The Arts Interview: Emma Gilleece

The Arts Interview: Emma Gilleece

Born in Limerick city I have spent most of my life here, apart from brief periods in New York and Dublin.

I attended Scoil Íde National School, where my mother was a teacher, followed by Laurel Hill Secondary School. Subsequently, I did a BA in English and History and an MA in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Limerick, followed by a research Master’s degree in Urban and Building Conservation, at University College Dublin.

At first, my interests leaned more toward literature, having a great love of both romantic poetry and novels.

However at the end of my four-year degree my research interests had become more historical. Today, I am an elected member of the council for An Taisce and chair of the Limerick Association. I am also chair of the History and Heritage Strand of the Limerick Arts and Cultural Exchange (LACE). In addition, I am on the committee for the Limerick Chapter of the Irish Georgian Society, together with being a member of the conservation organization, DOCOMOMO Ireland, and the heritage agency, ICOMOS Ireland.

My father was a prolific reader of books about WWII while war documentaries were mandatory on our television.

My mother is still very gifted, artistically. Indeed, if she were my age today, she would surely be a professional artist. My father is an architect; so again, I lived in a house with him always working at his drawing board. I was artistic myself, and even as a child, believed that I could make a living from art. As an extremely self-conscious teenager, art brought me unwanted attention, so after the Leaving Certificate, I divorced myself from it altogether. Indeed, my postgraduate studies narrowed my interests to architectural history. Nevertheless, I always had a fascination with the architectural career of my late uncle Noel, who worked for Robinson Keefe and Devane (now RKD) in the 1960s and 1970s.

There is something about the history of Irish architecture that really appeals to me.

Indeed, my research Master’s dissertation was entitled: ‘The building types that defined modern Limerick City and the issues arising from the valuation and conservation of mid-twentieth century architecture.’ For me, my father’s other brother – sports journalist, author and editor Dermot Gilleece – has had the perfect career. His talent for writing allowed him to travel around the world, and even as a septuagenarian, he is still working today. Although he records sporting events, he is as diligent about the correct use of grammar and punctuation as any good writer would be.

Architectural history presents me with many challenges.

For example, without architectural training I am a complete novice at reading plans. Indeed, if I won the Lotto tomorrow I would love to study architecture. The biggest challenge I am faced with, however, is a general lack of appreciation for twentieth century building. People want to know the name of the artist behind a painting or a sculpture but not the mind that made their home, place of work or recreational area a reality. While we live in a country obsessed with attracting tourists, we tend to ignore our greatest assets – namely our history and our built heritage. Traditionally we have been bad at recording the names of our engineers, builders and craftspeople. As a result, original plans and architects’ biographies are like gold dust today.

I began my architectural history blog, Concrete Stew, nine months ago, which keeps me busy, as does writing the odd paper here and there for journals and websites.

Last year, I was commissioned to research and write the Limerick Museum and Archives publication, Limerick, City of Churches, edited by Jacqui Hayes and Dr Matthew Potter. It chronicles every building of worship that stands, or ever stood, in the city. I recently moved to Dublin, temporarily, after being offered the post of editorial assistant for The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) journal, Architecture Ireland. In addition, I am delighted to have been appointed co-ordinator for the Irish Architecture Foundation’s project, Open House Dublin (2015).

The Old Limerick Journal is still very important to Limerick, ensuring as it does our historic continuity, while encouraging investigations into the past.

Its primary focus remains on the story that you are telling, rather than how many letters you have after your name, or how impressive your postdoctoral research supervisor was. I would encourage everybody to join one of the many historical agencies working in Limerick. These range from the Irish Georgian Society, the Thomond Archaeological Society, Limerick Museum and Archives, the Hunt Museum and Limerick City Library. It is an amazing way to meet a whole new network of people who can assist our better understanding of Limerick’s past and present.

Limerick City Council being without a conservation officer and a heritage officer in recent years was detrimental to the historic fabric of the city.

Thankfully, the city received the county’s conservation officer, following the merger. The School of Architecture at the University of Limerick (SAUL), and Fab Lab Limerick, are doing great work to encourage dialogue about the development of our city. Their research projects and lecture series are a fantastic resource. However, it is beyond belief that Limerick Museum and Archives have been so long without a permanent home. More funds need to be found for our museums, archives and libraries, which will benefit local people and visitors, alike. As chair of the History Strand for LACE, I am always open to collaboration and would love to be contacted, by any individuals or groups, about our European Capital of Culture 2020 bid!

To read more about Emma Gilleece please see: To contact her about the European Capital of Culture 2020 bid please email:

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