Architects in Dublin. Ms Heneghan received a prize of £10,000. Heneghan Peng had previously won the international competition for the design of the Grand Egyptian Museum between Ciaro and the Pyramids at Giza. The $320-million Grand Egyptian Museum is currently on site and scheduled for completion in 2011.
As work on developing the detailed design of the winning entry continued, an alternative proposal was submitted by a private developer Seymour Sweeney using a vehicle called Seaport Investments. Somewhat to the surprise of the competition winning architects, the local council and the National Trust, in September 2007 the Department of the Environment Planning Minister, Arlene Foster MP stated that she was "of a mind" to approve Seaport Investments' planning application for a new visitor centre. This decision, while popularising the use of the phrase "of a mind" caused considerable concern among a number of parties, not least UNESCO itself. At the time of our IPCRA visit it appeared that the private sector development proposal would proceed at the site with the competition winning design remaining firmly on paper. Since our visit a number of further alleged connections between Mr Sweeney and Ministers and other members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have emerged. The consequences of much of these alleged relationships have been played out in the Northern media on an almost daily basis over the past few months. In a reversal of her previous stated intention, DoE Planning Minister, Arlene Foster MP, issued a statement to the Assembly on 29 January 2008 regarding Seaport Investments' planning application for the Giant's Causeway. She informed members that she had "decided that a Notice of Opinion to refuse the application should be issued to the applicant, and I have instructed my officials to proceed on this basis." In refusing the application for a privately funded visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway, she stated that the proposal would have an "adverse impact on the World Heritage Site" and that "it could adversely affect the character of the area". The National Trust and Moyle District Council are now working together with the intention of building a new centre on the existing site, based on the winning design by Heneghan Peng.
And so concluded the 2007 IPCRA AGM in county Antrim. Many thanks to Ele, Colin and other committee members for their time and effort in organising the weekend. It was a great success and thoroughly enjoyed by all.