Soldier On! CEO, and head of archaeology projects was invited recently to Ireland by the Irish Heritage Council, to speak at their conference, ‘Dig! The Value of Archaeology for Society and the Economy’, about how archaeology can benefit  inclusion and cohesion within local communities. 

Diarmaid Walshe, who has many years’ experience using heritage projects to support disadvantaged people suffering from complex mental health and physical needs, was asked to speak about Community Heritage and how we can best integrate heritage projects into economic and social wellbeing in Ireland.

In his speech, Diarmaid emphasised how we can share best practice to encourage disadvantaged groups, and those who feel excluded from mainstream society, to engage in heritage which then becomes a pathway to reintegration into mainstream society. He also considered, the barriers that prevent this happening and what economic and social benefits can be gained by in doing this.

Diarmaid believes that of all the social benefits gained through engaging in heritage activities, improving mental health and well-being is arguably the most important factor. He has seen time and again that when vulnerable, socially isolated or disadvantaged people have engaged in inclusive community-led heritage projects, participants have reported an increase in their self-esteem, they have developed their communication skills they have integrated better with others and they have reintroduced physical activity into their lives in an interesting environment. All in all, such projects provide people with a good time and an interesting hobby. Where organisations such as Soldier On uniquely extend the benefits, they do so by integrating personal development within the heritage fieldwork, thus increasing the chance that individuals will continue their trajectory of positivity long after the project has finished.

Furthermore, as a society, we want to know who we are and where we have come from and having the knowledge that all previous societies were a mélange of different cultures, creeds and countries of origin can be a vital contributor to building community cohesion and tackling social division.

Audience members took away the message that Diarmaid believes the achievements he has been part of have come about as a result of organisations delivering ‘bottom up’ projects, i.e. where participants set the agenda and feel that they have a degree of control and input into the project, rather than the more traditional way of ‘top down’ where a lot of ‘telling’ goes on!

There are some excellent projects in existence, especially in Ireland, which really engage with local communities, however, Diarmaid made an important point when he identified that if we want to make claim for benefit for this approach, we need to provide strong and validated research to support the concept of heritage being a key component in social and economic well-being.  This has strengthened our resolve to ensure the conference we have been planning for over a year, details to follow soon, will encourage a robust debate on how we can measure the benefits of heritage activities on our society.  Please see Diarmaid’s talk at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHBNRB0zGjg