I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Death from the Centre Out

Frank McDonald

Dublin from 1970 to 1990: The City Transformed, by Joseph Brady, Four Courts Press, 464 pp, €24.95, ISBN: 978-1846829802

The most arresting image in this richly illustrated book is the first that readers will encounter: a map of Dublin, showing the locations of military barracks and governmental buildings, prepared by the Soviet Union’s army general staff in 1980 ‑ presumably in case the USSR felt the need to invade Ireland. Given what has happened in Ukraine, long after Joseph Brady’s volume went to press, this is rather chilling.

Dublin Corporation had its own designs on the city of course. These took the form of devastating road plans that blighted swathes of the inner city for decades, as well as maps defining large parts of it as “obsolete” and therefore ripe for redevelopment ‑ “zones of discard”, as opposed to “zones of assimilation”, in the American planning parlance that condemned so many US cities to a dystopian, hollowed-out future.

And so, almost inevitably, the pressure for development in Dublin arose in the areas that least needed a strong dose of urban renewal, such as the more desirable southeastern sector of the city extending outwards to Ballsbridge and beyond. Property developers were notably reluctant to invest in marginal areas, even after sites were freed up by the evacuation of traditional industries such as Jacob’s Biscuits.

A combination of slum clearance and flight to the suburbs slashed the inner city’s population from 206,466 in 1946 to just 84,062 in 1981 ‑ a staggering decline, by any standard. Dublin was becoming increasingly suburbanised as people moved out to low-density housing estates that were heavily car-dependent and couldn’t easily be served by public transport. No wonder every arterial road became congested with traffic.

Vacant sites were pressed into service as surface car parks, occupying acres of land in and around the city centre. Purpose-built car parking, usually below ground level, was provided with new commercial schemes such as the Setanta Centre on Nassau Street (1975), while the first above-ground multi-storey car park appeared at Marlborough Street in 1984, catering for car-borne commuters as well as shoppers.

As for changing shopping habits, “it was generally accepted that what was going to happen in the UK would eventually happen in Dublin, though not necessarily to the same timescale”, the author writes. “It was believed that people would increasingly shop by car and that more shopping would be concentrated into one weekly shop, probably at the weekend”. And indeed, this became the pattern, even in the 1970s.

Brady goes into granular detail in dealing with the emergence of suburban shopping centres, which started with Stillorgan and Cornelscourt in 1965, followed in fairly rapid succession by Finglas (1966), Edenmore (1967), Phibsborough, Ballymun, Rathfarnham (1969), Northside (1970), Kilbarrack and Dundrum (1971), Donaghmede (1973), Crumlin (1974), Ballinteer (1975), Dún Laoghaire (1976) and so on.

The developers of these consumer meccas hired well-known personalities to “launch” their new ventures. BBC Radio One DJ Simon Dee, who subsequently vanished without trace from the airways, performed the official ceremonies for Northside in Coolock, while Crumlin’s shopping centre was opened by Gay Byrne, attracting a crowd of up to 10,000 to the event, and Nutgrove in Rathfarnham by Dick Spring. Tallaght had to wait a very long time for its pyramid-topped regional-scale shopping centre, which Monarch Properties named The Square. A crowd estimated at 45,000 turned up for its opening in October 1990 by then taoiseach Charles J Haughey. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” il Duce declared. That he got away with this after nothing had been done in over twenty years to provide for the local population is telling in itself.

Retail expert AJ Parker noted in 1989 that the development of shopping centres had happened in a haphazard way ‑ typical of Dublin, really ‑ with little research as to need or long-term sustainability. The result was that some areas had too much and others not enough. “But the analysis of what was ‘too much’ was complicated and not just a question of floor space per person or even average income”, Brady notes. “Sunday shopping was becoming more common and its relatively slow arrival had more to do with issues around profitability than the sacredness of the Sabbath. The car had transformed the way people used the city and the easy accessibility it offered at the weekends, if not during the week, was hugely important in this process.” Dubliners were on their way to shopping like Americans in “malls” surrounded by vast car parks.

The city centre simply had to fight back if it was to retain market share. Half-hearted efforts were made to pedestrianise Henry Street, with shrubs-in-tubs and half a dozen park benches during the summer of 1971. Business increased by up to 20 per cent in the first few months and rents nearly doubled over the following two years. However, it took nearly a decade to pave the street properly as a pedestrians-only zone. Grafton Street was more problematic, as it served as a traffic artery carrying buses, cars and delivery trucks. Dublin Corporation’s road engineers maintained that it could only be pedestrianised if they could “shave” nine metres off the grounds of Trinity College, between Dawson Street and Grafton Street, to facilitate two-way traffic on Nassau Street. There was also vocal opposition from some of the shopkeepers. As Brady notes, the lack of a clear vision for city centre shopping “resulted in yet another half-baked solution”, with Grafton Street closed to through-traffic only between 11am and 6.30pm from Monday to Saturday, and this prevented any re-design or re-imagining of the street; it wasn’t until 1988 that it was re-paved “wall to wall” in European style, eliminating the distinction between footpaths and carriageway.

Many of the indigenous Dublin shops once so characteristic of Grafton Street didn’t survive its transformation, giving way to international chain stores and fast-food outlets, “with their brash, bright and plastic atmosphere”. The city centre also lost such traditional anchors as McBirney’s on Aston Quay and Pim’s great department store on South Great George’s Street, replaced by a ghastly office block.

