Heritage Council: Chairperson Designate

Is féidir linn an cruinniú a thosnú. We have received a leithscéal from an Teachta Heydon, who is as láthair today. That is the only leithscéal we have. I advise members to turn off their mobile phones as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment in a way that affects the sound quality of the recording of the debate. Today we will engage with Mr. Michael Parsons, who is the chairperson designate of the Heritage Council.

Has he been appointed as chairperson?

He is about to be. I do not think we have any powers to change the decision. I welcome Mr. Parsons to this afternoon's meeting.

Gabhaim mo mhíle buíochas leis as teacht isteach inniu.

Before I ask the witness to address the committee, I wish to draw his attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement and any other documents the witness has submitted to the committee may be published on the committee website after this meeting. Members are reminded of a long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against persons outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

To commence our discussion, I invite Mr. Parsons to make his presentation.

Mr. Michael Parsons

I thank the Chairman and I thank the committee for inviting me here today in my capacity as chairman designate of the Heritage Council. The committee is well aware of the work of the Heritage Council since its establishment on a statutory basis in 1995. The committee recently had a discussion with the CEO of the Heritage Council on its ongoing work. I submitted an opening statement, which deals with my career in education and my involvement in community and social activities. My involvement in heritage stretches back over 40 years. I first joined Laois Heritage Society shortly after its formation in 1975, and since the late 1970s I have acted in various roles in promoting heritage in Laois, including being chairman, vice chairman and president of the society. Since 2012, I have been a board member of the Heritage Council. In December 2016, I was appointed acting chairman of the council by my fellow members and I have acted in that role since then. I was nominated by the Minister as chairman of the Heritage Council at the end of June 2017.

I will develop some points I made in my submission on the approach I wish to take in my role as chairman of the Heritage Council. I see it as intrinsic to the role of chairman that leadership is collegial and co-operative, that the board and executive work closely together to attain objectives, and that our dealings with each other and our network of organisations, including county heritage officers, is supportive, open and transparent. It is vital the Heritage Council nurtures relationships with other organisations and bodies, including local and central government and all of the organisations, committees and individuals throughout the country that are vital to preserving and promoting our heritage.

The Heritage Council's draft strategic plan will shortly go out to consultation. Next year, the council is to lead the Irish section of the European year of cultural heritage. It is vital we nurture a sense of belonging in all the people who live here. I suggest Brexit may well cause us to re-examine and reaffirm our identity. Our identity is attained by asking of ourselves who we are, and then asking the further question who do others think we are. It is vital for us to re-examine and reaffirm our sense of where we live and who we are.

A vital part of the work of the Heritage Council is working with communities, and this is facilitated by our grant system and through our county heritage officers. The council has had vibrant engagement with schools at primary level for a number of years and it is my firm intention to extend this to secondary schools, particularly with imaginative projects involving individuals and class groups. Various groups are linked with and assisted by the council, including the Landmark Trust, the discovery programme and the national biodiversity programme. Part of the role of the council is to give advice and support to the Government on heritage-related topics. To further this, closer working links should be fostered with the Arts Council and other cultural bodies. Our arts, culture and heritage are the soul of the nation and working together is the way forward.

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an bhfinné as sin. Bhí sé sin an-suimiúil ar fad. An bhfuil ceist ag éinne? Glaoim ar an Seanadóir Marie-Louise O'Donnell.

I thank Mr. Parsons. I read his submission and his curriculum vitae, which is wonderful because he has come from an educational background. He went through education at night and worked his way up to vocational education. It is a wonderful route to come this way from the ground up into what he does now.

Does Mr. Parsons consider that working with communities is a major part of what he does? What is his opinion on the dissipation of our communities, and the fact we are being told every day by the press, radio and television that they are falling apart and they have many problems, beginning with the post office and ending with emigration? Where does he see the Heritage Council in all of this? He mentions it a lot.

Does Mr. Parsons think he might make solid links with education at second level as opposed to, say, the Arts Council? It has its job to do. If I were to look at heritage week in Ireland every year it is better than the theatre festival in so far as it happens. I say this not in a comparable way because it happens in every street, town, village, lane, road, church, lawn and field in Ireland. It is extraordinary. There is more of an educational link. Mr. Parsons has planned for definite disciplined links in second level education, as opposed to the Arts Council, because it has its own work to do. It still has not addressed the issue that music as a subject in the leaving certificate examinations is not given 25 points while mathematics is. What are Mr. Parsons's views on such issues?

