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Saving Elizabeth Fort

Elizabeth Fort c.1990

Chris Southgate, Conservation Engineer and Director of Southgate Associates, was appointed by the OPW to carry out a multi-phase restoration project on Elizabeth Fort. Chris describes how he and the team involved transformed the site from ‘an ivy covered dangerous structure into a heritage site with tourism potential’. This is a very modest assessment from Chris for a project that encapsulates best practice in the conservation and reclamation of a ruin. The work completed successfully restored a once hazardous building back to its rightful state as a place of great historical interest through minimum and respectful interventions.

Writing in 1595, just eight years before Fort Elizabeth’s construction in 1601, lines from William Shakespeare’s play Richard II come to mind when considering the dilapidated state of Elizabeth Fort.

Woe, destruction, ruin and decay:

The worst is death and death will have his day.

At the turn of the last century, and after surviving various violent historical episodes, death in the form of an ‘environmental attack’ tried its best to destroy the monument but yet again the Fort held out. A team of dedicated and committed conservationists led by Chris and including

Dr Colin Rynne Archaeologist, Ciara O’Flynn, Building archaeologist, Horganlynch, Consulting Engineers and Tony O’Regan, Quantity Surveyor with BruceShaw now with Tony O’ Regan Associates, resurrected Elizabeth Fort from its terribly dilapidated state. Not only did they defy the death of this building but they successfully renewed its legacy and secured future heritage outcomes for Elizabeth Fort.

Chris recalls the sheer strength of the building. ‘It was built so solidly to withstand canon fire. Some areas had definitely been weakened by exposure to rain and ground water but none of this was due to the original construction’. Elizabeth Fort was made higher and defensively stronger as early as 1649 by order of Oliver Cromwell. It also survived intensive bombardment during the Siege of Cork when Jacobite forces were under siege by the Williamite soldiers. These historical records offer a definitive measurement of its fortitude.

As everyone with an interest in conservation and history knows, Fort walls are under constant duress. They sustain attack, canon fire and  bombardment and when the battles finally cease, new enemies awaken. Nature’s soldiers then assume the role of plunderer in the form of ivy and water and they quietly launch their deadly attack on great structures seeping into the foundations and over time wreaking their own style of havoc.

When Chris and his team engaged with this project, they confronted a monument that had become a very dangerous structure due to the growth in vegetation and the ground water damage dislodging stones. A major threat hit when a 1.5 tonne rock fell off the North-Eastern Bastion and fell directly through the roof of a residential property on Forde Street.

A consultation process began immediately with the twenty-eight residential properties which existed within the walls of Elizabeth Fort and who were likely to be impacted by restoration work. Stabilising a dangerous structure was the first measure taken. No sooner was the scaffolding erected, a second 1.2 tonne rock tumbled down from the North face wall which thankfully landed on the temporary framework below planned specifically to combat dangerous rock fall. The Fort was, at this point, crumbling and the decay and neglect over the years was starting to create the battleground for this very different type of siege.

With Elizabeth Fort now fully restored, there is a sense of pride in what the team achieved throughout the various phases of conservation. However, Chris still demonstrates an enduring passion for the Forts ongoing regeneration. After breathing life back into the monument, it makes perfect sense that he wants Fort Elizabeth to maximise itself and to now participate as fully as possible in the life of the City.

He describes how it is important to not become complacent and ‘not to give up fighting’. A lack of fight is an interesting reference point for a location historically steeped in battles. The current fight which he describes, is of course not one of life and death, but still an important one which those of us passionate about conservation understand. It is the fight to keep old buildings burning brightly and to encourage them to function at the core of cultural and social life rather than on the periphery.

Chris envisions a future for Elizabeth Fort where music concerts and farmer markets can be held within its walls. He believes the future for the Fort lies in achieving a ‘non-verbal interpretation’ of it and within it, an almost intuitive sense of the history of the Fort, where visitors understand the emotions and stories of the time. The learning and appreciation of the past should stem less from reading and fact and more from its atmosphere, providing a sense that those who visit can feel connected to the battles and to the defence of the Forts walls.

Chris also believes that the most rewarding tourism sites tap into the archetypes of what children are interested in. He explains that if we can capture the imagination of a four-year old child, the chances are we are selling the history in this non-verbal way and that this helps to create a universal understanding of the Fort for all its visitors.

The opportunities for Elizabeth Fort are boundless and Chris’s future vision is that creative energies continue to breathe life into the activities of the Fort.

There are people who like to read history and there are people who like to breathe it. It is our intention that guests staying in the grounds of Elizabeth Fort will experience both approaches and we are grateful to Chris Southgate and the team of conservationists who paved the way to create such a unique and stunning backdrop for Irish Landmark guests to enjoy.