Modern Dublin: Urban Change and the Irish Past, 1957-1973, by Erika Hanna, Oxford University Press, 240 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-0199680450
It’s a wonder that Georgian Dublin survived at all, given that so many plans were hatched to destroy large parts of it ‑ going back to the foundation of the State. As the writer Jack White once observed, Georgian houses were seen to stand for “money and privilege and for the society that produced Sheridan and Oscar Wilde, the society that attended Castle levées and sent loyal addresses to the Sovereign”.
During the 1950s, as Erika Hanna writes, “there was a pervasive culture of blindness in relation to the architectural remains of the 18th century”. Architect, polemicist and urbane man about town Niall Montgomery gave a talk in 1958 entitled “That’ll all have to come down” ‑ although he radically changed his view later after witnessing so much damage to the city’s fabric.
From the outset there was a drive to create a “more Irish” capital, in place of the colonial city that had been shaped by the Protestant Ascendancy. The subtext of the ravings of Kevin Boland, minister for local government is the late 1960s, was that the 18th century city was “not worth saving as it was a relic of British rule in Ireland; a foreign landscape on native soil”. Amazingly, the author doesn’t retail Boland’s legendary “belted earls” speech in the Dáil at the height of the battle for Hume Street, which pitted conservationists and student activists against the then British-owned Green Property Company. Nor does she give him credit for having refused planning permission to the Central Bank for a fifteen-storey tower on its Dame Street site.
Hanna goes back to the 1920s to examine Patrick Abercrombie’s plans to move the city’s axis towards the west, with a new Catholic cathedral as its centrepiece. She points out that none of the three town plans adopted between1922 and the 1960s were implemented ‑ although it must be said that the original Griffith Avenue remains one of the finest achievements of planning in Ireland.
The challenge facing the new Free State government following the devastation of central Dublin in the 1916 Rising and the Civil War was daunting. But despite having meagre resources, it managed to rebuild the General Post Office, the Custom House and the Four Courts as well as much of O’Connell Street in neo-classical style ‑ for which then city architect Horace Tennyson O’Rourke deserves credit. However, neither O’Rourke nor Dublin Corporation’s chief housing architect, Herbert Simms, are mentioned by the author. Simms was responsible for adopting an Amsterdam style for new blocks of flats in areas such as Marrowbone Lane to replace the city’s notorious tenements, although it was others in his department who designed what Hanna refers to as “cottages” in Crumlin.
Daithí Hanly, City Architect in the 1960s, is not mentioned either even though he played a pivotal role in the Corporation’s rejection of plans by the ESB to demolish 16 houses on Lower Fitzwilliam Street. In his report, Hanly made an eloquent plea for their preservation, saying that the scheme by Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney, “no matter how good on its own would spoil this unique street”. Countering the blinkered view of Sir John Summeson, the English architectural historian hired by the ESB, who had dismissed the terrace as “simply one damned house after another”, Hanly wrote: “It is the inability to see this 18th century townscape around Lower Fitzwilliam Street as a single civic entity directly related to our Irish civilisation that raises any doubt at all about the fate of these 16 houses.”
Hanly, who salvaged the Abbey Theatre’s original facade, was in the eye of a storm at the time. Tenements in Bolton Street and Fenian Street had collapsed, killing four people ‑ including two children on the way to a sweetshop ‑ and he found himself having to sign hundreds of demolition orders for buildings condemned as “dangerous”; it broke his heart and, in 1965, he resigned.
The dangerous buildings scare, well covered by Hanna, led to an epidemic of architectural euthanasia, as I called it in The Destruction of Dublin. By early 1965, eighteen months after the two tragedies, no less than two thousand were condemned, of which 1,200 were actually demolished. Mountjoy Square and many of the secondary streets fell victim to this devastating demolition mania. Whole streets in the inner city were also being preyed on by Dublin Corporation’s roads engineers, to be laid waste over decades and then transformed into dual-carriageways to cater for traffic emanating from the suburbs. There was even a plan in the 1960s to replace the city stretch of the Grand Canal with a motorway ‑ mercifully killed off by Brian Lenihan (snr), then minister for transport.
