Clonmacnoise, World Heritage Site?

7:10 PM Posted by Steven Lubar
53.32508 -7.98506

This evening we visited Clonmacnoise, a remarkable site, remarkably preserved. Clonmacnoise was a monastic city from the 6th through the 9th century (history here), and today it is the most important tourist attraction in County Offaly. It's easy to see why: a spectacular setting; ruins at just the perfect state of ruin; a story central to Irish and, indeed, Western Christianity... Our visit, as the sun was starting to set and clouds swept across the sky, made us appreciate the site as a place of contemplation. That turns out to be one of the challenges in interpreting the site. Yes, it was a monastic compound, but it was a major city, on the main trade routes. We see ruins, but we need to get beyond that to understand the site as it once was.

Amanda was, as always, the perfect guide, telling us the story behind the story, explaining not only the site, but the challenges of managing the site, and of interpreting it. That's particularly interesting at a site that is still an active religious site, like Clonmacnoise, and one that is being considered as a World Heritage Site. Balancing religious uses, tourism, the environment, and local concerns is not easy; Amanda earns her pay!

After our visit I checked out the World Heritage Site nomination. There's a website, of course, with basic information, but even better, the report prepared by consultants ERA-Maptec Ltd for the Office of Public Works. That's here, as a pdf.

The report makes a good case for the historical significance of the site - that seems pretty clear. More interesting, and more challenging, is the plan for interpretation. The report sets high goals:
To protect, conserve and promote an appreciation of the outstanding universal value of the Monastic City of Clonmacnoise and its Cultural Landscape by putting in place a management framework that promotes sustainable economic regeneration and social inclusion for present and future generations.
Not only must the site be preserved and interpreted; that work
... must be balanced against the needs of the local community, for the candidate World Heritage Site is a complex, living landscape. Sustainable physical access to the Site and equality of access to all are important considerations and need pro-active management.
Amanda gave us some of the backstory. How far should the viewshed - a major part of what makes the site work so well as a tourist attraction - extend? How to extend the graveyard, acknowledging the ongoing religious uses, while not disturbing archaeological sites?

The plan doesn't answer these, but sets out a plan for answering them. I suppose that's the nature of this kind of project: the process is what's important at the beginning, and the details come later. There's a 14-page "Summary of Action Programme, 2009-2014" with 13 objectives spelling out who does what. Indeed, that's what most of the report is - listing what to worry about, and whose job it is to worry about it. I don't see a vision for the future of preservation and research and tourism at the site; I see a list of steps to take to get there. It's a necessary first step.

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