The need for a Heritage Council was first noted in the 1960s. With an ever-increasing national infrastructure, the Local Government Act of 1963 recognised the need for more rational planning throughout a wide range of areas. This led to the establishment of An Foras Forbartha which set up six committees in 1964. One of these, the Committee of Nature and Amenity, Conservation and Development, identified a number of pertinent issues:
- the unrealised extent of Ireland’s heritage
- the enormity of the problem when viewed on a national scale
- the fragmented nature of State responsibility for various parts of heritage
- the conflict between ‘development’ and ‘conservation’ issues at both national and local levels
- the frequency with which heritage interests are relegated to a place of secondary importance
In 1967, a report prepared for the Minister for Local Government stated that ‘the immediate and most important need is for an independent grant-aided body, technically competent and broadly based, and able to command widespread support’. Referring to this proposed body for the first time as the ‘Heritage Council’, its role was seen as giving leadership, providing specialist information, coordinating research, stimulating existing agencies, addressing gaps in voluntary bodies, and promoting legislation.
The success of the Arts Council, established in 1951, led the Taoiseach of the day, Charles J. Haughey, to suggest that a similar organisation was needed with a specific heritage remit. In June 1988, following advice from a small committee on appropriate functions and structures, the creation of a National Heritage Council was presented for government approval. Already well known for his interest in heritage and for holding the prestigious position of President of the International Olympic Committee, Haughey appointed Lord Killanin as chairman of the new body. With 14 ordinary members, the National Heritage Council held its inaugural meeting on 5 September.
Funded by the National Lottery, the National Heritage Council was charged with promoting pride in Ireland’s heritage, making recommendations to both local and national government bodies, and prioritising and distributing funds. By 1993, its annual allocation had risen to £1.55 million, of which £500,000 was earmarked for the still-thriving Archaeological Discovery Programme. Extremely cost effective, its administrative expenses were small. There were no professional officers, and members' time and expertise were offered on a voluntary basis.
In those early years, there were only six expert committees — Archaeology, Architecture, Natural Environment (including parks, gardens and certain inland waterways), Museums, Education and Promotion. A seventh committee was later set up to monitor finances. Steering committees were occasionally appointed to oversee specific projects, and the take-up of grant money was slow. When the availability of funding became more widely known, applications for heritage buildings absorbed the greater portion of the funds. Grants were also given for vernacular buildings; thatched houses were recorded and safeguarded, and local cultivation of traditional thatch materials was promoted.
Among many milestones, the National Heritage Council encouraged the handing over of the Botanic Gardens to the Office of Public Works and supported the initial restoration of the curvilinear glasshouses. It was also involved in supporting the State’s acquisition of Castletown House, and in the extension of the National Museum to Collins Barracks. Major excavations in Waterford city were supported, as was the new survey of Clare Island following on from Robert Lloyd Praeger's the first survey was carried out between1909 and 1911.
Between 1992 and 1995, 171 projects were assisted, including some that still appear in the current Heritage Council's list of funding — the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, the Irish Wetland Bird Survey and Russborough House. Other initiatives ranged widely, from a stone axe project in UCD, to the Fethard Town Walls Project and the conservation of the State's geological collection. Regional museums received support, and funding was provided for computerisation and multimedia technology. On the natural environment front, work was done on environmental designations, forestry policy, and the future use of cutaway bogs. And although the Council was not permitted to support religious denominations, funding was provided to assist in the preservation of the fabric of church buildings.
In 1993, the National Heritage Council was transferred from the Department of the Taoiseach to the new Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, with Michael D. Higgins as Minister. With Freda Rountree as chairperson, and Tomas O Caoimh and Ruth Delany as members, the Council welcomed the establishment of this new department and saw it as a positive step in integrating heritage policy and management.
Finally, in 1995, the current Heritage Council was established as a statutory body under the Heritage Act. Since then, the Heritage Council has overseen the production of over 60 publications covering a cross-section of heritage policy, the development of a Heritage Officer network throughout most counties in Ireland, and the allocation of over E18 million in grant aid to hundreds of projects throughout the country.
While it is still a relatively small body, with only 15 full-time staff, the Heritage Council continues its original aims — to ‘give leadership, provide specialist information, coordinate research, stimulate existing agencies, fill gaps in voluntary bodies and promote legislation’.