Mr. Michael Parsons

I will begin with the Senator's final question. As far as links with second level education are concerned, the second level principals' association nominated me in 2012 to go on the board in the first place. It sent me as an emissary to try to get heritage more closely linked with second level education. I was a founder member and later the chairman of the arts, heritage and cultural committee of the principals' association. Every year, we have creative engagement in more than 100 of the 700 second level schools. Separately, in counties Laois and Offaly I initiated a heritage programme in primary and second level schools, which is being considered as a pilot by the Heritage Council. It covers Laois, Offaly and north Tipperary at present. We intend to expand it to County Kildare and if it works well we will expand it nationally.

The Senator's other question was on community. I have always believed in the importance of community, being a vocational school principal where the school operates night and day. We had approximately 1,000 night students in the school so it was always a central hub of the community. My eyes were opened fully with the reaching out programme and how the community responded in its own way to the commemoration of 1916 in 2016 and adopted it themselves. The community is amazing. During heritage week, I was invited to an event in Geashill in County Offaly. The community was commemorating the battle of Geashill, of which I had never heard, which took place in 1699. I arrived there to find a community hall packed with 200 people. The chairman of Offaly County Council addressed it. The Royal Irish Academy confirmed the book written was "kosher", if I may use that expression.

Yes, it is a great book.

Mr. Michael Parsons

It was all there. The whole community listened to the book, which was written by a local man, and the event finished off with a traditional Irish composition, which the community had composed to celebrate Geashill. I felt that community so affirmed itself that night. We speak about the power of communities, and heritage does this.

I have a couple of questions. Obviously, the country has a wonderful heritage, which is to be found in nearly every field and area. I come from County Meath, which we nearly consider to be the heritage capital of the country. The River Boyne flows through the county and its banks are littered with internationally recognised heritage locations such as Tara, Newgrange, the site of the Battle of the Boyne, Slane Castle and the Hill of Slane. There are also hundreds of smaller, really interesting heritage items such as crosses, raths, forts, old houses and so on, most of which are hidden from the people. Most are on the banks of the river which is not accessible by public roads. One of the ways to open them up to Irish people and potential tourists is the creation of a heritage greenway from the source of the River Boyne to the estuary, which would take in three counties and a number of large towns along the way. Is there any way the Heritage Council could work with community groups in seeking to open up these heritage spaces which are invisible?

Mr. Michael Parsons

We would love to do that and there is a way to do it. We are involved in the march of O'Sullivan Beare event. There is the Beara Way, which extends for hundreds of kilometres. The Heritage Council is helping in that regard. In fact, I spoke at its launch a year or two ago. That is exactly the type of initiative we can reach. The heritage sector does not necessarily need an awful lot of money, although I will be roundly castigated when I appear back at base after saying that. Of course, we need money, but we need to be able to link up with local communities, even on a county basis. We really have great links with heritage officers and very good relations with the county councils. If a scheme such as the one mentioned by the Deputy is proposed, the Heritage Council would certainly back it, first with expertise and probably with a small amount of seed funding to see how it would develop, before looking for more money because I think it is a very good idea.

Another issue has struck us. We had a wonderful opportunity a few months ago to visit the storehouse of the National Museum of Ireland in Swords. We were blown away by the number of artefacts, which, to a certain extent, lie hidden from many. Obviously, there are cycles in artefacts being displayed and not being displayed. For example, there were a mediaeval sword and tiles from the floor of Trim Castle. We do not have a county museum in Meath. Many counties do have one, but many others do not. One of the objectives of many of us on the committee is to make the wonderful, valuable heritage items we have more accessible to people throughout the country. It would be a lovely project to ensure each county had a viable county museum, full to the brim with historical and heritage artefacts from centuries gone by. That would help to educate the local community about the wealth of their own space but also to bring people into the area. Is there a role for the Heritage Council in that regard?

