We explore the afterlife of Dublin’s built environment and the custodians and repurposers of it.
The ghosts of Dublin are everywhere. It’s been decades since the Council demolished the elegant crescent of terraces that faced St George’s Church on Hardwicke Place on the northside; though St. George’s surrounds were at least as significant and as beautiful as those of the Pepper Canister church on the southside, almost nothing of them remains. But their ghosts are there, if you know where to look.
Like a lot of the relics of Dublin’s built environment, they have an afterlife in another form, in another place. What happened to the interior of St George’s? It furnished what’s now the Oak on Parliament Street. That stack of seats in Mac’s warehouse in Islandbridge? They used to be the cinema stalls in the Stella in Rathmines. The water pouring from that filthy sluice gate near Grattan bridge? It’s all that’s visible of the Poddle, which used to supply all of Dublin’s drinking water but now runs unseen underground beneath the city.
If the afterlife of the built environment is difficult to appreciate, it’s partly because the vocabulary of creation is a large and familiar one. We know how the architecture, marketing and monetisation of new buildings work, and we know how to read what it tells us about the city we’re living in. We know that construction privileges some groups – right now, the investment funds that will own the almost entirely corporatised living spaces we’re currently building. But there are also lessons in how we treat the parts of the city we’re tearing down. The Iveagh Markets on Francis Street have been derelict for decades, but they’re protected because they appeal to our sense of how a historical building should look. The Tivoli Theatre across the street doesn’t look very historical at all, so even though it’s still in use, it’s demolished and all the art on its exterior walls erased.
Even as recently as the 90s, Dublin’s urban fabric was threadbare, and photographer David Jazay‘s pictures of the north quays and inner city around this time show empty lots and crumbling buildings everywhere. The last of those ruins are only now being razed, and there’s a parallel economy that’s repurposing and recirculating and sometimes even saving what we’re discarding. Things like the tenement museum on Henrietta Street show that we’re gaining a better understanding of the interstitial history of Dublin’s decay and regeneration. But to fully appreciate the afterlife of the city, you need to understand the scrap economy. It’s an almost exclusively male world, operating largely unseen on building sites, in warehouses and in unglamorous parts of the city. But it’s as big a part of Dublin’s transformation as the cranes you can count on the skyline.
The Knockers – Hegarty Demolition
“You’re not going to learn demolition from a textbook – you need to learn it on the job. In Boland’s Mills, we walked in and went holy f**k, how are we going to tackle this?”
In an old city, if you want to put something up, you’ve got to take something else down. The companies doing that tend to avoid the limelight: though you’ll see Ronan and John Paul and Arup flashing their names on hoardings all over Dublin, Hegarty is a much more modest organisation. Its teams helped rebuild Croke Park, created the Twitter HQ, carted off the old ESB building on Fitzwilliam street and are currently revamping the Central Bank, but all of their operations are run out of an unremarkable terraced house in Rathfarnham.
Paul Hogan’s now a director at Hegarty, but he’s been with the company a long time, and he started young.
“I came in during the summers as a tea boy while I was still at school, to get a few quid. When I went to university in Galway studying engineering I used to work summers here, and I gravitated back to demolition. The guys who were running this company always looked for qualified people, professional engineers.
‘It’s dangerous, specialist work, so it’s good to have people who have proven qualifications, or have proven themselves. We have foremen who’ve been with us for 30 or 40 years, and you can’t buy experience like that. You’re not going to learn demolition from a textbook – you need to learn it on the job. In Boland’s Mills, we walked in and went holy f**k, how are we going to tackle this? We were worried about things falling into the dock, which ran on one side. So, the solution we came up with was to get barges from Irish Water – square barges that could be clipped together – and then we got 100 mattresses off Mattress Mick, and we put 3 layers of them on the barges to cushion anything in case it fell.
“Nine times out of ten when we walk into a building it’s like the Marie Celeste – there’s a half empty cup of coffee and the paper still open on the desk from 5 or 10 years ago. In Boland’s Mills, when we took the top off the silos, some of them were half full of flour that had been there 15 or 20 years and was still perfect. I don’t know how the rats hadn’t eaten it. And when we had everything knocked and were digging, we kept coming across bricks buried everywhere, and then a big circle of bricks in the ground. It was a mystery why they were there, but when we checked the old photos from the 19th century we saw a huge chimney standing there. They’d pulled the chimney over and just left the bricks and built on top of them.
“The old wrecking ball is gone, and nowadays we use high reach machines, which were a bit of a game changer. We scaffold three sides and then tackle the building from the top down, piece by piece, like the opposite of the way it went up. We use munchers and crushers to pulverise the concrete. We take out the rebar and it goes away for recycling, and we recycle the concrete as well. I don’t know how they get away with it in the US – dynamite and a big mushroom cloud going up. If you were doing that here, you wouldn’t be in business.
“We actually do a lot of conservation work too. In Boland’s, we took the roof and the floors out, but we put the cast iron columns back in, and we repaired and reinstalled the roof trusses and put a welsh slate roof back on it. Some of the better examples of the machinery we took away and saved, and only this week it’s gone back into the conservation buildings there. Everyone now knows Boland’s was a mill, but in 30 years’ time they might not, so it’s good to keep the former use of the site alive.
