Dublin Changes 2001: A Photo Essay


Conservation has aptly been described by one of those working on the Leaning Tower of Pisa as the process of saving something without changing it too obviously. Without intervention, the Tower of Pisa would have collapsed, yet ongoing stabilising work has slightly reversed but not altogether eradicated the tilt which has made the building famous. Now, as we hope to show, had the Tower of Pisa been located in Dublin City, it would either have been totally demolished by now, or else rigorously sandblasted and straightened, with its interior remodelled for modern office use.

A harsh judgement? Let us look at some of the work of construction, destruction and deconstruction under way in Dublin in this new millennial year of 2001. For even as the economic miracle known as the 'Celtic Tiger' runs out of steam, the city skyline is still dotted with cranes and a positive orgy of new building has yet to run its course [actually it was not until 2008 that the speculative bubble burst - Editor].

Our first picture shows large-scale construction work under way in Charlemont Street on the south side of the city, and all but one of the attractive old houses on this section of the street have been demolished. A small thing, a token really, to conserve a single house, and indeed token conservationism marks most of the new building schemes in Dublin.

Around the corner from Charlemont Street in Adelaide Road, an old Presbyterian Church is being converted, with only the facade being retained and an entirely new building being constructed to the rear. Facadism, as it might be called, is another nod to the principle of conservation on the part of the planning authorities, but just a nod, for the technique is a less than honest attempt to cloak the destruction of old buildings.

This is the ruined Widows House of the Parishes of St Nicholas Without and St Luke, located on The Coombe in the south-west of the city. The Church of St Nicholas Without also lies in ruins to the rear, with a new link road sweeping through its former graveyard, and one fears for the future of both buildings [the church ruin remains and the facade at least of the Widows House has been retained - Editor]. It is not only private developers who have contributed to architectural destruction in Dublin, but also the Corporation of the city through policies which have led to depopulation, neglect and savage road intrusions.

The above picture shows work in progress in the old graveyard of St Mary's Church on the north side of the city, with the abysmally treated old seventeeth-century Church itself in the background. Dublin graveyards in particular have suffered from the way in which the Corporation has converted them into public parks. Over the years hundreds of old gravestones have been removed and dumped (yes, probably illegally), with little regard for the memory of the dead or the value of memorial inscriptions to historians and genealogists. As can be seen, the work in St Mary's involves the removal of old stonework and railings and the insertion of inappropriate new materials.

True conservation requires that the characteristics which render a building attractive, the materials from which it is constructed, the patina of age, its immediate setting, must all be respected. With few exceptions, these principles tend to be observed in Dublin only in one-off restoration projects managed by dedicated conservationists. It should be remembered that Georgian Dublin was constructed by individuals who were not shy about turning a profit, but they had a well developed aesthetic sense and were consciously constructing things which could be admired for years to come. Many if not most of today's developers and architects lack that aesthetic sense and construct in a merely functional manner, the bottom line being this year's profit, the buildings and artefacts of the past just so much inconvenient rubbish to be cleared away as quickly as possible. That this is literally true is shown by the fact that builders' rubble contributes a major proportion of the municipal waste which is clogging landfill sites both legal and illegal in the vicinity of Dublin.

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, the writer was struck by the sheer quantity of attractive old buildings which have been conserved and are still in contemporary use. Whole swathes of old Dublin have now been irretrievably lost, but it is still not too late to stop, take stock and try to preserve as much as possible of what is left.

Sean Murphy
Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
14 December 2001



Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies

Architectural Dublin

An Taisce: The National Trust for Ireland

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Edinburgh - Scotland's Capital City