The Irish Historic Houses Association was established after a direct approach by the Built Heritage Section as the then Department of the Environment was concerned at the lack of an effective interface between Government and the owners of Ireland’s historic private houses.
The association’s first years were spent turning a disparate group of house owners, all in different situations and with differing concerns, into a united association within a proper legal framework. Once this had been achieved the board’s primary concern was to represent the members with Government to the best of our ability.
From the outset the IHHA worked closely with owners and civil servants to gather information, to explain the difficulties the owners face and to provide Government with information in plain language, and in a clear and factual way.
The first point of contact was with the Built Heritage Section of the Department of the Environment, for which responsibility was later transferred to the Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht under Ministers Jimmy Deenihan and, more recently, Heather Humphreys.
Initially progress was slow but the pivotal tool in the negotiations was an on-line audit of private historic house owners, carried out from 2013 onwards. After consultation with the Historic Houses Association (UK) about their survey the IHHA then devised and implemented its own audit, specially built and paid for with a combination of a Government grant and a generous private donation Once the on-line audit had begun to deliver the IHHA used the results to produce a compelling paper, Irish Country Houses in Crisis, completed in the autumn of 2014.
This paper showed that private owners are responsible for the care and maintenance of much of Ireland’s cultural heritage assets, proved that many only survive by selling heritage contents and land, and demonstrated that historic country houses may not have a long term future.
This approach convinced the civil servants of the need to take urgent action. They saw that the document made sense, realised that it was not an over-reaction, and then took it to their minister who established a special Steering Group in an effort to seek lasting solutions.
The IHHA chairman acted as co-chairman, along with the senior civil servant in the department, and the Minister invited representatives from other heritage groups and bodies, and, more significantly, from other Government Departments including Revenue and Failte Ireland to participate in the Steering Group, which met between March and July 2015.
The involvement of other Government Departments proved to be a crucial catalyst for the whole initiative and enabled the Steering Group to consider Ireland’s country houses holistically. In addition to the houses and their attendant buildings, gardens, parks, and collections, the potential of their wider estates was also examined in an integrated way.
This led to a new understanding of the potential country houses and estates have in education, training, recreation, relaxation and sport, as centres for traditional crafts and forgotten skills, as resources for local communities and as hubs for the regeneration of the rural economy.
Effectively, their involvement brought about a new perception that money spent in assisting private owners actually can benefit entire rural communities.
The participating Government Departments have also developed a better understanding of historic houses and estates, and of their largely untapped potential. With an enhanced unity of purpose the Steering Group reached a consensus within a relatively short timeframe and concluded its work with a nine-point Action Plan, which was approved by Cabinet without alteration in October 2015.