Ireland’s Ghost Estates: Continuing the Historical Cycle of Development and Abandonment

The castle and harbour at Rindown

Ireland’s ghost estates are nothing new. Examination of Ireland’s history indicates recurring cycles of development, failure and abandonment of villages and towns.

In recent years the Irish news has been filled with the struggle with the problem of ghost estates, how to deal with more than 2,800 speculative housing developments that remain empty and may never be occupied. But a landscape of ghost towns is not a new phenomenon, throughout history Irish villages and towns have gone though recurring cycles of development, failure and abandonment. The buildings of the abandoned ghost towns eventually fell into disrepair and then decayed back into the earth leaving nothing but agricultural fields.

Looking at the Medieval period, the thirteenth century was a boom period for development as the new Anglo-Norman lords encouraged English and Welsh settlers with promises of prosperity and civil privileges to immigrate to Ireland and establish new villages and towns. These new settlements initially thrived but in the following centuries large numbers of the towns, like Rindown, Co. Roscommon and Newtown Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny, were deserted by their inhabitants. Other towns, like Ballysadare, Co. Sligo and Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, moved to new locations. The reasons for the failure of these towns were varied. Incessant ethnic conflict and warfare isolated the towns from their natural hinterlands, discouraged further immigration and drained civic resources, leading to economic decline. In the mid-thirteenth century the plague known as the Black Death reduced the populations of the towns by a third to a half and hastened the decline. The development of new infrastructure, particularly the construction new bridges, also contributed to the failure of towns as commerce shifted to new routes and locations.

Google Earth image of Rindown, Co. Roscommon showing the deserted town now under pasture.

A classic example of a Medieval ghost town is Rindown, Co. Roscommon. Rindown was established in 1227 and consisted of a castle, harbor, church, market with cross and numerous houses all defended by a high town wall with guard towers. The town was very prosperous, imported corn, cloth and wine from as far away as Bordeaux and achieved a high annual rated value of £320. But poor relations with the native Irish population resulted in the town falling victim to isolation and attacks that eventually caused its abandonment. Today the stone castle, church and walls survive but the rest of the town has reverted to pasture land, its only inhabitants are cattle and sheep.

William Petty's 1654 map of County Sligo indicating the location of Ballysadare.

Other towns, like Ballysadare, Co. Sligo and Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, moved to new locations. Ballysadare had developed around St. Feichin’s Abbey to the west of the Owenmore River near the fording point of Ballysadare Bay. In the fourteenth century a bridge was built across the river further east. At some time before 1654 the town moved from its original location to the site of the bridge as is indicated on William Petty’s 1654 map of the area. The original location of the town reverted to farmland with nothing but the stone church of St. Feichin marking its location.

Google Earth image of the site of Old Kilcullen. All that survives today is the church, round tower and crosses. The rest has returned to farmland.

Kilcullen, Co. Kildare was originally situated on a hill top 2.5km south of the River Liffey. The construction of a bridge over the river in the fourteenth century lead to the foundation of the new town of Kilcullen at the bridge. The original town, now called Old Kilcullen, was eventually abandoned in favour of the new location. All that survives at Old Kilcullen today are the remains of a church, round tower and crosses, the rest of the town has disappeared and the fields are now grazed by sheep.

Although Ireland no longer suffers from ethnic strife and plague, cycles of settlement development, decline and abandonment are still driven by migration, economic change and infrastructural development. The modern Irish ghost estates are not unique to our time, but are part of this recurring historical cycle. Like the abandoned Medieval villages and towns that came before them these ghost estates may one day also revert back to farmland.

Dr. Charles Mount is a Cultural Heritage Consultant and Archaeologist with an interest in history. You can read his recent publication on the history of the Medieval manor of Nobber, Co. Meath here.


Further reading

Harbison, S. 1995 Rindoon castle, a royal fortress in Co. Roscommon, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, 47, 138-48.

