The Irish Times recently ran an article over the state of Dublin City Centre (check out http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/body-to-stop-georgian-dublin-s-decline-needed-david-norris-1.2046665). Perhaps unintentionally, the headline made no reference to a particular part of Dublin City Centre, but after a few paragraphs in, you were under no illusion that the article was not about the problems of St. Stephens Green or Dawson Street or its environs.
It was – as I expected – about the ongoing neglect and decline of the northside of the city centre.
Yes. ‘De northside’ as its perjoratively known.
Being home at Christmas gave me the chance again to revel in the architectural and topographical beauty that is Dublin. Driving from the airport, passing the tree lined spectacle that is Griffith Avenue in the dregs of Autumn, I was welcomed from a distance with the architectural exclamation mark that is the steeple of St Georges Church. Swift turn towards O’Connell Street, the Georgian terraces still speak of charm, warmth and history. The grandeur of O’Connell Street is still there if you look beyond some shopfronts. Staying in the city centre at Christmas time remains a wonderful experience in many ways, but I could not help recognizing the signs of continual neglect and decline in the immediate neighbourhood of O’Connell Street.
North Frederick Street was a shambles. This street was an integral part of a grand architectural plan that Haussmann would surely have loved. The street still retains its architectural significance but it is in many ways derelict. An accomplished terrace of houses facing east that acts as a vista to Hardwicke Street are in tatters. What should be part of a grand northern approach to Dublin’s main street is utterly sad.
Parnell Square has not been as badly affected but it still suffers from vacant and neglected properties on what was once Dublin’s most prestigious square.
Gardiner Place and Mountjoy Square show further signs of neglect and a run through the remaining streets from Gardiner Street to Talbot Street gives further reason for despair as to how Dublin is being poorly managed by those in charge.
Moving south of the river, the signs of neglect still exist in certain parts, but areas surrounding the Dail (Parliament) and St. Stephens Green are well maintained; here the historical buildings and surrounds suggest city planners are doing a fairly good job.
Why North v South?
Those in charge of the civic upkeep of the city should treat the area as an integrated part of one city and refrain from looking at problems north of the River Liffey as somehow removed or separate from their daily lives. The evidence I see suggests that those in charge treat the northside city centre DIFFERENTLY. From the small details such as poor quality street furtniture, the inexplicable concentration of drop-in centres for homeless and drug addicts right through to the lack of enforcement of proper planning in building use and permitting architectural sloppiness, Dublin City Council (DCC), by accident or design, seems not to care about Dublin 1.
A great article on Aldborough House and its sorry state (http://theirishaesthete.com/2014/01/13/a-thundering-disgrace/) was further evidence to me of the unequal hand that parts of the city are dealt with by DCC. In any capital city in Europe this building would be cherished and well protected by the city authorities. Depending on where such a building is located, not so in Dublin.
I suspect part of the reason why this neglect continues to fester is the concentration of power in the areas immediately south of that damned river. This ensconses those who could make a difference away from the daily blight and din of those that work and live in the north city. By not seeing it on a daily basis, those in power do not have to confront it and can remain cloistered in their more salubrious environs, blissfully isolated from the real state of Dublin.
Aside from the location of Aras an t-Uchtarain (home of the President who has practically no executive powers) the corridors of executive power are generally concentrated south of the Liffey.
The more you look at the north city centre’s neglect and its impact on Dublin’s heritage, the more you realise that the result is not a problem that can be divorced from Dublin as a whole. It’s a problem for the entire city of Dublin. The Irish Times headline was spot on. Dublin has a problem, not the northside.
Neglecting your Assets
Say the burghers of Paris decided to neglect the Place de la Concorde. Throw in the area at the Eifel tower for good measure. Add in the Champs Elysees and you pretty much have allowed Paris’s gems to rot. Resources and planning controls are only applied to a small area around the Jardin du Luxembourg. Your image of Paris changes from one that appreciates and promotes its greatness to one of a city that hates itself.
But that is precisely the effect of the current neglect on the northside of Dublin. Dublin’s great monuments, its grand civic spaces and clifftop Georgian terraces are in many if not most cases found north of the river. The overwhelming Four Courts. The gracious Customs House. The great 18th century townhouses of Charlemont, Belvedere, Tyrone and Aldborough. The handsome Mountjoy Square. The sleepy terraces around North Great Georges Street. The mysterious Pro-Cathedral. The staid GPO. The soaring spire of St. Georges Church. The hidden spectacle of Henrietta Street. The isolated Kings Inns. The Egyptian monolith of Broadstone Station. I could go on. Through neglecting these and their surroundings, Dublin suffers, not just ‘De Northside’.
DCC should treat the city as one unit. I am sure they will protest and cite examples like the amounts spent on the ‘redevelopment’ of O’Connell St from 1998-2003. To me this was a missed opportunity. Aside from fine restoration works on the statues lining the street, anything else they accomplished was nothing special nor deserving this grand boulevard. Compare the much publicised works on O’Connell Street versus those on the relatively less important South William Street (with no media fanfare). Placed beside the works on O’Connell Street, the quality and appropriateness of materials used in re-laying the footpaths and the more ‘genteel’ feel of South William Street through better building usage show what DCC can foster and achieve. South William Street is south of the river. Strange that.
Lessons from the past
A bankrupt country. Its main street in tatters. Resources scarce. Sound familiar?
Yet, in 1922, the fledgling Irish Government and the city authorities rebuilt the war-torn O’Connell and neighbouring streets and imposed a grandeur in scale and materials used that demonstrated a seriousness and sense of civic pride that demanded only the best design could be employed in rebuilding the city’s main thoroughfare. They believed the city (not the northside) deserved nothing less.
The city still deserves nothing less. Neglect of the northside is simply neglect of the city. You cannot divorce the two.
My next blog will be a comparison of two neighbouring cities, Trier (Germany) and Nancy (France).