Mr. Michael Parsons

There is a great role for us to play. For a start, the Heritage Council works with 55 museums through a museum standards programme. We assess, give certificates and withdraw them if we are not happy and so on to try to attain standards. We have a great role in that regard and one which we are required to play. In County Laois we have gone down the same trail several times and there are difficulties. We follow with great interest what is happening with the courthouse in Portlaoise. We want to locate a museum in the building. The National Museum of Ireland assures us that if it is safe to hand artefacts to local museums, it would be delighted to do so. The difficulty is that bodies such as county councils are required to be involved. Of course, there will be many volunteers, but a few paid people are needed as buildings and security must be maintained. However, it is something the Heritage Council would absolutely embrace. Therefore, we would love to receive a proposal from the committee in that regard because it would spur us on.

As I said, we are setting out our strategic plan for the next few years. We look for ways in which we can promote the heritage of the country and having a museum is a great way. We were told not to stick to County Laois alone but to promote counties Laois and Offaly, not only for their monastic wonders but also for the little thing called the first plantation of Ireland. There is a festival in Portlaoise to celebrate the first planters' fort in the English-speaking world.

Was it not in Maryborough?

Mr. Michael Parsons

Absolutely and before that in Fort Protector. The county manager and I were there to open the festival when a bunch of redcoats fired over our heads. Luckily, they were firing blanks.

Very good. There are a couple of big heritage issues in the public domain, of which Moore Street is one. There is a fantastic Government Minister-created forum which is looking at all elements of the Moore Street monument. It has been decided by a court judge that it is a national battlefield site, but, unfortunately, there is an appeal against that ruling. To a certain extent, it looks like Moore Street will remain inert in its current state for another two or three years until all of the rigmarole in the courts is complete. It is an awful shame, first, because of the level of energy, enterprise and community in the area and also given our ability to develop really important heritage sites of international importance. Does Mr. Parsons have an opinion on the Moore Street issue?

Mr. Michael Parsons

I have a personal opinion which is that it is very important that we commemorate the people who gave us our independence in as fitting a way as possible. This is an issue on which the Heritage Council has not given an opinion. Perhaps it has not been asked to give one. With court proceedings flying all around the place, only the brave would go into that arena, but we are certainly in favour of commemorating the heritage associated with the 1916 Rising.

Apropos of something the Chairman said, it is all very well talking about small county and church museums, but it is similar to the idea of having theatres everywhere. Theatres were to be built in every town. They are great, but it costs a lot of money to run and keep them open. The best example is in my county, County Mayo, in Straide, where there is a museum about Michael Davitt which is recessed in a beautiful church. However, it cannot be kept open and those who run it beg for money all the time. They get volunteers, but keeping these places of great interest, history and lore open is difficult. Does Mr. Parsons see his role as fighting for them? The museum mentioned is a wonderful example of what we are talking about.

Mr. Michael Parsons

Absolutely and I have been there several times. In County Laois we are very interested in that era because James Fintan Lalor was such a-----

There is also the festival.

Mr. Michael Parsons

There is and I have been involved in organising it since the start. There is also a James Fintan Lalor festival. However, we cannot get away from the difficulty. The museum in Straide is marvellous. Of course, we are in favour of having a county museum in every county, but who would run them?

Mr. Michael Parsons

There are questions about security, heating and lighting and the need to have several permanent staff. Having said that, am I in favour of it? Of course, I am.

There is obviously a sustainability element to such initiatives and a feasibility study would have to be carried out.

The Chairman is correct, but those who run many of the smaller museums will say the margin for sustainability is very small and that they cannot reach it. We are not talking about the Museum of Country Life in Castlebar which is a huge enterprise. We are talking about small places where young people who have no work or those participating in apprenticeship schemes, about which we are still talking, could avail of opportunities.

Small amounts of money are involved but there is not enough creative thinking going into it and it is not being ring-fenced for something like what Mr. Parsons is talking about and something like that in Straide. Some of these are really excellent. They are just not put up for the sake of it.

The Senator is right. If we leave it to the county councils to manage and run, it will not happen to a certain extent.

Most county councils-----

They will not prioritise it.

They are dealing with massive housing and infrastructure crises. They are at sixes and sevens with regard to their budgets. It nearly needs a national policy and impetus - obviously with a tie-in from the local councils.