O’Rorke, T. 1878. History, antiquities, and present state of the parishes of Ballysadare and Kilvarnet, in the county of Sligo; with notices of the 0’Haras, the Coopers, the Percevals, and other local families.


Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Ireland’s ghost estates: continuing the historical cycle of development and abandonment. The Charles Mount Blog, May 31, 2011.


A new approach to Environmental Impact Assessment in Ireland: Remedial EIA

The European Court

In the next few months a new and unprecedented form of Environmental Impact Assessment, the remedial Environmental Impact Assessment, will be required in Ireland. The remedial EIA is a creation of the Planning and Development (amendment) Act 2010. Section 177F of the Act states that a remedial EIA shall contain a statement of the significant effects on the environment which may have, or reasonably be expected to occur because a development was (authors emphasis) carried out, the details of any appropriate remedial measures undertaken or proposed to be undertaken to remedy any adverse effects on the environment and the time period in which the remedial measures shall be carried out. The remedial EIA will accompany another unprecedented document, an application for substitute planning consent, required under section 177C of the Act.

The reason for the establishment of the new process stems from a decision of the European Court of Justice in July 2008 in the Derrybrien, Co. Galway wind farm case (ECJ 215/06). In that case the court found that Ireland was in breach of the European Union EIA Directive as retention planning permission had been granted to a wind farm development without an EIA being carried out. In fact the practice of granting planning retention permission for developments that would have required an EIA and also for developments which would have required a determination as to whether EIA was required (i.e. screening) was widespread. The result of the decision is that retention planning for developments requiring EIA ceased completely from July 2008. A large number of developments that took place after the transposition of the EIA Directive into Irish Law in February 1990 and were in receipt of retention planning have been left in a difficult legal position. The new procedure of substitute consent and remedial EIA is intended to regularise the position of these developments, both those that required an EIA and those that required screening. Once the developments requiring substitute consent have been identified they will be allowed to submit an application for substitute consent accompanied by a remedial EIS directly to An Bord Pleanála, the statutory planning appeals board, for a decision.

While the Planning and Development Act was passed into law in July of 2010 a number of technicalities have delayed the commencement of the sections dealing with substitute consent and remedial EIA. It has been reported that these will soon be overcome and that part of the Act commenced this summer.

About the author

Dr. Charles Mount is Project Archaeologist with the Irish Concrete Federation where he is dealing with the cultural heritage aspects of the remedial EIA process. You can contact him about this blog at

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. A new approach to Environmental Impact Assessment in Ireland: Remedial EIA. The Charles Mount Blog, May 23, 2011.

What’s wrong with the Register of Historic Monuments?

The Four Courts in Dublin

Recent controversy surrounding the inclusion of a site on the Register of Historic Monuments, leading to a trip to the High Court in Dublin, has been reported in the Irish media. I’m not going to comment on the merits of this particular case but I want to discuss a major omission from what to many is a little known part of the Irish Monuments Acts. The Register of Historic Monuments was established under section 5 of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1987. The section states (with amendments and changes of responsibility) that the responsible Minister shall establish and maintain a Register of Historic Monuments. The Minister shall enter in the Register the name, location and description of the monuments and other archaeological sites known at the commencement of the Act, and any monuments or areas that become known after the commencement, which in his opinion should be entered. The Minister may also amend or delete entries in the Register.

The Minister shall publish in Iris Oifigiúil (the official state gazette) a list of the monuments and areas entered in the Register. The Minister shall notify the owner or occupier of the monument or area in writing of the entry, amendment or deletion from the Record by registered post or be delivered to him by hand by an agent of the Minister.

Where the owner or occupier of a Registered Historic Monument or any other person proposes to carry out work in relation to the monument or area, he shall give notice in writing of his proposal to the Minister and shall not, except in a case of urgent necessity with the consent of the Minister, commence the work for two months after giving the notice. A person shall not demolish or remove wholly or in part or disfigure, deface, alter or in any manner interfere with a Registered Historic Monument. A person who contravenes this section shall be guilty of an offence. The Register performs an important function in safeguarding the cultural heritage of Ireland but the manner in which it is operated appears not to have kept in step with the times.

