What Was Here Before: Derelict Dublin

Posted October 13, 2014 in Features

Bello Bar

Words: Roisin Agnew / Photography: Steve O’Connor

This is an article about an article that couldn’t be written. It’s about a story we wanted to tell about the iconic derelict spaces in Dublin that we adore, but that as the public we are barred from.  There’s a sort of a sickness when it comes to space in Dublin – we red-tape it, we neglect it, we stigmatise it, we pull it out from under people, we inflate its value, we polarise it north and south, we disregard its past, and we have a utilitarian approach to its every facet. Dealing with space in Dublin brings you to the coalface of the city’s issues no matter where you stand.

For the less fortunate, it has meant an all-time record in homelessness that’s brought the Simon Community to appeal to local government for action. For those of us with the least problems, it has most recently meant being priced out of our homes by the 14% increase in rent over the past few months, or uprooted by landlords intent on taking advantage of the 23% rise in property value of the past year. Neighbourhoods such as Dublin 8, which began to thrive again as a consequence of a young and creative community moving in for the cheap rent, and staying for the company, have slowly but surely lost their original zeitgeisters to the rent rise. The resourcefulness so continually praised during years of bust seems long forgotten, replaced with a ‘yer on yer own mate’ attitude.

Unlike many cities in Europe (in Germany, most notably) and the US (LA, New York, San Francisco, Washington DC), Dublin has no rent cap or control. San Francisco is a city whose existential crisis mirrors ours with its identity caught between ‘Fuck Off Google’ protests and its Silicon Valley good-vibes, a crisis that has wrought a vast amount of public outcry over the handling of price hikes, evictions, and aggressive gentrification. Similarly to Dublin, with its ever growing army of Grand Canal Dock ‘don’t-be-evil-ers’, San Francisco has seen rents soar thanks to the influx of engineers and the like from Silicon Valley, with Google buses shuttling people to-and-fro in a continuum of blissful detachment from the city.

A life-long San Franciscan, the author Rebecca Solnit has written at length on the subject, describing the creeping rent hikes and geo-social shifts in her city as the result of a new ‘frontierism’, one in which ‘people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually,’ causing the ‘erasure of what was here before.’ Whilst San Francisco’s dilemma is not perfectly comparable to Dublin’s, the two do share some resemblance.

But where the San Franciscans are outraged, we are compliant; where they expect more, we are resigned; where they talk about long-lasting cultural damage to a city whose community has been vanquished in favour of a ‘bussed in’ one, we talk about waiving development levies and encourage debate around high rise living and ignore the erasure of what was here before. Why though, when this seems a good moment for us to stay angry and pay attention, before money starts flowing back into the city, ‘casually’ causing further havoc than it already has.

In Dublin the ‘frontierism’ Solnit describes doesn’t come just from the Airbnbers in the Docklands, which is just a newer, shinier version of it. Dublin has experienced a frontierism that is old and from within. The problem of people with neither attachment to nor feeling for the city and its spaces, who are happy to move money around casually, is something with which it is all too familiar. Our present travails involving space and property, from The Exchange and Mabos, to rented accommodation, and to the lack of free space, can be traced back to some of our oldest and most iconic spaces around the city; the ones we love because of their solidity and continual presence, the ones we love because they retain some mystery and sense of nostalgia. And that’s how we return to the article that isn’t being written.

I wanted to write about the places you’ve never been inside, but that you have always wondered about. I considered just how many derelict and abandoned historic sites there are around Dublin. In the midst of all the recent debate around space, there has been little suggestion of increasing property taxes or imposing fines on owners of derelict and abandoned sites. While this isn’t the real solution to fixing the rental crisis, derelict and abandoned sites are dotted around the city like conspicuous reminders of our criminal ineptness with space. To go from boom to bust, and bust to boom again without once legislating around derelict sites, seems like it would result in some bad seriously bad juju to say the least. Moreover, legislation around derelict, abandoned and empty sites, would not only prevent landmarks from falling by the wayside, but it would also prevent property owners from sitting on residential properties. The imposition of a 5 to 10% levy on empty spaces was brought up in Dublin City Council meetings with developers and landowners in February of this year in an effort to start a ‘shit or get off the pot’ movement.

Nothing has happened since, but what has become clear is that there is indeed a lot of movement around some of these sites, and all very recently. So we tried to visit, with mixed successes. The most helpful people we encountered were Charles Duggan, Heritage Officer for Dubin City Council, and Ian Lumley of An Taisce, along with Donough Cahill of the Irish Georgian Society, and Martin Keane of Oliver St. John Gogarty’s and Blooms Hotel. Thanks to them we gained access to the Pigeon House Power Station and Iveagh Markets. So here’s what we did and didn’t get to see.



The key to the city. Straight to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter.