The recent closure of the Smithwick’s Brewery in Kilkenny City has end over three centuries of brewing tradition on the sixteen acre site. Its purchase by the local authority presents a once in a century chance to enhance the economy of the region and the liveability of the city. The Council are to be commended for purchasing the land at such a low cost. However, that was the easy part. Now begins the real work.
The whole place is dripping with heritage. However, heritage on a construction site is usually the last thing any developer wants to see. Clean, green, locations have few surprises and require less brain power to develop. Such sites provide the best opportunities to design easily, get planning, construct, and make a profit in as short a timeline as possible. This approach is certainly understandable, especially if you are the one paying. Heritage can add value but usually it is perceived to be not worth the trouble beyond a marketing driven sop. Typically, it is only in the highly developed marketplaces of major cities that heritage attributes are fundamentally incorporated into the design of a development. In these markets, heritage can be a key distinguishing factor that adds exclusivity and helps create a memorable experience. It is these latter developments that add positively to a city over a long period.
Kilkenny is a relatively small place. However, it is a small place that can think big. The Council obtained the Brewery Site at a bargain price. This allows the pressure for quick returns comprising crass buildings to be somewhat relieved. There is time to reflect. It is interesting to note that the city’s best spaces and buildings are almost all hundreds of years old. That is the timeline that should be thought about when planning the future of the site. These are also the places that have led to Kilkenny being such a great place in which to live, work, and visit.
Plainly, the heritage of the Brewery site will be central to the long term success of any development. Unfortunately, despite having some interesting ideas about the reinstatement of medieval burgage plots, the current masterplan lacks creativity when addressing the past. This is not surprising given that there was no obvious heritage professional on the project team. Thankfully though, there is time to amend the document.
In the current plan, archaeological finds are listed as an opportunity. Despite this, during a recent public consultation meeting I got the feeling that some senior Council staff saw archaeology as a threat. According to this perspective, archaeology is best avoided, not so as to conserve it, but because it costs money to remove and does not add value. Nowhere in the masterplan has the possibility of having an exciting urban excavation open to the public been entertained. In York, thousands visited the Viking dig. Elsewhere in the UK, at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, 100,000 tourists pay each year to witness archaeologists peel back the soil. Hundreds more pay to dig.
Currently, very little is known about the nature of the Brewery Quarter’s archaeology. Despite some previous disturbance, it is likely that the archaeological deposits are extensive, dense, and deep. Clearly, more information is needed to enable a well thought out redevelopment. If this has to be conducted, is it not better that archaeological investigation is embraced and used as an opportunity to increase both the number of visitors to Kilkenny and their length of stay? Nowhere else in Ireland would there be an urban excavation open to the public. It would also bring added authenticity to the Medieval Mile marketing initiative.
The Council themselves admit that the site will take years to fully develop. All this offers the possibility for a large scale excavation to occur over two or three extended summers. Such a dig would attract tens of thousands of tourists to the northern end of the city. Finds could be stored and displayed securely in the Brew House. A pop-up museum such as the one on the Parade last August has shown the public’s thirst for archaeological knowledge. In just four days 3,200 people visited.
Learning about a place and avoiding archaeology for construction is one thing but how about using the information? In the Rocks district of Sydney there is a four storey 106 room youth hostel built over one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia. Constructed on steel columns, the hostel hovers over the archaeological deposits. Like in Kilkenny, the landowner was the local authority. For many years they had identified the then derelict site as a place of high development potential. It was also place that if its potential was realised would rejuvenate an area which was underperforming. In 2006 they put out a call for suitable proposals on how to develop this archaeologically sensitive place. The judging panel – which was dominated by heritage professionals – chose the youth hostel (YHA) project.
A 99 year lease was then granted. An excavation that had been partially undertaken in 1994 was restarted. The dig was halted when the archaeological research questions were answered. Throughout the whole project heritage professionals were at the heart of the design process. The excavation informed every aspect of the build. On several occasions steel columns were moved to avoid newly discovered archaeological deposits. Ultimately, only 10% or so of the remaining archaeology was removed to make way for the 4,700msq development.
Today, the whole building permeates with its past. The central atriums of both blocks look down on to archaeological remains, tourists walk along reopened historic laneways, and tens of thousands of students go to the education centre to learn about early Sydney. Overall, the Rocks YHA is a massive success, not in spite of its heritage but because of it. Imagine a similar approach taken to the abbey of St. Francis and its extensive medieval wall foundations that lie under the concrete slab.
During a recent public consultation meeting there was much made of the removal and retention of existing buildings. It was disclosed that the Brew House and the former Mayfair Ballroom were to be kept while all other unprotected buildings would be removed. In order to aid transparency the report upon which these decisions were made was released. Unfortunately though, instead of clarifying issues, the report has perhaps muddied them. How, for instance, is a 20th century former ballroom worthy of keeping while a 19th century oratory listed on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage is not? Similarly, the brewing equipment in the Brew House is marked for full removal even though it is this same equipment that the building was constructed to house. Surely, this wholesale removal radically reduces the importance of the building? Overall, there may be very good reasons for the recommendations of the report. However, these are not obvious when reading the document.
Certainly, many of the tanks and piping in the Brew House will have to be moved for the building to be made useable. However, by taking out everything, the chance to create interesting and special internal spaces is massively reduced. More imagination is needed. Items that are deemed not suitable for retention in the building should be considered for use elsewhere on site. During the redevelopment of the Carlton and United Brewery in Sydney, a survey was undertaken by heritage consultants and an artist to assess the possible use of industrial heritage components for art pieces in the new residential and commercial blocks that were on the way. Closer to home, Lough Boora, Co. Offaly, has shown how the reuse of seemingly useless industrial artefacts can add significantly add to the distinctiveness of a place and its ability to act as a tourist attraction. Similar actions could take place here.
The possibilities presented by the Brewery site are almost overwhelming. However, no matter what the area is used for, the true incorporation of the site’s heritage into its redevelopment must be done. To do otherwise would undermine the uniqueness of the site, and its ability to significantly improve the economy and liveability of the city. Bad places are cheap. Good places that provide a sustained long term benefit are not. That is the choice Kilkenny – the Medieval Capital of Ireland – has to make.
This article appears in an edited form in the current edition of the Kilkenny People.
Liam Mannix, Heritage Consultant
Liam is a heritage consultant with experience of working across the private and public sectors in Ireland, Australia and Papua New Guinea. He project managed the educational programme of the Irish Walled Towns Network which won the EU prize for cultural heritage / Europa Nostra Award in 2013. @maxmannix