“Demolition comes in cycles. We were down to very low numbers during the last recession, but we’re back to 200 now. Back then there was a lot more variety in it, but now there’s a big focus on offices. We did Apollo House, and we’re just finishing College House beside it. The next one for the chopping block will be the old Department of Health building, and we’ll be hoping to do that once the tender’s out. Brian Hogan, the architect who designed a lot of those 60s buildings – we’re chasing him around town. We have foremen that were involved in the building of some of these and now they’re pulling them down to get ready for the next ones.
“The original ESB demolition of the 1960s would never be permitted now, and nowadays we do a lot of facade retention. But the 60s and 70s stuff, there’s not much sentiment about it – most people aren’t mad about those precast concrete structures. When you see them all laid out, some of them are nice, but that’s not a decision for me to take. Ultimately it’s business for us.”
The Scrappers – Hammond Lane
“I can remember a time many years ago when a car went through the shredder and there were thousands of 50 Euro notes flying around!”
The Docklands are always a liminal zone in a city, at the borderline where the carefully-ordered landscape of houses, shops and offices gives way to the messy spaces where the city ingests new materials and expels the waste it’s produced. On Pigeon House Road you can still just about see the curve of the Aviva stadium roof, but it feels a long way from Dublin 4. The huge derrick cranes of the port stand ahead, beside stacks of shipping containers 30m high. Close beside is the futuristic metal enclosure of the Poolbeg incinerator, and further off, the chimneys of the Poolbeg power station – the only part of this landscape visible from the city.
Hammond Lane’s company history mirrors that of Dublin. Founded at the height of Victorian prosperity, it was originally a foundry, making everything from bedsteads to the grates that line Dublin’s streets. At its peak on Hammond Lane near the Four Courts, it employed nearly as many as Guinness’s. As Ireland’s economy contracted, so did the company, and as the city centre was redeveloped, Hammond Lane moved to Sir John Rogerson’s quay. As that area was in turn redeveloped to become 200 Capital Dock, the company moved further out again.
The docklands have been sanitized and their history scrubbed into new narratives, but on Pigeon House road there’s not an artisan coffee maker or wine bar in sight. Nowadays, Hammond Lane reclaims and recycles the metal from demolished buildings, and the remains of everything knocked down in Dublin pass through the yard here. What’s left of AIB’s bank centre in Ballsbridge and of the Dublin Distillers’ building in Smithfield is currently being fed into huge multi-storey machines that will pulverize it and add it to the twisted, dusty mountain of metallic fragments that looms in the centre of the yard. It’ll then be shipped out to Spain, where it’s smelted and reforged into new girders and rebar that’ll probably end up in the next set of gleaming Tech and Legal HQs in the docklands. It’s a perfect cog in the circular economy, and paradoxically one of the greenest businesses around.
Mick Brown, the site manager, has worked for Hammond Lane since he left school nearly 40 years ago, and he talks with a quiet pride about the human scale of what the company does.
“Most of our work is commercial and what we do is very basic – steel in, steel out. That’s not going to change much. But what we’re seeing is a change in people where this is becoming more second nature to them. We’re open to the public for any type of metal, and people come down quite regularly with anything from metal flower pots to copper cylinders to cars.
“People get very upset when their cars need to be recycled – they seem to feel the pain of the car being shredded. There are tearful goodbyes, and you have to reassure them that it’ll be coming back as something else – it’s like being a counselor. We get people to check that they haven’t left phones, or rings, or pictures or anything that shouldn’t get shredded. But I can remember a time many years ago when a car went through the shredder and there were thousands of 50 Euro notes flying around!
“I’d say we’re the oldest recycling company in Ireland, and we’re a very old part of Dublin’s history – we go back to 1898. We had dances on the roof of Clery’s, and David Lloyd’s Tennis Club in Donnybrook was once the Hammond Lane Sports and Social Club. The metal company here is the last of the ones in the Hammond Lane group, but it’s the best, and we’re now expanding again around the country. So, we have a big new state-of-the-art place in Clondalkin, with probably 200 in the company in total around Ireland.
“I love it. I was just very lucky when I left school – I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and it’s worked out very well.
The Salvagers – Bailey Gibson
“We’ll consider anything and if we think we’ll sell it, we’ll take it in – I don’t like to see anything that’s quality thrown away.”
As you travel down the South Circular Road, Bailey Gibson is virtually invisible: you could easily miss the small copperscript sign high on one of the pillars that flank the narrow entrance. But when you pass inside, beyond the redbrick houses that line the road, the size of the site becomes apparent. It’s huge: nearly 3 acres of yards and warehouses, with every conceivable type of building material strewn around. There’s a huge stone fountain, dry, weathered and flanked by grizzled, metre-tall lions. There’s a pile of traffic lights, sparkling in the sun as though they’re still flashing from red to green. There are huge cast iron pillars, stacks of encaustic tiles, limestone coping, and copper statues covered in verdigris.