Mr. Michael Parsons

May I come back to a point that I perhaps made clumsily earlier when I said we reach out to the arts. I meant all the cultural institutes. To a large extent, I am sure, in every country, various bodies are set up and they operate within their own parameter. That is fine. That is what they should do. First of all, stick to the knitting. However, there is really a need as well as that to reach out-----

Mr. Michael Parsons

-----and to have cross-fertilisation. As I said, we should not forget the communities. Often communities are the ones that will keep it moving and going.

An bhfuil ceist ar bith eile? Glaoim ar an Seanadóir Warfield.

Just before the recess this committee passed a report in response to Culture 2025. This carries on from Mr. Parsons's contribution around the Arts Council.

The committee collectively-----

I am sorry the Senator was not present. On page 12, it states:

Culture 2025 should be built on the honest acceptance that the current structures and attitudes, developed piece-meal over many years, are not adequately integrated ... [and that Culture 2025] should build on the best that [has been] achieved ... in order to do this we must acknowledge that not only will the State and its agencies have to change, but the sector itself will have to play its part if we are to achieve a meaningful co-operation over the next 10 years.

In that context, I was interested in Mr. Parsons's contribution around the Arts Council. Is there a relationship currently between the Heritage Council and the Arts Council and other agencies? What might a future relationship look like?

Mr. Michael Parsons

At the moment, as I understand it, the relationship is the chief executives of all the cultural organisations meet several times a year possibly. I would believe in the good old members, starting with the chairs, also being involved in talking. I read the document concerned and I take the Senator's point about things being piecemeal. However, in a democracy that is what happens. Things all start off piecemeal and then they get together. Then we all have to take a look at it and see if there is a better way of doing it or ask if we can rationalise or make it better. That is what I heartily wish.

Money has not been mentioned a great deal but the state and the quality of our built and natural heritage is obviously a great economic asset. It is marketed by Fáilte Ireland and is of great value to the diaspora. We are managing the heritage of millions of people around the world. The budget is coming up. Mr. Parsons mentioned that he advises government. Are there expectations on the part of the Heritage Council for this budget given that it has been reduced from €20 million to €6 million?

Mr. Michael Parsons

Absolutely. First, of course the Heritage Council, like an awful lot of bodies in this country, suffered during the recession and, in our case, dramatically. Funnily, I did not start by talking about money and I did not mention money in either of the submissions because I feel, even before money, we are talking about harnessing people. That is what I believe. Often the money that the Heritage Council uses is seed money. Often it is in small amounts, but it works. Often the money is going out in grants to different communities that have an idea or to different individuals and that is very important. Of course we are looking for more money. I could not go back to Kilkenny if I did not say that we would welcome more money. However, we would welcome more money tied, if one likes, with when our strategic plan comes back. Obviously we want money for the European Year of Cultural Heritage, which would be impossible to run without it. Therefore, we expect money separately for that. However, we would only be looking for more money that is tied to actual proposals we have for initiatives we believe have worth and meaning and contribute.

The Senator mentioned built heritage and natural heritage. There is also cultural heritage. "Heritage" is the greatest word. I remember, when I was first appointed to the Heritage Council, digging out an old dictionary and wondering what we are looking at here at all. I had a 1970-something dictionary, as an old school master would have. I looked this thing up and discovered it had no relationship whatever to what I thought it was about, so I hunted further. The further I hunt, the more I find it is an expanding term. In essence, however, it is what we are handed down. It is the value handed down to us from previous generations that we want to conserve and keep for the future, and of course that involves money.

To come back to Mr. Parsons's contribution around young people, as a former teacher, and the opportunity for all ages to enjoy and learn about heritage, the OPW initiative with the Government is very welcome. Are there other initiatives that Mr. Parsons could imagine in the future for young people? He mentioned secondary schools.

