Mourne Homesteads - Mourne Heritage Trust

Harriet Devlin

MA(Cantab), AMA, PGCE, IHBC, DipCons(RSUA)

Mourne Homesteads - Mourne Heritage Trust

87 Central Promenade Newcastle Co Down BT33 0HH Northern Ireland, UK

The Mourne Heritage Trust in Northern Ireland, was established in 1997 to manage the Mourne and Slieve Croob Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) .The Trust is an independent body and a charity with a mission statement: To sustain and enhance the environment, rural regeneration, cultural heritage and visitor opportunities of the Mourne Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and contribute to the well-being of Mourne''s communities. The area consists of 57,000 hectares of mountain moorland, farmland and coast in the southeast corner of County Down in Northern Ireland and stretches across the boundaries of three District Councils.

The Mourne Homesteads Project

The Mourne Homesteads Project was an innovative scheme established in 2000 to seek ways of addressing the escalating loss of traditional buildings from the countryside. This haemorrhaging loss within Northern Ireland will, within a few decades, leave a landscape that is radically changed, with whole layers of social and cultural history wiped out along with the buildings.

There has been a tendency in Ireland, both north and south, to value traditional buildings much less than other Western European cultures, partly as a legacy of historic events such as the Great Famine and landlord system which resulted in these relatively humble structures being seen by some as ''monuments to poverty''.

The project had two strands- the renovation of a variety of types of vacant traditional dwellings in the Mournes to full time use as affordable housing for local people, and a parallel education and training programme - both designed to change hearts and minds as well as provide practical conservation.

The Funders

The Mourne Homesteads project was a unique scheme within United Kingdom and could not have happened without the assistance of many funders and partners who supported the building project. These include the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Pilgrim Trust, the Rural Development Council, the Environment and Heritage Service, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Architectural Heritage Fund, Ulster Garden Villages and of course the homeowners. The Education and Training programme was a cross border project supported by Co-Operation Ireland, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Duchas - the Heritage Service in the Irish Republic.

The Properties

Thatching training

The traditional dwellings, which form a very visual contribution to the typical character of the mountain landscapes of the area, are vulnerable to pressures for increased housing. Yet most are unprotected in any way and many are being replaced with modern buildings, a large proportion of which do not reflect the choice of site, materials or scale of the former dwellings. Though largely without services, many of these vacant dwellings are capable of being refurbished to high standards for modern living.

There are currently no National Parks within Northern Ireland and a unitary planning authority, with relatively little control exerted over demolition and the design of new dwellings in the countryside. Very few vernacular buildings are listed so the vast majority do not have any statutory protection. A survey of 1989 logged over 1,700 vacant vernacular buildings within the Mourne AONB, a similar survey of over 5,000 dwellings in 2002 found only 600 remaining in a relatively unaltered state. Therefore it was crucial that some redundant buildings were restored and reused before a whole cultural layer of building history was lost.

Most of the dwellings in the scheme date from the late18th or early 19th century. The buildings are scattered throughout the three District Council Areas that fall within the Mourne AONB. The buildings were all privately owned, vacant and in varying states of disrepair with few having amenities or services. All the buildings exhibit traditional methods of construction and materials- predominantly uncut granite, a stone that was for many years exported from the area in cut form for construction of roads and pavements in cities such as London, Belfast, Manchester and Liverpool.

Schemes were drawn up for the dwellings to ensure the traditional characteristics of the buildings were retained; some were extended to provide a minimum of 2 bedrooms; where possible wheelchair access was incorporated and green energy options were explored, and the settings of the buildings - out buildings, walls, shelter belts and gates were also restored.

The building project was completed in 2007 at a cost of pound;1.6million and has received a number of prestigious awards, including a Diploma from Europa Nostra and a UK Civic Trust award.

Mourne Homesteads education and training programme

Mourne Homesteads leaflet

It was recognised from the outset that there was little point in trying to restore traditional buildings without reintroducing the required skills base. Although there are a growing number of traditional skills centres in England, Scotland and Wales, Ireland does not have a centre dedicated to the provision of traditional building skills.

A wide variety of courses were devised including training at all levels in the use of lime, traditional carpentry, thatching, stone masonry and other rural building skills. Courses were aimed at primary and secondary school children, apprentices, contractors, home owners as well as staff from the building and housing provision professions.

In addition a travelling exhibition promoting the traditional skills programme and traditional buildings in general was on display in Northern Ireland and the border counties in the Republic. ''Traditional Buildings in Ireland - A Home Owners Handbook and CD rom'' was published in 2005 and provides a practical guide and information source for those initiating projects to maintain, repair and restore their traditional buildings.

Measures of success

The Mourne Homesteads project has:

  • saved 7 dwellings, their outbuildings and settings from dereliction and loss
  • demonstrated sustainable housing development by making best use of an existing heritage resource.
  • Provided living examples of the traditional housing types of Mournes and provided sustainable housing for 7 local families. The project has thus sustained traditional communities, slowed the rate of rural emigration and ensured, by sustained use, that other elements of the Mourne countryside will be retained and maintained - property boundaries, pillars and posts, walls and shelter belts
  • Influenced statutory bodies in Northern Ireland at a policy level including the Planning Service, the Housing Executive and District Councillors as to the feasibility of rehabilitation
  • Kept alive and reinvigorated traditional buildings skills through the contracts and training days
  • Educated new audiences both of school children and professionals as to both the feasibility, desirability and the practical methods of vernacular restoration
  • Provided a positive influence on the attitudes and day-to-day practice of individual Planners, Building Control officers and the Housing Executive
  • Provided a new focal point for sustainable tourism initiatives • Contributed to and enhanced the special character of the Mourne landscape

Lessons learnt

The Mourne Homesteads project was challenging project to run for the following reasons

  • Multiple funders all requiring different outputs created a high administrative load
  • Greater economies of scale could have been achieved if the buildings had been grouped to create a critical mass for the construction teams
  • High cost/technical requirements of the project
  • Managing the expectations of the owners

The impact of Mourne Homesteads is continuing to grow throughout Ireland as a sustainable way of retaining buildings, skills and the cohesion of local communities.


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