“They are going to knock down the West Gate”, I said to husband on a dark night in winter in the late 1960s. This was an explanation for my hurried exit from home just as he was returning from a day’s work. “Are they mad?” he asked but I did not wait to answer.
Mrs Fraser (Annie Lovett of Ard-na-Greine) who was then Secretary of the Clonmel Historical Society, of which I was a member, had asked me, hurriedly, to join a delegation to the Corporation to protest against the proposal.”Meet me at 7 o’clock at the ‘98 Man”, she said, and added “We want a representative of the younger generation”. (That was in the 60s!). I recalled the dark night recently, when I went to some of the events associated with the recent festivals and Heritage Week, in which the West Gate featured in a medieval style gate-opening and as a backdrop to a most enjoyable Irish and set-dancing event.
And, no, the Corporation wasn’t mad on that night more than half a century ago. The local authority had been presented with a report which outlined the perilous condition of the building, and the urgent prospect that it had become a danger to public safety. Immediate and expensive work was required to make it safe and the then owner, the Earl of Donoughmore, was not prepared to undertake this work, but he proposed handing over ownership, with a cash donation, to anybody who was willing to take on the responsibility of making the West Gate a viable and safe building. The alternative was demolition.
But there was even a more compelling argument for the demoliton of the iconic structure, and which was on the Corporation’s business that night. There was a report from the authority’s own advisors that the structure was beyond its sell-by date anyhow, and its inevitable removal would present an ideal opportunity for widening the street, and allowing the free run of traffic from Irishtown into the town centre. It was a serious impediment to free-flow. Knock it down. The sooner the better.
The proposal, revealed for the first time to the ordinary people of Clonmel in The Nationalist’s weekend edition, was a profound shock to the system of truly ‘native’ citizens. The West Gate was a metaphor for the town, embedded in citizens’ genes. I remember a letter from a cousin who had emigrated to Chicago. In describing her desolate loneliness, she wrote home: “I wish I was walking under the West Gate tonight”.
But the demolishers had their supporters, notably led by Father Tom Power, a longtime curate in St Mary’s Irishtown. He likened the West Gate to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. It separated the ‘poorer and less developed’ (according to Father Tom) western areas of the town from the more prosperous town centre. It was a physical and psychological block. Pull it down. And good riddance!
The Historical Society had long been concerned about the gradual erosion of the little that remained of the town’s historical character, as reflected in structures and small artifacts. Unlike towns like Kilkenny, no thought had been given to conservation. And truth to tell, conservation had little widespread public support at a time of economic development. Those who believed that both could go hand-in-hand and be mutally productive, were seen as well-meaning nutters, to be humoured but not to be taken seriously.
So there we were on that dark night, a small group huddled under the ‘98 Man. We were told the Corporation would receive us in delegation; that we had five minutes to present our case; that there would be no questioning; and that the members would not engage in any conversation with us.
In the context of modern flag-waving, chanting protestors, the little group in the Council Chamber that night, could not be more different. With the exception of ‘the representative of the younger generation’, all were solid, respectable (a word fashionable at the time) citizens. Frank Murphy (Solicitor) was the Society’s President, Tommy Moran, a businessman and pharmacist, Dr Philip O’Connell and Sydney Watson, both published authors and historians, Annie Lovett Fraser, who had blazed a feminist trail at the opening of the century by being one of the two women then employed by the Bank of Ireland, and a Loreto Sister, a teacher of history. The President presented our case for the retention of the West Gate. He said it was built in 1831, on the approximate site of the medieval west gate, by a rich merchant, Mr Joyce (probably associated with the tannery in nearby Joyce’s Lane). He said it was a building of special architectural character which defined the entrance to that old historic suburb of Clonmel, Irishtown, and that it, and the Main Guard (then Cooney’s and in a poor state of repair) attractively enclosed the principal street. Above all, Mr Murphy said, the West Gate was dear to the hearts of the people of Clonmel who would find it difficult to visualise their town without it. That was the opening salvo in the battle to save the building. But the real and practical heroes of that battle were three men, of whom I have previously written in ths column. Tom Reilly (Solicitor) bought the building. Eamonn McLoughlin (Planning Officer) designed a programme for making it structually safe, and Mikey Walsh (Building Contractor) carried out the construction work. Their objective was to conserve it until such time as it could be completely restored. That has now happened.
All are now dead, but on that recent occasion of celebrating HERITAGE (all upper case!) I thought of them and of a time when heritage, preservation and conservation, as concepts, had little cache, and when, as words, they were strictly confined within the pages of the dictionary.