SIR – I was very pleased to see attention being drawn to the appalling state of the old convent (secondary) school in Skibbereen in The Southern Star. I absolutely agree that it represents a clear risk to public heath and safety. It is also very sad to see what was once a valued institution in our town being vandalised and disregarded in such a manner.
The real tragedy however relates to the present state of the convent chapel and its adjoining building, which was home to the Sisters of Mercy for over 140 years. These are prized and beautiful buildings that represent a very significant contribution to the cultural heritage of Skibbereen and the wider West Cork area.
Over 14 years of decay and neglect however have left them in a shocking state. Water ingress has destroyed much of the interior fabric of the buildings and most of the floors and ceilings are rotting. The beautiful stained glass window that once stood over the altar in the chapel has been vandalised and there is clear evidence of wild animal and rodent activity in the premises.
The biggest risk to the buildings however relates to their unsecured perimeter. Much as with the convent school buildings you refer to in your article, anyone can currently enter the chapel and its adjoining building through the back doors of the premises which are wide open.
Unauthorised access introduces the very real risk of arson and the consequent destruction of the buildings. Such a view is not alarmist – Cork has recently seen two beautiful old buildings destroyed by fire resulting from delinquent activity that was facilitated by unsecured perimeters: Vernon Mount in Douglas and St Anne’s in Sunday’s Well. Donaghmore House in Donegal was also destroyed by fire only last week for the same reason.
Regardless of the long-term redevelopment of the site, urgent action is required to secure the perimeter of the buildings. While it is the duty of the owner of a site to ensure it is secured, should the current owners of the site at this present time not be actively managing it (which appears to be the case), then public action is required.
As a priority I would urge Cork County Council to install palisade fencing at the entrance to the site from the old nuns’ graveyard located to the right of the chapel. This can be installed very quickly, very easily and very cheaply, as is only needs to cover the width of a single footpath.
The existing fencing up the Convent Hill is reasonably secure but has been interfered with in a few places and can allow unauthorised access for the more nimble members of the public. This too needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
These very easy-to-execute actions, while not perfect, will greatly minimise the risk of further vandalism and arson and may allow the buildings survive until the very long impasse on their redevelopment has ended. The substantial damage to the interior of the buildings, while shocking, can be addressed through extensive renovation and engineering works. With a bold and creative architectural reimagining of the site (including of course the two spaces adjacent to the buildings which have been Skibbereen’s ongoing concrete nightmare for many years), there is enormous potential to be had in its redevelopment.
One only has to consider the stunning success of the recently opened Nano Nagle Place in Cork City or the role of St James’s Church in Dingle in developing the now iconic ‘Other Voices’ series to appreciate the potential. An open competition for ideas for its redevelopment would, I suspect, generate much interest in the architectural community.
Beautiful old buildings are not just the sum of the bricks and mortar used to construct them.
They represent the memories and shared experiences of all who have lived in them and all who have experienced them.
The chapel was a place of prayer and reflection for many generations of Skibbereen people in a way that always felt more rarified than the cathedral.
It deserves our respect and deserves our urgent attention, lest it be lost for all future generations.