What about the procedures for entering monuments in the register?

The inclusion of lands on the Register can have a substantial impact on the ability of a landowner to enjoy the use of his or her lands and may have also an impact on the land’s value. Therefore one would expect that there are a rigorous set of procedures for consulting with landowners and for landowners to appeal the registration process. However, An examination of the 1987 National Monuments Act reveals that there are no procedures set out for entering a monument or area in the Register other than stating that the Minister may enter monuments or areas that in “his opinion” should be entered. This sounds very arbitrary and there is no consultation or appeal procedure established in the Act.

The National Policy on archaeology Frameworks and Principles for the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage 1999 does not include any procedure for the inclusion of monuments on the Register. However, in section 4.3.3 it states that areas containing no known archaeological monuments may be included in the Register of Historic Monuments as archaeological areas if the Minister has reason to believe that such an area is of archaeological interest, including on the grounds of its potential for containing archaeological monuments or objects, its interest in respect of palaeoenvironmental studies, or its importance in respect of protecting the amenities of an archaeological monument.

The Register of Historic Monuments is not mentioned in the Department of the Environment’s (who had responsibility until recently) Customer Service Action Plan 2009-11, nor is there any procedure for including monuments in the Register on the Departments’ website. In relation to major infrastructure projects, such as the N25 Waterford City Bypass, the Minister has established a working group to advise him on the preservation and archaeological investigation of the Viking site at Woodstown, Co. Waterford. He then accepted the Groups recommendation to enter the site in the Register of Historic Monuments in 2008. However, this procedure appears to have been used in relation to only a handful of state-sponsored developments.

In the Review of Archaeological Policy and Practice published by the Department of the Environment in 2007 the issue of opening the listing and registering of monuments and sites to public consultation and scrutiny was highlighted. However, to date nothing has been put in place. On the face of it this appears to be contrary to the principles of natural justice, but it would seem that for the moment the only place where a landowner can expect to appeal the imposition of a registration is in the High Court.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. What’s wrong with the Register of Historic Monuments? The Charles Mount Blog, May 18, 2011.

The Archaeological Institute of America Archaeological Heritage Map of Ireland on Google Earth

Google skin screenshot

I read about the new Google Earth skin  on Jennifer Lockett’s blog and decided to give it a try at the AIA webpage . Unfortunately the site states:“As you visit these sites, remember that each year hundreds of irreplaceable archaeological sites are destroyed by unrestrained development, looting, the vagaries of war, and environmental changes”. Whatever about the “unrestrained development”, Ireland hasn’t been at war for nearly 90 years and is one of the most peaceful places in the world. I hope this misplaced rhetoric won’t discourage any visitors to Ireland.

Laying that aside this is a useful Google Earth skin that looks forward to the exciting ways that Google Earth can be used to present cultural heritage to the public. I’ve been using it to generate distribution maps for a book I’m working on. The data downloaded to my computer very quickly and without fuss. Clicking on a site name in the places menu brings you smartly to the site you want and a cleverly designed window opens providing you information on the site. Clicking on learn more brings you to a window from Heritage that provides copious information on getting to the site, opening hours, length of visit, admissions fees etc. This section is also usefully provided in seven European languages. This type of user friendly application is what the Irish Archaeological Survey should be moving towards and a comparison with the Sites and Monuments Database (which was not working when I tried to access it for this review) is revealing. But the AIA Google Earth layer is not without its bugs. I found that the Passage Tomb cemetery at Loughcrew is marked in the wrong place, to the north-east of Wilkinstown, when it’s actually near Oldcastle many miles to the west (see the image above). But this shouldn’t detract from the usefulness of this application and the AIA is to be congratulated.