Mr. Michael Parsons

I did. Take simple things such as competitions. We send heritage gurus, if one likes, to primary schools to talk about wildlife or this, that or the other. Whatever the school wants, we have a whole range of people - perhaps 160 - who will come in and counsel a primary school. We are doing nothing in second level schools at the moment. At 15 or 16 years of age, students probably do not want to know about anything. Perhaps in transition year we would get their attention, but the leaving certificate and so on is such a pressure. Before the pace speeds up we should reach out to the first and second year students, who are so enthusiastic. That is what we did in Laois-Offaly with our programme. We get the most amazing things. I remember a model of the Main Street in Tullamore in 1785 with a balloon floating above it. At the time, the balloon was one of the first balloons launched. It came down and burned the whole Main Street of Tullamore, which is why Tullamore has a lovely wide Main Street now. It was thanks to the burning of Tullamore by this balloon that came down. A class of young students had constructed a model of the 18th century street and the balloon hovering above it. That was not in any curriculum but it was a great way for these young students from Tullamore to feel a sense of identity with their own place.

Mr. Parsons mentioned how elastic the word "heritage" can be. The Irish language would be very much part of our cultural heritage.

Mr. Michael Parsons


It strikes me that the Irish language is like a magic door to a certain extent. If a person has the language behind that door, there is an ocean of literature, drama, art, thoughts, etc. What role does Mr. Parsons's organisation have with regard to developing people's understanding of and access to that heritage?

Mr. Michael Parsons

It is in all sorts of different ways. When I spoke earlier, I was foolish just to say the arts. I meant our links with all cultural organisations, including Irish language organisations. For example, a lovely project we supported was on field names in County Kilkenny. It looked at the old Irish names and the English names. We got people from all over County Kilkenny to chart down their field names and their sense of place. There was one in English that made me smile. It was "Paradise". I do not know what happened in that field, but in general it was a marvellous expedition of a whole world that could quickly be lost to us all.

This goes back to identity. Sorry for rambling, but identity is a tricky one. For example, in Portlaoise where I am from, we are talking about perhaps up to one third of the people not having been born in Ireland.

We have to include them. We must remember our own people who have gone to other countries - our diaspora - but identity is there and certainly the language is part of it. I have read Fintan O'Toole, with whom I do not always agree, but I felt he raised some very interesting questions.

Absolutely. About 17% of the population of this State was born outside this State. Many of them have taken on the Irish language with gusto so in a way, it has worked as a bridge both to the new Irish and the existing Irish. Has the Heritage Council given an opinion on the Heritage Bill?

Mr. Michael Parsons

No, we have given opinions over the past several years and fed in different items for consideration. We look forward to the Bill coming on further. Perhaps we will have another opinion or two before it is finished.

The reason I asked Mr. Parsons about second level education is because that is where the impasse seems to be or it all settles down into an examination. There is nothing wrong with that because the leaving certificate is a very honest examination and if somebody does any sort of work, they will get through, and it is great to pass an examination. It has many other problems. The reason I asked the question is because there is a place for the Heritage Council to influence the Department of Education and Skills in the development of disciplines such as our heritage as a discipline within the curriculum, as opposed to somebody possibly coming in three or four times a year, which is also brilliant, or a very creative teacher. We now have mindfulness because everybody was roaring about it for months. Sometimes the council could have a great influence on second level education whereby a subject such as heritage in all its polymorphic terms could be something that young people could study up. It seems to be alive in primary schools and third level education and outside the classroom but for some reason, it does not become a knowledge discipline in its own right. That is why I was saying that the council's influence could be as good there as it is with all the cultural institutions.

Mr. Michael Parsons

We are very-----

What the council did in Laois and Offaly will be a pilot project.

Mr. Michael Parsons

We are hoping it will be. There is a difficulty sometimes regarding the curriculum. This is a terrible thing to say but putting something into the curriculum can sometimes deaden it. That sounds awful but it-----

Mr. Michael Parsons

I certainly could not say that.

I will say it. It is usually bad teaching. It is not the fault of the subject.

Mr. Michael Parsons

I feel there is a place extra on the curriculum. The new junior certificate reforms allow for that possibility but there is also a need for extracurricular activities where an insert - something that is exciting from outside - is used. I mean no disrespect to very good teaching but, and this may be a bad analogy, one needs the dirt in an oyster to produce a pearl. Sometimes we need some outside agency to further stimulate things.

I thank Mr. Parsons for coming before us today and giving us this presentation. He is assuming a very important job and we wish him the very best of luck with it.

Mr. Michael Parsons

I thank the Chairman and the committee.