Beyond Pastness: Re-Use in Ramelton
In the picturesque town of Ramelton, located in the North West of Ireland, a hulking set of warehouses on the Quay are a tactile reminder of what this place used to be. In stone, shale, and concrete, they tell a story about the past: of bustling trade, industrialization, and prosperity in rural parts of the country. After decades of dereliction, some of the warehouses have been recently repurposed into a heritage center, a café, and even apartments. Two, however, remain in a state of decay, and one is on the brink of collapse.
In 2020, an Action Plan for the town of Ramelton prepared by a local architectural firm identified these buildings as critical conservation works. The plan argued that the building’s continuing dilapidation was a “threat” to “the very character and significance of the town. … Finding appropriate sustainable new uses for the historic buildings and sites must be a priority for any new development.”1Dedalus Architecture, Ramelton Action Plan (Donegal, Ireland: Donegal County Council, July 2020), 19. These words were effective in launching the long process of restoring the buildings’ structural integrity. As scaffolding engulfs the warehouses, it is worth speculating how their fate might reflect a new chapter for Irish towns, one that acknowledges the past and embraces the future.
Located along the River Lennon as it flows into Lough Swilly, Ramelton was once a thriving harbor and an important industrial, commercial, and administrative center. The warehouses on the Quay date to the early 1800s. They were part of the infrastructure of a burgeoning port, and facilitated the town’s 19th-century transformation from rural settlement to cornerstone of the Irish flax industry. Their enormity attests to the level of trade that once flowed through the area.
Ramelton is located in the north of Ireland, but it is not in Northern Ireland. By car or bus (the only available transportation) it’s about three hours from Dublin, and five from Cork. Due to the peculiar shape of the border, Ireland’s North West is geographically set apart, and traveling to either of these larger cities involves crossing the Irish border twice. This has long created a sense of isolation within Ramelton’s broader context of County Donegal. County Donegal is neither North nor South, colloquially known as “the forgotten county.”
Ramelton’s industrial prominence began to decline in the mid-19th century. The River Lennon silted up, railway infrastructure arrived in neighboring Letterkenny, and competition increased from larger urban centers such as Belfast. Much of Ramelton’s industrial fabric fell into disuse as the town became increasingly isolated.
Today, Ramelton’s warehouses conform to a preconceived, romanticized image of Irish towns as relics of the past — places trapped in time. Ireland’s tourism economy values the “pastness” of rural Ireland, but preserving that pastness has the effect of consigning towns to a state of perpetual limbo, caught between evoking the past and planning for the future. Any interventions on Ramelton’s cultural heritage need to be interrogated accordingly. Are these structures to be “preserved” so they can be used as props for a static, scenographic tourist backdrop? Or might the preserved warehouses once again become vibrant amenities that service local prosperity?
Perhaps both outcomes are possible. What if the Ramelton warehouses could be rehabilitated not as symbols of the past, but rather as reincarnations of their past social and economic value? Herein lies a unique opportunity to cast the prosperous history of Ramelton as continuous with the present. Granted, this would demand a level of design nuance beyond the usual kneejerk understanding of preservation, but isn’t preservation always in the interests of the present? As T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”2 T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921), 45.
Ramelton is a town in transition. Much of the rehabilitation efforts are being paid for through government funding, which is part of a national strategy for revitalizing rural Ireland. Rural Ireland also experienced an unanticipated population surge during the pandemic, as many people chose to avail themselves of the opportunities for remote work. Remote work is now being acknowledged in the Irish media and in new government policies as an economic catalyst — a means of revitalizing under-utilized structures and enlivening the social life and economic wellbeing of rural towns.3 See Department of Rural and Community Development, Government of Ireland, Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, March 29, 2021; and Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Government of Ireland, Making Remote Work: National Remote Work Strategy, January 15, 2021.
Perhaps the restoration of Ramelton’s warehouses and the possibilities of remote work can come together. Perhaps the warehouses’ future lies in facilitating a new wave of remote work infrastructure. When buildings are so central to the narrative of a place, their contemporary reuse is symbolically powerful. Perhaps Ramelton’s warehouses might signal an Ireland that is simultaneously invested in its heritage, and responsive to its people. Ideally these buildings achieve far more than “pastness.”
- Dedalus Architecture, Ramelton Action Plan (Donegal, Ireland: Donegal County Council, July 2020), 19.
- T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921), 45.
- See Department of Rural and Community Development, Government of Ireland, Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, March 29, 2021; and Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Government of Ireland, Making Remote Work: National Remote Work Strategy, January 15, 2021.