Mount, C. The Archaeological Institute of America Archaeological Heritage Map of Ireland on Google Earth? The Charles Mount Blog, May 18, 2011.

There are a lot more archaeological sites in the Republic of Ireland than we thought

Ringfort at Cam, Co. Roscommon


How many archaeological sites are there in the Republic of Ireland? This is an obvious question but not an easy one to answer. If we consult the statutory Record of Monuments and Places (RMP) established under the National Monuments Act (1930-2004) the answer is about 140,000 ( But we now know that the RMP only lists a fraction of the potential surviving sites. During the Celtic Tiger period (1995-2008) thousands of previously unknown sites were identified during the course of development. This is because archaeological remains may be buried beneath the ground or later structures and are not visible to the naked eye. Archaeological remains that are standing above ground may be obscured by overgrowth, may be covered by later structures or may have been partly removed or altered to make them unrecognisable. Archaeological remains that are standing above ground may be in plain view but may not have been recognized or mapped or noted in surveys or reports.

So how many sites are there? A quantitative approach would appear to be the most useful approach to answering the question. The land area of Ireland is 6,888,900 hectares (ha), dividing this by the roughly 140,000 sites included in the RMP results in a ratio of one site per 49 ha. Using this as a starting point the general number of potential sites can be estimated by using information now becoming available from the recent large-scale archaeological investigations of infrastructure projects like motorways and pipelines. All the large-scale infrastructure projects developed during the Celtic Tiger period have resulted in the discovery of large numbers of archaeological sites. For example the Bord Gáis “Pipeline to the west” construction corridor was 335 km long and impacted an area of 1,005 ha. During the course of the development 190 previously unknown archaeological sites were identified, one site per 5.3 ha (See Grogan et al. 2007, 5- 9). Similarly, during the construction of the Cork to Dublin gas pipeline 96 monuments were impacted over a distance of 222 km, an area of 489 ha, one site per 5 .1 ha (See McQuade et al. 2000, xiii). During the construction of the M8 Motorway from Ballycuddahy, Co. Laois to Dunkettle, Co. Cork 249 sites were indentified in an area of 1,494 ha, or one site per 5.6 ha (Also McQuade et al. xiii).

Using these figures we can calculate an average ratio of sites to hectares of one site per 5.6 ha. Scaling this up to the total land area of the Republic  suggests that as many as 1.23 million sites potentially remain to be identified. Of course the infrastructure projects tended to be situated in the fertile lowland areas, where sites cluster, and sites may be potentially less likely to be found in upland areas, so this figure should be adjusted a little. However, these comparisons suggest that the RMP represents somewhere around 11% of the total potential sites. These quantitative figures suggest on the one hand that almost any development has the potential to impact archaeology with those impacting 5.6 ha or more approaching an almost certainty. The risk of impacting archaeology cannot be ruled out without the deployment of field-based assessment methods such as archaeological testing or geophysical investigation. On the other hand acknowledging that there are probably more than a millions potential sites should cause archaeologists to question some of their assumptions about managing the resource.


Grogan et al. 2007. The Bronze Age landscapes of the pipeline to the west. Dublin, Wordwell.

McQuade et al. 2009. In the shadow of the Galtees: archaeological excavations along the N8 Cashel to Mitchelstown Road Scheme. Dublin. NRA Scheme Monographs 4.

Mount, C. There are a lot more archaeological sites in the Republic of Ireland than we thought. The Charles Mount Blog, May 18, 2011.

What is the Cultural Heritage of Ireland?

Barnderg Tower House

The cultural heritage of Ireland includes a wide array of monuments, objects, landscapes and structures that were produced by the inhabitants of Ireland over the last nine to ten thousand years. The Heritage Act 1995 defines the national heritage of Ireland as including monuments, archaeological objects, heritage objects, architectural heritage, flora, fauna, wildlife habitats, landscapes, seascapes, wrecks, geology, heritage gardens and parks and inland waterways. When we exclude the natural heritage categories such as flora, fauna, wildlife habitats, seascapes, geology and the natural inland waterways (but not the engineered examples) we are left with: archaeological objects, heritage objects, architectural heritage, landscapes, wrecks, heritage gardens and parks and engineered inland waterways such as canals. Landscapes are included because the landscape of Ireland, since the arrival of people in the Mesolithic and especially since the Neolithic farming revolution, has been totally altered by people and is now a cultural artefact.