The city was becoming more and more suburbanised ‑ and motorised. Throughout that fateful decade, as Hanna notes, the number of bicycles on Dublin’s streets dropped by 80 per cent, from 166,000 to 34,000, while the number of cars went up by 111 per cent, from 317,000 to 669,000. No wonder the roads engineers, most of them from the west of Ireland, wanted to reshape the historic city.
Another enemy of Georgian Dublin was the alliance between Fianna Fáil ‑ the party of government ‑ and the building industry. This was brazenly expressed in Taca, the party’s fundraising organisation, whose £100-a-plate dinners were the scandal of the era; it was seen as “indicative of the mutually beneficial nexus of capital and power in the upper echelons of Irish society”, as Hanna politely observes.
“From the middle of the 1960s, it became clear that high-profile individuals within the Government were profiting from the construction boom: enabling property developers through rezoning land, and guiding planning approvals through the bureaucratic process in return for cash bribes,” she writes. (In fact, it was not until much later than we began to realise quite how large this can of worms was.) There was also the widespread public perception that new buildings such as Busáras, Liberty Hall and the Irish Sugar Company headquarters straddling the southeastern corner of St Stephen’s Green were “manifestations of urban modernisation”, physical expressions of the first and second programmes for economic expansion devised by Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker.
Hanna fingers Lemass as the one ultimately responsible for the government remaining deaf to conservationists’ pleas to save Fitzwilliam Street. According to the author, he “attempted to preemptively circumnavigate established channels to ensure that the [ESB] building would be constructed and even put a note on the file, as early as December 1961, saying: ‘Allow ESB to go ahead’”. Nearly three years later, even in the face of a report on his desk recommending a refusal, then minister for local government and Donegal republican Neil Blaney granted permission ‑ just a day before the 1963 Planning Act came into force on October 1st, 1964. “It seems that he was overruled by Lemass. Yet it was he who took responsibility in the media,” the author writes. The tenement crisis had also highlighted the continuing plight of Dublin’s working class, still unresolved after decades of developing vast social housing estates in the suburbs ‑ starting with Marino in the 1920s. That’s why the radical departure of a system-built high-rise, low-density scheme for Ballymun ‑ enthusiastically endorsed by Blaney ‑ was regarded as appropriate at the time.
Women played a significant role in the protest movements of the time ‑ such as Máirín de Búrca, then of Sinn Féin, in the Dublin Housing Action Committee, and Deirdre McMahon (later much better known as Deirdre Kelly, founder of the Living City Group. She was one of the stalwarts of the Hume Street occupation, alongside the likes of Duncan Stewart, then a dashing architecture student at UCD). Influenced by the American urban champion Jane Jacobs, Kelly “situated the development at Hume Street as part of a larger process whereby commercial property zoning and ‘ruthless’ speculation were brutalising the landscape, ridding the city centre of its inhabitants and creating an anonymous ‘office zone’ in place of the diversity and life implicit on the idea of a ‘city’” as Hanna writes.
The net effect of the conservationists’ campaigns, Hanna concludes, was to inculcate a new awareness of the city’s heritage. “Indeed, ‘Georgian Dublin’ was invented during the 1960s. It was in this period that the phase (sic) began to be used to describe not only Gandon’s landmark buildings but also the ‘characteristic’ streets and squares of the city.” And that, indeed, is what helped to save so much.
This book (a converted PhD thesis) covers a critical period in the development of Dublin, illuminating attitudes to the city and its heritage in a way that explains so much of what happened and the struggle to save large parts of it from the wreckers ‑ whether they were government ministers, state companies, speculative property developers, dangerous buildings inspectors or demented roads engineers.
Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of The Irish Times.