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Organisation Information

History of the Office of Public Works

Published: 14 November 2019
From: Office of Public Works

Introduction

The Office of Public Works (OPW) (or “Board of Works” as it has also been called) was established in 1831, by an Act of Parliament: An Act for the Extension and Promotion of Public Works in Ireland.

Before this Act, the role of the OPW had been carried out by a range of organisations.

These were:

  • Office of the Surveyor General (1670-1763) in charge of the King's works in Ireland
  • Commissioners and Overseers of Barracks/Barrack Board and Board of Works (1700 - 1823) - first administering military barracks and later civil buildings in Ireland
  • Public Works Loans Commissioners (1817 - 1831) - administering loans
  • Directors of Inland Navigation (1729 - 1831) - established to administer navigation works in Ireland, principally the construction of canals

Role

A board of three Commissioners was appointed, independent of their counterparts in Britain and responsible to the Lords Commissioners to the Treasury.

As well as having public funds, the OPW also operated as a lending agency. It had the power to give loans to establish, extend or improve any existing or proposed public works, provided the project was considered feasible.

Over the years, the functions of the OPW have influenced many aspects of life in Ireland.

Growing importance

The OPW grew during the Great Famine of 1845 - 1852, when it was given the task of running relief works by means of Treasury loans. From the late 1850s, it was given responsibility for looking after police barracks, coastguard stations, national schools, post offices, customs buildings, the royal universities and lunatic asylums.

The OPW carried out vast arterial drainage schemes on the Irish river system in the 1850s and 1860s, which altered the landscape significantly. It also undertook many substantial public commissions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the National Museum and the National Library. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was responsible for important commissions in Dublin such as the developing Dublin Castle, restoring the Royal Hospital and redeveloping Government Buildings in Merrion Street.

The OPW was given the authority for preserving Ireland's National Monuments under legislation enacted in 1882 and 1892.

Today

Today, the OPW's responsibilities relate to three main areas:

  • Estate Portfolio Management
  • Heritage Services
  • Flood Risk Management

The OPW provides accommodation for government services and manages much of the State’s property portfolio. It is now taking the lead on the Property Asset Management aspect of the Public Service Reform Plan.

It also has responsibility for caring for 780 heritage sites, including national monuments, historic parks, gardens and buildings.

It is the government’s principal engineering agency, providing an engineering service to the Flood Risk Management and Estate Portfolio Management functions of the OPW as well as to other government departments.

Management

The OPW is a central government office and the staff of the organisation comprises part of the civil service of the State.

Further details on the OPW’s structure and management tiers are available on Who Does What.

Further information on the history of the OPW may be obtained from the Library of the OPW at library@opw.ie or from the National Archives.