Looking at each category of cultural heritage we see that each has its own definition, some more legally based than others. The legal definition of a Monument is defined in section 2 of the National Monuments Act 1930 as any a) artificial structure or group of structures, b) any cave, stone or other natural product, that has been carved, sculpted or worked upon or appears to have been purposely arranged, c) any part of any prehistoric/ancient tomb, grave or burial deposit, ritual, industrial or habitation site, and d) any place comprising the remains or traces of any structure, erection, cave, stone or natural product of any tomb, grave, burial deposit or ritual, industrial or habitation sites situated on land or in the territorial waters of the state. This definition is very broad and overlaps with a number of the other categories of cultural heritage such as architecture.

Archaeological objects are defined in section 2 of the National Monuments Act 1930 as any chattel whether in a manufactured or partly manufactured or unmanufactured state which by reason of the archaeological interest attaching thereto or of its association with any Irish historical event or person has a value substantially greater than its intrinsic (including artistic) value, and the said expression includes ancient human, animal or plant remains”. The Irish State has legal ownership of all archaeological objects as a result of the Irish Supreme Court judgement in relation to the Derrynaflan hoard which was applied retrospectively to all archaeological objects found after the enactment of the Irish Constitution in 1922. Section 2 of The National Monuments Amendment Act (1994) gave the judgement a statutory basis.

Heritage objects are all portable examples of material culture that are not covered by the definition of archaeological object. This category can include agriculture tools, papers and archives, clothing, photographs, paintings, pottery, glass, etc.

Architectural heritage is defined in the Architectural Heritage (National Inventory) and Historic Monuments (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1999 as “(a) structures and buildings together with their settings and attendant grounds, fixtures and fittings, (b) groups of such structures and buildings, and (c) sites”.

Landscape comprises the visible features of an area of land, including physical elements such as landforms, living elements of flora and fauna, abstract elements like lighting and weather conditions, but from a cultural heritage viewpoint it is the human elements and the built environment that are most significant.

There are estimated to be about 15,000 shipwrecks lying in Irish coastal waters dating from the prehistoric to the modern period. These wrecks in turn contain archaeological and heritage objects. Notable examples include the remains of the Spanish Armada as well as the Lusitania.

Heritage gardens and parks refers to the historic gardens and designed landscapes that became a feature of the Irish landscape after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century when demesnes were laid out around Lord’s manor houses. They became most common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and are usually associated with country houses, although there a number of urban examples.

Engineered inland waterways include the canals such as the Grand Canal (Dublin to Shannon Harbour, Co. Offaly), the Royal Canal (Dublin to Cloondara, Co. Longford) and the Shannon Erne-Waterway (Leitrim to Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh) as well as smaller examples such as the Boyne navigation (Oldbridge to Navan).

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. What is the cultural heritage of Ireland? The Charles Mount Blog, May 18, 2011.


I am a cultural heritage consultant, archaeologist and author involved in the interpretation and management of the cultural heritage of Ireland since the 1980s. While there are journals and periodicals like the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, Archaeology Ireland, History Ireland, Architecture Ireland, Irish Planning and Environmental Law Journal and so on, and I have published in a number of them, I have never found an appropriate venue for discussing the many and varied aspects of cultural heritage that I encounter in my professional practice. In this blog I will be discussing a wide range of issues related to cultural heritage including archaeology, architecture, history, planning, environmental impact assessment, the law, administration, management, etc. as they come to mind. I hope you find it entertaining and informative.

Charles Mount