The Irish Walled Towns Network (IWTN) was founded by the Heritage Council of Ireland in order to unite and co-ordinate local authorities involved in the management, conservation and enhancement of 27 historic walled towns in Ireland, both north and south. Formed in 2005, the IWTN's role had been to give grants for town wall conservation plans, the implementation of those plans, and the running of Walled Towns Day festivals. Each year there was a conference where members met and heard about recent conservation projects and archaeological excavations connected with town walls. However, by late 2010, due to the recession in the Irish economy it had become apparent that a more imaginative approach was needed. In essence, conservation for the sake of conservation was no longer viable and a programme of education, outreach and capacity building was required.
The network is not a top down organization. Rather, it exists to help its members. The IWTN's activities are controlled by a steering committee. The committee is made up of representatives from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Heritage Council, and several member towns. These stakeholders recognised that by energising and educating the professionals and the community groups within the various member towns that the IWTN's objectives of conserving and promoting Ireland's medieval urban heritage could still be attained. Indeed, it was acknowledged that by engaging more intensely with local communities that perhaps the financial crisis had created an opportunity to develop a more tangible and sustainable bond between people and the heritage that surrounded them.
To make this happen, an education plan was devised. The plan did not focus on one single issue. Instead, it was decided that a holistic approach would be taken. Several strands were to run in parallel. The three strands were: conservation; planning / town centre economy; and heritage tourism / community group development. The concept was that the various themes would be mutually supportive and attract a broader base of people into taking part than would otherwise have done so. In order that the plan be enacted, the role of IWTN Project Manager was expanded from being a part-time position to one which was full-time.
In the new post-economic boom Ireland, the preservation and enhancement of the country's urban medieval fabric had to be wrapped up in economics. All conservation work is dependent on funding. During any period of austerity, limited money tends to be spent on either core areas such as education or on projects that are seen to have an economic benefit. In this situation, it was recognised that the intrinsic heritage value of the country's town walls alone would not be enough to secure grant aid for conservation. We knew that in order to ensure a medieval structure's future the number of people who appreciated their own town's medieval fabric had to increase. Firstly, locals needed to be convinced of the social, cultural and economic value of their medieval past. They are the people who will ultimately protect the historic places that make up a town and voice concerns over their condition. Furthermore, tourists both national and international had to be directed to these places. This action will encourage local authorities to value the economic role of medieval structures in driving tourism. Ultimately, it was essential that the perception of need beyond solely that of heritage requirements was effectively communicated to decision makers and the general public. That is what the education programme aimed to do.
The various lectures, seminars and workshops that have occurred since 2011 are supported by an emerging research programme. As of 2014, students and lecturers from three universities are working in and with member towns. Their input provides insight into planning and tourism issues. It is hoped that this research initiative will provide valuable information into what is needed for each town to become a better place in which to live, work and visit. It is also intended that the town-to-university interaction will develop further, bringing more participants and a greater depth of research.
Despite the cutbacks the IWTN has managed to maintain a conservation grants scheme. Unlike previously, conservation without interpretation is no longer supported. Locals must be made aware to the importance of the work being carried out. Each grantee is obliged to conduct at least three community interaction actions. These can include tours of the site, social media updates, press releases, or interpretation panels. Up to 2% of the IWTN allocation may be used to help accomplish the actions.
The educational programme is now three and a half years old. Since starting, more than 600 people have participated in 26 training events, attendance figures for Walled Towns Days have improved, and 22 stretches of historic town wall have been saved. All this has been done despite the challenging environment. The response from IWTN members has been overwhelmingly positive. With an educational programme such as ours it is quite difficult to quantify its impact. This is particularly true as regards the influence upon a local heritage tourism sector. In relation to public perception or awareness of town walls, not enough time have elapsed to allow this to be adequately measured. A baseline survey has already been carried out in Cork to provide a measurable index which will allow this to happen in the future. Nonetheless, there are a number of indicators showing the educational programme is having a positive impact on the perception of heritage and its continued protection: