What’s happening as we re-enter and re-build Dublin?

Capel St

At the dawn of 2019, I wrote a piece about how I felt like the Dublin I knew had been disappearing before my eyes; how a layer of buildings and memories was being disassembled and a new layer constructed over what I was familiar with. That version of me feels so much younger now, given what we’ve all been through in the interim, given the virus that was coughed into our world just a year later. That version of Dublin feels so old now, too. Now that I’m back out into the world again, on buses and on Luas trams and on foot, I can witness the Dublin of 2022, what’s happened since everything stopped and then life got cranked back up again slowly. 

In 2019, I wrote that the word ‘recession’ was barely whispered about in the Ireland I was living in. Now we’re talking about it again, but in a global sense. Now we’re talking about inflation and stagflation, and rising energy bills, and fuel poverty, and the digits on the price sticker on a loaf of bread changing week to week. The government had to give us a €200 energy bill credit that was quickly gobbled up, by the lights and wifi and ovens we need to live our lives. Sometimes I’ve joked with friends that it feels like we’re back in the 80s again, but that feels like a sour joke to make. We were babies in the 80s, and didn’t really feel the recession’s pinch as our parents did. Perhaps comparing recessions isn’t really a competition you should want to get into.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my 30s, it’s that life will always be full of contrasts: it will hand you a glorious time full of love and friendship and possibility at the same time it will take hope and belief and something special from you. It seems the trick to surviving actual adulthood – I’m boot-deep into it now, I can’t claim to be on the precipice anymore – is that tricky word, ‘appreciation’, for when you do have those good days, good times, good moments. So alongside reading (and, in my job, writing and editing) those articles and headlines about Ireland’s downwards slide into a time of tightened bank accounts and punitive bills, I’ve been enjoying sinking into the reopened city again. It does feel like things are blossoming in an odd way. It’s an opening up, yes, but a simple one, an at times awkward or worrying one. As we go out into the world, Covid still hovers over us. The pandemic is not – despite the lack of restrictions or lockdowns, the few masks you might see on a bus or in a shop – over. I’m lucky enough to be able to risk going out – others aren’t. This isn’t a piece about Covid per se, but I’m aware the post-Covid experience isn’t an equal one. Lockdown hasn’t ended for everyone.

I was sitting on the Luas last week as it skimmed towards the cluttered College Green, when I noticed that it felt like parts of me, parts of my brain, were being lit up in a way they hadn’t in literal years. Not being restrained in my movements anymore, and getting to see more things, was firing up the creative parts of me, the bits that see things and absorb them, and try to make sense of them. My imagination was being tended to, each new moment a coal that helped the fire stay strong. During Covid, I saw the restraint as a fuel for creativity also, and wrote at times about how being in the same room, witnessing the same view changing infinitesimally, was its own form of creative nourishment. So two things can be true, but being in this phase now makes me feel like I’m eating a sour fizzy sweet. Sparky. 

I have been seeing things again not so much newly but freshly. The people who sit on the Rosie Hackett Bridge eating lunch by the flowers, as the seagulls and pigeons stalk for crumbs. The blue calm of the Liffey as it stretches towards the sideways harp of the Samuel Beckett bridge. But alongside these urban visions I saw the signs hung on the old Salvation Army building with its red door, calling attention to the city’s problematic twins of dereliction and homelessness. The huge building site at Poolbeg and Tara St, with its deep, deep hole and tall, tall cranes. Just a few years ago it was a different type of symbol of the housing crisis, when it was Apollo House, the site of numerous protests crying out for a solution to homelessness. The homeless numbers hit over 10,000 again just recently. The building is gone but the problem remains. 

A few days ago I had a drink with a friend after work at a pub on Francis St, before heading to a birthday party. It felt like the sort of evening I would have had three years ago, but now I had more appreciation for the chats outside in the open air, the floury smell of cooking pizza dough and the sweet scent of hash drifting around. Someone had abandoned a leather jacket on the railing behind us and stuffed a dried-out old lemon slice into the pocket. I spilled my drink and watched a small pool of it inch its way across the yellow metal table, but it never hit the ground. Walking up to Thomas St, we passed a building with big glass windows near the top of Francis St. It felt, for a moment, like we were somewhere else entirely – this wasn’t the street I knew. What’s this? We both asked. Ah, a hotel, was the answer. It’s only writing this now that it dawns on me that the site used to be the Tivoli, where I went to a screening of Die Hard with live reenactments, where I felt old at a DJ set, where I danced on the sticky floor as Perfume Genius played a heart-pounding set. I didn’t even realise because the place was utterly changed.

