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‘Heritage Heroes’ from across Ireland celebrated at National Heritage Awards 2020

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The efforts of individuals, families and community groups across Ireland to ensure the preservation, protection and promotion of Ireland’s built, natural and cultural heritage were recognised at this year's National Heritage Awards.

Hosted by the Heritage Council, the event took place virtually and was presented by RTÉ broadcaster, Anne Cassin.

To take account of restrictions on gatherings due to COVID-19, rather than focusing on the organisation of in-person events this year, more than 770 heritage groups and enthusiasts developed projects around this year’s theme of ‘Heritage and Education: Learning from our Heritage’.
Comprising online talks and exhibitions, videos, podcasts, slideshow presentations, blogs, websites, social media accounts, as well as small, restricted social gatherings, more than 850 projects were submitted. Each one was considered for a National Heritage Week Award.

The National Heritage Week Awards were expanded this year to include an award for the best project in each county across the island. Projects were assessed on the basis of their local reach and community engagement, educational value and the level to which they involved different age groups. Categories comprised: the Heritage Hero Award; the Heritage on Your Doorstep Award; the Re-Learning Skills from Our Heritage Award; the Heritage of Education Award and the Water Heritage Award.

The volume and variety of projects received this year reflects the dedication of individuals and communities to capture, celebrate and share Ireland’s rich and varied heritage.

The winners of the National Heritage Week Awards 2020 are:

The Heritage Hero Award: Christy Cunniffe from Clonfert, Co Galway:

Christy Cunniffe has more than 30 years of involvement with heritage. Recently retired as the archaeological field monument advisor for Co Galway, during his time in the role Mr Cunniffe went above and beyond to work with local communities and assist heritage groups. He has worked with several villages to carry out heritage audits resulting in the identification of heritage sites; he was also involved with the Beara Breifne way, the Clonfert Conservation Plan and the forthcoming national heritage plan, Heritage Ireland 2030. His work in the Slieve Aughty uplands engaged local communities in Clare and Galway and promoted the heritage, archaeology and culture of this unique shared region. Mr Cunniffe is being recognised for his efforts to engage and include local communities and heritage groups, to spread his own knowledge and enthusiasm among those around him.

The Heritage on Your Doorstep Award: The Killeshandra Tidy Towns Heritage Group from Killeshandra, Co Cavan:

This project sees the Killeshandra Census of 1911 being researched and used to sketch the town as it appeared at that time. The Killeshandra Tidy Town Heritage Group is producing sketches, old photographs and census records detailing the houses, shops, and public buildings and people who lived in the town. The result will prove a valuable resource for learning about the town’s cultural and built heritage and for genealogy research for visitors.

The Re-Learning Skills from Our Heritage Award: Johnny Shiels from Glenswilly, Co Donegal:

Mr Shiels is a third-generation wheel wright and this project involves the restoration of a rate, old Donegal flax / wool spinning wheel. Assisted by his two sons, this project sees the passing of knowledge of wheel making and restoration across generations. Mr Shiels has used digital technology and social media to share the process of the restoration with a wide audience, and plans to engage with local schools to teach pupils about spinning and weaving, and to ensure continued interest in the project and the tradition itself.

The Heritage of Education Award: Rathmullan & District Local History Society from Rathmullan, Co Donegal:

For this project, Rathmullan & District Local History Society set out to record the intangible heritage of schooldays, including the friendships; sports; games played; songs and lessons remembered; the customs and the ways of life in school and in the community. This was chosen to encourage a sense of connection which would involve the whole community. The first part of the project used their recently-created Facebook page to showcase the histories, stories and photographs of their townlands, and the group also produced a video based on earlier interviews with former pupils in the school from the late 1930s to 2005.

The Water Heritage Award: The Ellen Hutchins Festival from Bantry, Co Cork:

Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815), born in Ballylickey, West Cork, was Ireland's first female botanist, with seaweeds being her specialist. This Ellen Hutchins Festival project involved the production of family-friendly resources enabling people to explore, understand, respect and protect seaweeds and the natural heritage of the shores of inner Bantry Bay. High quality multimedia items, including photographs and a video were included in the resources.

Commenting, Minister of State for the Minister for Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcolm Noonan TD, said: “The annual National Heritage Awards offer important recognition of the tireless work undertaken by people – not just during National Heritage Week, but year-round – to ensure the story of Ireland’s heritage continues to be told in a meaningful way. I am delighted to see the interest and excitement generated by the Awards among communities across the country, and offer congratulations to all winning and nominated projects.”

Referring to the €95.5m for heritage announced in last week’s budget – an increase of 51% on 2020 – Minister Noonan continued, “I am delighted that the Heritage Council will receive an additional €2.5m next year to develop and grow its programmes, including its supports for communities who care for our heritage.”

​Chief Executive of the Heritage Council, Virginia Teehan added: “Although National Heritage Week took place against the challenging backdrop of the public health emergency, I am buoyed by the remarkable response from people across the country to get involved with this year’s changed event regardless. This is clearly reflected in the sheer number of projects which were submitted for all to browse and enjoy, all of which were considered for a National Heritage Award.

“I believe this year’s event and the circumstances surrounding it will go far in opening Ireland’s heritage up to even broader and more diverse audiences, ensuring increased access and understanding well into the future. It has also shown how digital technology, including social media can be readily deployed to facilitate engagement with our heritage, particularly among younger generations, whose interest must be nurtured from an early age. On behalf of everyone at the Heritage Council, I offer sincere congratulations to not only the winning and shortlisted organisations, but to all those who were nominated and involved in the organisation of National Heritage Week projects.

“I am also delighted to take this opportunity to introduce the theme for National Heritage Week 2021 – ‘Inclusive Heritage / Heritage for Everyone’ – which will help us to build on the enhanced engagement we were delighted to see during this year’s event.”