The impact of the Historic Environment Fund Research Stream

The Department has invested £330,933 in 27 research projects in the six years between 2016 and 2023. Below are some examples of past projects which have been funded by the Historic Environment Fund’s Research Stream.

Research into the ‘compelling narrative’ for heritage

A key output of this project funded by the Department was the work, led by the National Trust, to develop a ‘compelling narrative’ – ‘Treasure the Past, Enrich the Future’ - on the wide benefits brought by Northern Ireland’s heritage. It has subsequently become a very important advocacy tool for the sector. In a follow up project, a microsite (  was developed to further promote the message. This is currently being hosted by Tourism NI and managed by Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL).

Archaeology 2030

This project funded by the Department involved research work and support. NIEL were funded to carry out this work. The final report was published in December 2020 - NI Heritage Delivers - Archaeology 2030: A Strategic Approach for Northern Ireland. Subsequently the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists has been commissioned to carry out research and update archaeology guidance in Northern Ireland.

Heritage Skills research

The availability of skilled heritage professionals in Northern Ireland hs been an increasing concern. Funded by the Department, in 2017 research was commissioned from the Construction Industry Training Board NI to revisit a 2008 report. The result painted a worrying picture on the availability of skilled construction professionals in the region and has been very useful in subsequent discussions with the sector and education authorities.

Intergenerational research studying vernacular buildings

Since January 2023, Lough Erne Landscape Partnership (LELP) has been working with schools across Co. Fermanagh to study vernacular heritage and how it remains a key part of the Fermanagh Landscape. Vernacular heritage comprises of houses, buildings, structures, and features which were built by ‘ordinary’ people, along with their neighbours, using ideas and methods passed down within families and communities. Vernacular heritage is crucial for local distinctiveness and gives our familiar landscapes their character. Currently, many rural vernacular buildings remain unoccupied and disused.

A collection thatched cottages created by students of St Davog’s Primary School Belleek
A collection thatched cottages created by students of St Davog’s Primary School Belleek
Students in P6 and P7 from Kesh PS, St Davog’s PS Belleek, St John the Baptist PS Belleek, Belleek Controlled PS, The Moat PS Lisnaskea, St Ronan's PS Lisnaskea and St Ninnidh’s PS Lisnaskea; were tasked to explore their local area and create a project focusing on one vernacular building of their choice.

Lough Erne Landscape Partnership, with support from the Department and the National Lottery Heritage Fund Northern Ireland, held intergenerational events in Kesh, Lisnaskea and Belleek between 24-29 March 2023. These events offered an opportunity for students to display their fantastic projects with the public and to open dialogue with older members of the Fermanagh community, creating conversation of shared experience between older and younger generations – with many students bringing along family members whom they had interviewed for their project.

Heritage audits

Focused upon local electoral areas, this series of research projects funded by the Department took inspiration from the Royal Society of Arts’ ‘Heritage Index’ which uses 120 data sets to highlight potential. The nine audits produced by NIEL, some with matching support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, considered and identified sites of importance and potential in these areas. They drew out some interesting comparisons between places that appeared to have similar assets yet different levels of engagement. A ‘how to’ guide was also developed to encourage future development for other areas and an overall evaluation.

Heritage enabled regeneration

Over recent years there has been increasing levels of vacancy in many of our towns and cities. This is putting heritage at risk and having wider negative impacts upon our society and economy. In 2022, we commissioned research into ideas that work elsewhere that utilise the benefits of our historic environment to help mitigate this trend. The research considered initiatives across the UK, Ireland, Europe and the United States. It followed this up with interviews and detailed research on three medium sized towns in Northern Ireland and made proposals on what might be done here. The results were discussed at a workshop with key public sector and district council decision makers in June 2022 and their views have been incorporated into the final report. The research work was carried out for the Department by the Architectural Heritage Fund and Ruth Flood Associates.

Climate change research

In 2019 the Department commissioned Ulster Architectural Heritage (UAH) to consider how owners might consider and respond to the impact of climate change on their property. Their risk assessment approach and report is available.

In 2021 the Department invested in research by the National Trust to consider the impact of rising sea levels in Strangford lough to ‘create a case study which will guide and inform the stewards of heritage assets (such as government departments responsible for heritage assets, or charitable trusts with such roles) on how, when and whether to adapt their management and conservation planning for sites and assets in their care.’ 

World Heritage research

In 2021, following the inclusion of Gracehill Village on the UK World Heritage Tentative List, the Department supported part of the costs incurred by Gracehill Trust to commission an international consultant to carry out research and prepare a nomination document to UNESCO. This work was carried out in partnership with the other parts of the Moravian Sites bid in  Pennsylvania (USA) and Saxony in Germany. Mid and East Antrim Borough Council also supported some of the costs. The nomination document is currently on track to be considered by UNESCO in summer 2024.

Archaeological research

In 2024 A detailed gradiometer and ground penetrating radar survey and an aerial survey were conducted by Wessex Archaeology over land at Attyhole Fort (TYR 017:005), Co. Tyrone. Recent research has identified Attyhole Fort as the hitherto unrecorded home of the last high king of Ireland, Brian Rua O’Neill. The survey identified a number of anomalies of possible archaeological origin in the western area of the site and potential rubble or demolition layers within the interior of the fort.

In 2024 an Aerial Topographic Survey of Unshinagh and Feystown, Co. Antrim, Antrim Coast and Glens; Area of outstanding archaeology was undertaken.

The aim of the project, was to survey and map the upland relic landscapes at Unshinagh and Feystown. A combined area of 72 ha was surveyed by Wessex Archaeology over 2 days, demonstrating the suitability of this methodology in this difficult to access, upland environment.

At Unshinagh, the survey revealed a complex, multi-period site with evidence of arable and pastoral farming practices including evidence of booleying. This was represented by multiple circular and sub-circular stone enclosures, indicative of prehistoric to early medieval activity, as well as former field boundaries and trackways.

At Feystown, the ruins of a former chapel and contemporary 18th and 19th century settlement were recorded, as well as evidence of historic cultivation.

Other research

The Department also invested small amounts of funding in the analysis of two thatched roofs where material was in such poor condition that the historic roof covering had to be removed as part of repair schemes. Support for research also helped give groups seeking to find a new future for the St Columb’s Hall in Derry~Londonderry, and developing a spiritual tourism trail on Lough Erne, the capacity to ensure that their developments were backed up by detailed historical investigations.

Support was also provided to the Rural Health Partnership to research and explore the Slighe Miodhluachra ancient roadway in Co Armagh and to the Ulster Archaeological Society to produce a special edition of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology (No74). Support was also provided for research to contribute to books on the architectural heritage of the modern movement in Northern Ireland and on the Ballynahhatty prehistoric landscape. In 2020 the Follies Trust was supported to carry out condition surveys at three important at-risk follies. Support was also provided to assess and date a very early house in Carrickfergus when early timbers were revealed as part of renovation works. Since 2019 the Royal Irish Academy has also been supported to extend its archaeological research grant scheme  to cover research relating to Northern Ireland.

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