Gains, if such they can be so called, included the Irish Life Centre between Talbot Street and Lower Abbey Street, where Brooks Thomas timber yard used to be located, and the ILAC shopping centre, which brought suburban scale right into the heart of the city, along Moore Street. Even so, it was hailed by the Evening Herald as “one of the most exciting things to happen to the inner city shopping area for a long, long time”.

The heterogeneity of South King Street and much of the west side of St Stephen’s Green, comprising no less than sixty-four individual properties ‑ shops, pubs, a cinema and the Dandelion Market ‑ was all sacrificed by the Slazengers of Powerscourt for a large shopping centre, with a facade supposedly inspired by the Great Palm House in the Botanic Gardens but actually more redolent of a Mississippi paddle steamer.

Quite rightly, Brady refers to a special issue of the Architectural Review on the future of Dublin in 1974, which drew particular attention to the plight of the Liffey quays, and to Dublin: a city in crisis, published in 1975 by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. Indeed, these two broadsides helped to wake people up to the rampant decay of the inner city and the urgent need for a coherent programme of urban renewal.

The first tranche of renewal happened by accident, after Charlie Haughey failed to win an overall majority for Fianna Fáil in 1982 and had to do a deal with Tony Gregory, left-wing independent TD for Dublin Central, to secure his support for his minority government. This resulted in extra funding for the construction of some 440 conspicuously under-scaled Corporation houses in blighted areas of the north inner city.

Curiously, the author fails to mention the weekend-long Dublin Crisis Conference in February 1986, which I was involved in organising on foot of the publication three months earlier of my first book, The Destruction of Dublin. We even managed to get then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, to address the issues facing the city, and this in turn fed into the Urban Renewal Act and its generous tax-incentive schemes later that year.

What nobody anticipated was that Liam Carroll, a Dundalk-born mechanical-engineer-turned-property-developer, would become the engine of urban renewal in Dublin during the 1990s, churning out schemes of “shoebox flats” all over the inner city, most of which were bought by investors availing of juicy Section 23 tax incentives for rental housing. (These are now sub-standard and may need to be renovated or replaced).

As Brady notes, “it took an enormous leap of faith to believe that middle-class buyers or renters would take to living in the inner city”, especially after they had deserted it a century earlier. Even Temple Bar Properties, established in 1991 as a state agency to develop “Dublin’s Cultural Quarter”, was unsure that there would be a demand for residential in the area. The queues that formed for new apartments proved them wrong.

Temple Bar had been slated for the development of a transportation centre, including a bus station and underground rail link, with CIÉ buying up properties in the area for that purpose. But instead of boarding up these buildings, they were made available at cheap rents as artists’ studios, pizzerias, rock band rehearsal spaces and for other Bohemian “meanwhile uses”. Unwittingly, all of this served to devour the original plan.

The author is wrong in stating that Temple Bar Properties “became the planning authority for the area”. In fact, it acted as a development agency and had to submit all proposals for planning approval by Dublin Corporation. The 1991 Temple Bar Framework Plan was the first three-dimensional vision put forward for any urban area in Ireland since the era of Dublin’s Wide Streets Commissioners in the late eighteenth century.

The Custom House Docks Development Authority had been set up in 1986 with a mandate to plan for what became the International Financial Services Centre. The area around George’s Dock, the developers said, would offer “a variety of sensory delights, with interesting merchandise, street activity and opportunities for lunching, dining and entertainment that will assure vitality both day and night”. (It is now a wasteland.) Since then, much of the Docklands area has been redeveloped for what Hugh Linehan, culture editor of The Irish Times, has described as a “soulless array of corporate offices that run all the way from the ‘Canary Dwarf’ complex on George’s Quay down to Capital Dock, whose only distinguishing feature is its current status as the city’s tallest building … block after monotonous block of cookie-cutter glass-and-steel offices”.

Issues covered in Joseph Brady’s book include Dublin’s suffocating smog in the 1980s, which was undoubtedly aggravated by government incentives encouraging householders to switch to solid fuel in the wake of oil crises. It is a pity that the role of Dr Luke Clancy, a pulmonary consultant at St James’s Hospital, in speaking truth to the power of the coal lobby, is not acknowledged ‑ although Mary Harney is rightly mentioned.

Brady also deals with the Dublin Transportation Study (1972) and its plan to enclose the city in a “motorway box”. This led to the construction of the M50 as a spine for the emergence of an American-style edge city peppered with business parks, industrial estates and, more recently, big-tech data centres. But the proposed Eastern Bypass motorway was never realised and has now been abandoned, half a century later.

The electrification of Dublin’s commuter railway line between Howth and Bray, opening as DART in 1984, was the headline improvement in public transport during the period covered by this book. “Having been downplayed and mostly ignored in the 1960s, it came to be understood that an efficient public transport system was needed to make the city function properly”, as the author writes. Few indeed would disagree.

Dublin’s bizarre governance, with a plethora of agencies responsible for different aspects of public policy and the historic country sub-divided into four separate local authority areas, showed that the problem of how to manage the city remained as intractable as ever. Everyone seeking a deeper understanding of the city’s evolution needs to read this comprehensive account of how it coped with the challenges of urban change.


Frank McDonald is author of A Little History of the Future of Dublin, published by Martello 2021



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