President performs the official opening of Fishery Watchtower Museum

Fri 27th Mar, 2015 | 14:30
location: Wolfe Tone Bridge

Speech at the Official Re-opening of the Fishery Watchtower

Wolfe Tone Bridge, Galway, 27th March 2015

A Dhaoine Uaisle,

A Chairde,

Is mór an pléisiúr dom é i gcónaí filleadh ar Ghaillimh, agus tá áthas orm a bheith anseo libh ar fadh tráthnóna chun ceann de na foirgnimh is inaitheanta sa chathair – the Fishery Watchtower – a athoscailt agus a athainmniú mar Museum of Galway Fishery.

[It is always with great pleasure that I come back to Galway, and I am delighted to be here with you all this afternoon to celebrate the re-opening of one of Galway’s most iconic buildings – the Fishery Watchtower – as a Museum of Galway Fishery.]

May I thank Delo Collier and all the members of Dúchas na Gaillimhe for the kind invitation to join you today. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution and role of Inland Fisheries Ireland and Galway City Council in supporting this worthy project.

For me as President, it is a great source of pleasure to have the opportunity to witness and share in so many community-led heritage projects across the country – projects that manifest the local people’s care for their surroundings, their dedication to preserving and improving the potential of their streets, neighbourhoods, villages and towns. We are fortunate, in Ireland, to have such a vibrant tradition of voluntary heritage groups who give of their knowledge, skills and time to tend our common heritage.

It was one of my privileges, as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, to introduce our first Heritage Act, and to put the Heritage Council on a statutory basis. Heritage should never be understood as a synonym for petrification, or static patrimony. Heritage is both tangible and abstract, in that it includes ideas and memories, songs, poems, language, dance and all those other elements of our living heritage, that are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.

Heritage, in all its many forms, intensifies our sense of place and identity: not only does it connect us to our past, to the generations gone before us, but it also gives texture and depth to our shared present and invites us to consciously and creatively handle and mend that which we wish to pass on to the generations to come.

May I, then, commend very warmly the efforts of Dúchas na Gaillimhe in safeguarding many of this city’s cultural gems.  It is remarkable to think that, since 1990, the Trust – in partnership with local authorities and others bodies and organisations – has been involved in over 70 projects aimed at recovering, preserving or enhancing the natural, built and cultural treasures of Galway City.

Is léir ón obair íontach a rinne baill den Scéim Fostaíochta Pobail go bhfuil tairbhe mór ag baint le caomhnú ár n-oidhreacht, ní amháin i dtaca le fostaíocht a chruthú ach tríd baill éagsiúl den pobail a thabhairt le chéile chun cuspóir fiúntach a bhaint amach.

[The fact that much of this work has been carried out by members of a very successful Community Employment Scheme highlights the positive role that heritage can play in galvanising people of all walks of life and in creating employment.]

The Trust also plays an important role in raising an awareness of the great riches shared by the inhabitants of Galway through educational programmes aimed at primary, secondary and third level students, and in organising Galway’s increasingly popular Heritage Festival. Such initiatives greatly contribute to strengthening the sense of belonging and of community which is so vital to our harmonious living together. Collectively, these endeavours have made Galway City an even more attractive place to live in and visit.

I rith na tionscnamh ar fad bhí Dúchas na Gaillimhe go seasta ag spreagadh úsáid na Gaeilge, agus tugann sé an-phléisiúr dom gur bronadh Gradam Sheosaimh Uí Ógartaigh oraibh as ucht an méid a rinne sibh ar son an dátheangachais i 2014 (ndá mhíle is a ceathair déag).  

[Throughout, Dúchas na Gaillimhe has continually encouraged the use of the Irish language and it gives me great satisfaction to note that it received the Gradam Sheosaimh Uí Ógartaigh award for its contribution to bilingualism in 2014.]

Today’s event recalls for us the pivotal role of the fishing industry in the history of Galway City. The origin of this activity dates back, in all probability, to prehistoric times when the first inhabitants of this region fished for salmon and other indigenous species in the River Corrib.

The first documented reference to the Galway Fishery is found in the Pipe Rolls of 1283, which refer to the fishery being part of the property of the great Anglo-Norman lord, Walter de Burgo, first earl of Ulster.  Reflecting the ebbs and flows of power relations, the ownership or control of the fishery alternated over the following centuries between the Crown, the de Burgos and various other families such as the Lynches, D’Arcys, Prestons, and Eyres, until it was purchased by the State in 1978.

Of course, the Fishery Watchtower itself is of more recent origin, having been built in 1853 to serve as a draft-netting station. It was also used as a look-out tower, its central location and panoramic views enabling the fishery personnel to monitor both fish stocks coming up the river and local poachers tempted to engage in illegal fishing activity!

As you may know, the watchtower was commissioned by the Ashworth brothers, Edmund and Thomas, who were Quakers from Lancashire, philanthropists and members of a famous cotton manufacturing dynasty. They immediately brought their enterprising spirit to bear on their new purchase and successfully improved the fishery by artificial propagation and restocking.

It is also fascinating to note how they did not just commission a mere functional building, but one in the form of a neo-Romanesque Italianate campanile [bell tower].

Thus, in a typical example of 19th century cultural eclecticism, we see a style that originated in the plains of Northern Italy’s Lombardy find expression in a fishery watchtower on the West coast of Ireland. This reminds us of how architecture can be used to elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary and how it can combine functional efficacy and attention to form – a useful reminder indeed in the wake of a housing boom that was predicated on standardised design and rapid profit.

As we admire its classic simplicity and elegance, the tower also begs the question of why it was designed in this style. Was it a statement of power, of authority, or one of aesthetic value? Was it inspired by the mills of Lancashire or by a travel to Italy?

I leave it to each of you here to decide, and shall content myself to praise, once again, Dúchas na Gaillimhe and the Western Regional Fisheries Board for having had the foresight – at a time when some were calling for the demolition of the tower after the demise of draft netting in the late 1970s – to decide to restore it and give it a new purpose as a Museum and exhibition space. This, in a sense, acknowledged the accumulated skill, craftsmanship and creativity of those who had built the tower well over a century ago.

This determination ensured that the Watchtower was saved for posterity and first opened to the public in 1999. Recently, in what I believe was a real commitment to Galway’s heritage, the Trust, along with Inland Fisheries Ireland and Galway City Council, once again undertook a renewal of this exceptional building. The newly constructed modern footbridge shows how the new can complement the old and, in some respects, symbolises the manner in which the watchtower acts as a bridge between the past and the present and future.

For me, the restoration of the Fishery Watchtower puts into practice the principle that cultural public assets should – where possible – be made accessible to all and brought back into everyday use.  It is a perfect example of a construction whose original use had run its course but which has now been re-imagined in a way that both protects and renews its significance.

Many of you here today have played an important part in making this happen: may I congratulate you on your vision and wish you continued success in your future endeavours.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.