And more and more I see them as I go through town now, the hotels and student apartments that I wrote about in that piece in 2019, no longer imaginary. And inside them were people, and life, and paintings hung on walls, pints being poured, beds made and unmade. I had to admit that life was happening in these corners, but I couldn’t stop wondering what the alternative was to hotels – what else could be there? If development in Dublin didn’t suffer from a lack of imagination, what sorts of places and spaces could the city hold? 

That question has been thrown into relief these last few years as the issue of dereliction has been spoken about more, as the light is thrown onto each rotting, abandoned, pigeon-infested house and office and shop in not just Dublin but every small town, village and city in the country. People like Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry have been demonstrating how those who let the buildings stay derelict should feel their faces scorched with embarrassment. There’s little excuse that can be found for letting buildings stand empty when they could be used. Every time I go back to Douglas Village where I grew up, all I see are ghosts on the main street: the empty former Bank of Ireland, the empty former Xtra Vision. Alongside the flourishing local restaurants and pubs stand the sad, pathetic buildings that no one is bothered to use, for one reason or another. And yet when Douglas cinema – CinemaWorld – was demolished, I felt sad. Photos showed its glass front smashed pane by pane, the foyer home not to popcorn machines and ticket booths but to a pile of building detritus. When I was last in CinemaWorld, before Covid, it felt like nothing had changed from the 1990s, and not in a good way. The cinema felt shabby and unloved. So I understood that something needed to change, I just didn’t anticipate – more fool me! – it would become a supermarket, to add to the three major supermarkets within spitting distance of the site.

We don’t always get the city we want, but we don’t always get the city we deserve, either. We do need to notice when something is past its sell-by-date, but a refusal to dream outside of the norm means we just end up with one of these: supermarket, office block with retail space, retail space, build-to-rent apartments, student apartments. The holy family of Ireland’s new development landscape.

Back in 2019, I was fired up to write about the changing city after listening to a new song by Sharon Van Etten, called Seventeen, where she looked back at her life and the city she lived in while young. These last few weeks while weaving my way around O’Connell St, or up North Great George’s St and wondering if I’d ever get to see inside one of those beautiful buildings, or waiting for a bus on Dame St, a lot of the time I’ve been turning to older music. Going back, back, back to old songs, as if to remember some part of the past I’d forgotten. Todd Rundgren, Judee Sill, the Lemonheads, Real Estate, Kate Bush (hey, it is the year of Kate Bush after all). All interspersed with the newer songs I am loving by L’Rain, Kadhja Bonet, Samantha Crain, Mitski. It’s as if as to embrace the new, I have to remember not to forget the past.

There’s a scene in the incredible film The Worst Person In The World that keeps coming back to me, where the character Aksel is sitting on a hospital bench, having what in a way is a Damascene moment, one brought on by a personal crisis. He talks to Julie, the main character, about culture being passed on through objects. I want to write an entirely separate piece on that and the gutpunch it gave me as I thought about my own piles of books and records, but his words made me think about the culture we pass on through the objects that make up our city, too. As we take those first steps back into society, into community, into the world that’s the same and yet never the same again after a global pandemic, what are we passing on to the future us and the future generations that won’t even remember us?

I can’t choose what building goes where, or what remains derelict and doesn’t, but other people can.  And those who speak loudly about needing change – who decry the floorboards crumbling in empty buildings, the families needing homes without black mould, the pigeons taking up residence in old mansions, the lack of accountability for the building owners – must wonder if they ever get heard, like the proverbial tree crashing down onto a mossy forest floor.

The next few years will show who’s being heard and why. I wonder about where the city will go, and what will be the built heritage that’s left when we’re all motes of dust. What’s the legacy of post-Covid Ireland going to be? And who cares about it?

Last month I walked down Capel St, not having to worry about cars as the city centre street had just been pedestrianised. When I got to the top of it, I saw that a derelict site now had a public toilet there. I felt so happy, and free, like this city was being changed in parts to cater for the people who use it. I wished I could have found the people in the council who made that decision and thanked them for seeing beyond the usual, and into the potential for making a city enjoyable to live in. It gave me hope, because it showed me that mindsets are not always fixed and that citizens can be listened to. Imagine what other brilliant things could be done, if that power was harnessed more. Imagine.

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