Development of Public Works
From the 1670's to the 1820's Irish public buildings and works, civil and military, were constructed and maintained by the Office of the Surveyor-General, by the Barracks Board (or Civil Buildings Commissioners) and by the Navigation Board. As Government responsibilities expanded in the early 19th century it became clear that this unwieldly system had to be simplified and made more effective. So in August 1831 these offices were abolished and The Office of Public Works (OPW) was established and is one of the oldest state bodies in the country. A Board of three Commissioners was appointed under this Act to supervise a wide range of Government civil works, including roads, bridges, canals, the early railways, piers and harbours and river and field drainage. In the 1830's most of these works were done under contract with the aid of OPW loans and closely monitored by a small staff of OPW engineers. The size of the organisation grew hugely during the great famine of 1845-52, when the OPW was given the task of running relief works by means of Treasury loans. An average of 90,000 was employed in 1846. During late 1847 daily numbers on OPW relief schemes rose to over 100,000 people working. From the later 1850's the OPW was entrusted with the care of police barracks, coastguard stations, national schools, post offices, customs buildings, the royal universities and lunatic asylums. Vast arterial drainage schemes carried out by the OPW on the Irish river system in the 1850's and 1860's altered the landscape significantly.
The OPW was responsible for guiding certain projects through their initial stages before passing responsibility to specialist Departments or Semi State bodies. The part played by the OPW in the development of our railway system is not so well known. Many of the light railways, which flourished at the beginning of the 20th century, were provided by or under the aegis of the OPW. The OPW ran steamer and coach services on the Shannon between Killaloe and Rooskey during the tourist season in the late 19th century. It appears that the attractions of the Shannon region were being realized long before the potential for tourism as a national industry was considered. The OPW prepared plans for the development of water power and electricity at Clonlara under a Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill introduced in 1899 which did not proceed due to lack of public and financial support. The first runways and airport buildings at Dublin and Shannon were also designed and constructed by the OPW and were operational by 1940. Later during World War II the OPW was given responsibility for co-coordinating turf production and distribution by local authorities and private interests.
The most substantial public commissions undertake by the Board in the later 19th and early 20th centuries were the National Museum and National Library Dublin, the Belfast Custom House in the 1880's, the University buildings at Earlsfort Terrace (Dublin) and the offices of the Department of Agriculture, Merrion Square, Dublin in the early 1900's. The transition from British to Irish administration in 1922-23 was carried out smoothly by the Board and the ensuing decade was passed in the reconstruction of civil buildings in the new state. After an inward-looking period in the mid 20th century, the O.P.W. became increasingly busy and forward-looking in the 1960's. It pioneered the refurbishment of the built heritage from the decade, starting with the restoration of Kilkenny Castle and the development of Killarney national park. Prestigious commissions undertaken in the 1980's and 1990's, such as the reconstruction of Dublin Castle, the restoration of the Royal Hospital and the Custom house (Dublin) and the development of Government Buildings, Merrion Street, Dublin, have shown the strength and vitality of Irish public architecture at the turn of the Millennium.
The OPW was established to carry out a wide variety of public works, such as the construction of public buildings, roads, bridges and harbours. These projects not only increased economic development during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also provided much needed employment. The present day OPW has retained many of its original functions and has acquired new roles. It is responsible for the restoration and preservation of many prestigious state buildings, the acquisition and fitting out of office accommodation for Government Departments, the construction and maintenance of Garda stations and prisons and the arterial drainage and flood relief programme.
Throughout the years, its functions have been altered and it has influenced many aspects of life in Ireland. The reasons for its creation and development since 1831 and its current roles, responsibilities and future are examined.
The Office of Public Works, 51 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2
There have been many changes in the manner in which public works have been provided. These changes are a result of social, political, economic and technological developments. While the concept of a large multi-purpose organisation with a broad range of skills funded by the state prevailed for a long period, the need for specialised organizations capable of responding to particular requirements such as roads, electricity generation, peat production, airports etc. became apparent. This in turn led to the establishment of such organizations as local authorities and semi state bodies to develop the necessary skills on a specialised technological base.
The OPW had responsibility for conserving and promoting Ireland's natural and man-made heritage through National Parks and Monuments, Waterway and Wildlife Services. However in March 1996 these functions were transferred to the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht by Government Order.
Today, we have assumed responsibility for the care and maintenance and presentation of our heritage, which includes national monument, historic parks, gardens and buildings.
Among other things the OPW is recognized as the Government's principal engineering agency. It provides an engineering service in its own right to other divisions with the OPW and to other Government Departments on an agency basis. The skill and experience of the OPW in water related engineering, structural and construction work is a major national resource with considerable potential.
The Government Supplies Agency as part of the OPW has responsibility for the central management of Government procurement and publications. The Agency is responsible for ensuring the most cost effective means of meeting Departments and Offices needs for goods and services. It prescribes those goods which should be supplied by the Agency itself and those which Departments may procure directly from the private sector. The Agency centralizes the purchasing process through their technical expertise. The Publications Branch of the GSA arranges the publication and sale of parliamentary and other Government publications. These publications may be purchased through the Government Publications Sale Office in Molesworth Street, Dublin 2 or through the mail order service.
The OPW provides suitable accommodation for Government services and manages and maintains the State's property portfolio. OPW also has the largest architectural practice in the country. The OPW will continue to provide efficient and effective design, construction, procurement and maintenance services to client Departments.