A pensive County manager PJ Donnelly at the Civic Trust announcement in November 1988 with Mayor Margaret Tynan in the centre Albert Reynolds on left Picture from Tom Brett Collection
Thirty years ago this year, Kilkenny Civic Trust held its first momentous AGM after a whirlwind 12 months.
The previous May, 1988, Kilkenny was delivered a blow which hit not just the local economy but the city’s growing reputation and image.
The government was winding up the Kilkenny Design Workshop.
Within six months though, inspired local leadership gathered, a united front ensured that everybody knew in the corridors of power that Kilkenny was going to come out from this adverse situation as a shining example of not just best practice, but a future proofing of our considerable assets for the generations to come.
The genesis of Kilkenny Civic Trust began with the government announcement of May 1988 - within less than a year Kilkenny Civic Trust had considerable funding, ownership and a vision to ensure our heritage buildings are respected and maintained.
Thirty years on, the Trust continues to grow and grow. Yet its initial evolution was not planned in the typical way. It was a reaction to government policy, and Kilkenny, and in particular then county manager PJ Donnelly, saw an opportunity too good to be missed. His conviction, along with Mayor Margaret Tynan and others, made the genesis of the Trust in Kilkenny an example to so many since.
PJ Donnelly’s career in national government proved to be an outstanding asset for Kilkenny - particularly outstanding in the sense that Mr Donnelly ensured any Kilkenny submissions really stood out from the rest. For almost 40 years, the role he played in Kilkenny has left a lasting legacy on this county. Mr Donnelly simply got things done.
The Louth man had a vision for this city and county from the time of his arrival. Almost 20 years in the national corridors of power including Dail Eireann had not only given him incredible experience, he also knew their workings.
It’s also worth noting that at the time, local councillors also rose through the ranks to become TDs. So the link between national and local government was very real and personal. A Kilkenny City TD like Kieran Crotty could be at a council meeting on Monday - and then on the benches in Dail Eireann the following day.
PJ Donnelly joined the Civil Service in 1956 at the age of 17 - straight into the Department of Finance. Within a year he was a Junior Executive, and then joined the Department of Local Government - in the Human Resources section.
Two years on he was appointed Assistant Private Secretary to Minister Neil Blaney - it proved to be a very valuable appointment in the career or Mr Donnelly. Mr Blaney drove a programme of housing, planning, sanitation services, water schemes. He was putting in place infrastructure that was having a real impact on people’s lives. He soon became a Higher Executive Officer - and then Private Secretary to the Secretary General, John Garvin.
Just before that 1964 appointment, Mr Donnelly was very familiar with what was called the Scandinavian Report - which basically led to the foundation of what became Kilkenny Design - making Kilkenny the design capital of Ireland.
It was ensuring Irish craft and design was to be basically brought to market. Kilkenny, the city and the brand, was to be the conduit.
For the remainder of the 1960s, PJ Donnelly’s reputation grew and grew, becoming Private Secretary to Minister Kevin Boland in 1967. In 1973, at the age of 35 he was appointed County Secretary in Meath - second only to a county manager in the previous local government structures. Within six months, the county manager had become ill and Donnelly took charge for over two years. Two years later - 1976 and PJ Donnelly was appointed County Manager for Kilkenny - at 37 years of age.
He recalls his first impressions and the workload he faced.
“Funds weren’t always available for what you want, you had to survey, analyse and plan for present and future needs,” he said.
“When I arrived there was water rationing in the city. And that led to the development of the water treatment plant at Troyswood and in 1980, the Main Drainage Scheme at Purcellsinch.”
An indication of how the county manager viewed providing better services to communities was that with the Purcellsinch project, both the Smithwick’s Brewery and Fieldcrest provided financial support. A sort of public/private partnership ahead of its time.
Mr Donnelly saw tourism as a big advantage for Kilkenny - at a time when our average tourist numbers were about 12,000 annually. Break that down to 230 people a week, and you can see how far Kilkenny has come.
He organised the purchase of Shee Alms House for a cost of £3,500 - and for almost five decades it has been Kilkenny’s tourism office. We were in Europe for just five years, and travel and tourism was very much on the rise.
“We looked at a situation where one in five jobs in Kilkenny could be from tourism,” he said. “We had the quality offering, we had a compact medieval city, we just had to refresh things.”
And so with local politicians like former Mayors Michael McGuinness (father of present TD John McGuinness) and Deputy Kieran Crotty, the pathway for putting Kilkenny very much on the tourist map began.
And throughout the Eighties, there was consistent recognition for Kilkenny’s efforts.
In 1981 Bord Fáilte National Architectural Heritage Award plus an award from An Taisce for the restoration for Shee Alms House came to Kilkenny. And they also won the Best Town at the Tidy Towns award - an award they won every year in the Eighties and of course the National award in 1985.
The list of awards for the city, national and international was astounding. One street which received particular attention from various judges was the developments at Maudlin Street.
All this work occurred over ten years before the Kilkenny Civic Trust became a reality. It was a very important backdrop though to the establishment of the Trust and it was clear that local civic pride was growing every year in Kilkenny.
That pride took a knock. In May of 1988, the government announced the sell off of State asset Kilkenny Design Workshops. They had premises here in Kilkenny - the Castle Stables and Butler House and a shop on Nassau Street in Kilkenny.
It was a big shock to the Kilkenny community and immediately Mayor Margaret Tynan - the city’s first lady mayor - and Paddy Donnelly began looking at their options.
Mr Donnelly saw the value of the Civic Trust in Limerick, and began working in the background to such an extent that within weeks, local business had pledged £50,000 to the formation of a Civic Trust.
Intent was serious and by November, ownership of the Castle Stables and Butler House would be transferred to the newly formed Civic Trust - at a cost considerably less than the market value.
The premises on Nassau Street was sold to Blarney Woollen Mills. Mr Donnelly, Mayor Tynan and then Minister for Industry and Commerce Albert Reynolds made the official announcement in Butler House.
Born out of adversity - basically the government withdrew its ownership of Kilkenny Design Workshops and were winding it up - the Kilkenny Civic Trust and ultimately Kilkenny Design became a reality.
Mr Donnelly revealed that the Trust Board would be made up of the members that had worked so hard to set it up.
He also revealed that informal discussions had begun to organise a management buy out of the Design Workshop. It was also clarified that the £200,00 liabilities of KDW were no more and the Trust would begin debt free in January 1989.
Minister Reynolds noted the work of Mr Donnelly, Liam Aylward TD and Senator Michael Lanigan in securing the premises. Mayor Tynan also thanked Susan Butler, Susan Moss, George Vaughan and Brendan Conway for their special efforts.
The Kilkenny Civic Trust proved to be a revelation - four years ahead of a Civic trust in Dublin.
Its first annual report listed the subscribers to the Civic Trust Limited and it’s worth noting those, in alphabetical order - ACC Bank, AIB, Avonmore, Bank of Ireland, Barlo Farm Centre, Butler Society, CRH plc, Church and General insurance plc, Conroy Petroleum and Natural Resources, Country Markets, Frank Cowley and Associates, Dunnes Stores, ESB, First National Building Society, IPA, Hibernian Insurance, Insurance Corporation of Ireland, IDA, International Hide and Skin Co. Irish nationwide Building Society, Irish Distillers Group, Irish Public Bodies Mutual Insurances, Kilkenny Co-Op, Kilkenny Corporation, Kilkenny County Council, Kilkenny People, L&N Stores, Major Victor McCalmont, Mahon and McPhilips, Mosse Pottery, Mount Juliet Estates, Franke Renee Murphy, NIB, Runtalrad, SFL Engineering, E Smithwick & Sons, Stainless Steel Fabrication, Victor Treacy International, TSB, United Dominions Trust and Ulster Bank.
The subscriptions total had risen to £289,270 by the time of the first audited accounts.
The first trustees were PJ Donnelly, the late Tom Boyle, the late Tom Byrne of Mahon and McPhilips, Brendan Graham of Avonmore, Susan Mosse and the late Donal O’Brien, Town Clerk.
The trustees were always to serve on a voluntary basis and furthermore no State subsidy would be made to the running costs of the trust.
Between 1991 and to the present day, grants were paid to conservation projects like the Parade Tower at Kilkenny Castle which was one of the bigger donations at £150,000, the Watergate Theatre, Woodstock in Inistioge, Butler Gallery and Rothe House. Of course the largest donation from the Kilkenny Civic Trust was to the Medieval Mile Museum - the sum of €400,000.
The restoration of the Parade Tower, with the OPW was one of the more interesting and exciting projects to take place in Kilkenny.
Then Mayor Cllr Kieran Crotty and Mr Donnelly visited a number of castles in England, and suggested to the OPW that the tower could accommodate suitable conferences, meetings and cultural events. In 2000, the Parade Tower was officially opened - a combined effort from the local authority, the OPW and the Kilkenny Civic Trust.
And that continued in the formation of the award winning Medieval Mile Museum, now joining the Civic Trust remit along with the Castle Stables and Butler House.
Butler House has seen considerable development over the last three decades, a leading hotel and restaurant in the city with outstanding gardens - a city centre venue of great value to Kilkenny.
Kilkenny Civic Trust has played a leading role in this community for 30 years.
Its foundation was swift and from opportunity, yet its influence ensures a lasting legacy for the people of Kilkenny in ensuring that our built heritage in particular is at its very best for both local people and visitors to our great city.