Step into one of the warehouses, and the experience becomes more fantastic. There’s more of that high-end building detritus – Georgian casement windows, oak panelling, hoppers full of Victorian taps, artfully singed and stained floorboards – but also much more phantasmagorical things. You can wander past a 7-metre high church organ, through several entire pub interiors, laid out as though they’re ready for first orders, and stop at a shop counter manned by an old medical skeletal dummy. It’s as though the wreckage of our civilization had been discovered far into the future, and then those future archeologists had tried to recreate how we once lived, without understanding how any of these things related to each other.
Even Bailey Gibson‘s name is recycled: it’s the name of the printers who used these yards before the firm relocated here 15 years ago. But the business is much older than that, and over the decades has assembled a collection of architectural oddments from Dublin and far beyond. Joe Byrne, who runs it with his business partner Sean Travers, told me how it all came about.
“We go out looking for stuff, and there’s also builders in town who come to us when they’re renovating or knocking a building. We’ll consider anything and if we think we’ll sell it, we’ll take it in – I don’t like to see anything that’s quality thrown away. We travel to England, and we’ve bought the interiors from a few chapels there. Some we sell as pews, others we break up, or we sell them as countertops. We went over to Wales to buy timber flooring from an old police station and when we went into the building, we saw that there was a courthouse upstairs. So we took a chance and brought it over, and after having a few photoshoots on it, we’ve now sold it to a hotelier in Kildare.
“We bought the interior of the old Bole’s chemist down in Inchicore, set it up as a bar and sold it to a place in Antrim. We bought another chemist’s shop in Naas and sold it to a pub in Cork. The most unusual request from a client was for a light airplane for the Merchant near Ha’penny bridge – a Cessna or something like that. He got it in the end, but not through us. But we put a lot of stuff into the Wild Duck on Sycamore street, and the Bowery in Rathmines. I often walk into places around Dublin and realize that some of it came from our yard.
“There’s a market in Dublin because there’s a lot of period houses here, and the past few years have been great, with people renovating buildings. But a lot of that work is done. There are more and more buildings now that we can’t do – conservation architects will keep things in them. Things like old floorboards in particular are getting harder and harder to find, and there’ll come a time when you can’t find them at all. And there’s a lot of newer Chinese stuff coming in now, particularly fountains and statues for gardens. It can be great quality, but we want something that’s genuinely old, that’s looking for a new life.
“In the last 4 or 5 years or so we started to build up items specially for film props, and most of the set dressers in Dublin now would know us. Any films that have come to town – Ripper Street, Red Rock, The Professor and the Madman – we’ve had pieces on, and we also do fitouts for programs like Dancing With The Stars. Some of it comes back too: we supplied materials for the bar in Red Rock, and when they were closing production we bought the bar back from them. I’d say we’ll have it for a while, unless they make a new series.
“Often the piece you like most ends up sitting around for ages. We have iron columns from the old Jervis Street hospital that’ve been here for 25 years – they were bought by a client in the UK and then sent back when he couldn’t find a use for them. And we have granite blocks that we bought out of Boland’s Mills. You’ll never see the likes of those again: they’re massive, and not the easiest things to sell, but with the amount of work that went into quarrying and dressing them, I felt we had to take a punt. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. That’s the joy of it.”
Old Bailey Gibson Yard, 326-328 South Circular Rd, Dublin 8
The Conservers – Dublin Civic Trust
“The tradition in Dublin is entombed in these structures; they’re part of the DNA of the city, and by extension our own cultural DNA.”
Ormond Quay has been many things over the long lifetimes of its existence. The first boom in Irish graphic and interior design was in the early 19th century, when there was a craze for Irish-designed wallpaper and tradesmen here printed it for export to Britain. A hundred years later the area was still in paper, with dozens of print shops on the quay and the streets behind it. The Ormond Print Works is now the Morrison Hotel, the Ormond Hotel is now a building site, and Mannix Flynn’s old studios on Ormond Quay are now the latest transformation project for the Dublin Civic Trust.
The Trust’s team is a small one, and though they bill themselves as an architectural conservation group, they’re more like resurrection men and women. At 21 Aungier Street in the 90s, they took a ruin that was nothing more than 4 walls – no floors, no fittings and no future – and brought it back to life. They’ve since repeated the trick on half a dozen other buildings around the city.
In early summer, the new floors and fresh paint inside 18 Ormond Quay are the latest and least of the work the trust has done there. One of the exterior walls was leaning so far into the adjacent lane that it had to be attached to a steel mesh and pulled gradually back into the building; the entrance to one of the upstairs rooms is still so crooked that it looks like a carnival funhouse door. But the place is full of light, and tomorrow will be hosting a fashion mag photoshoot. Graham Hickey, the trust’s Conservation Director, is passionate about his mission, but he’s also aware that these reanimated buildings need to live in the modern world, and not exist just as mausoleums.
“The tradition in Dublin is entombed in these structures; they’re part of the DNA of the city, and, by extension, our own cultural DNA. But the built environment doesn’t seem to be appreciated, even though it holds a mirror up to ourselves. Even the whole Dermot Bannon phenomenon of sticking a box on the back of your house shapes your life. Suddenly the whole family’s living in a fishbowl, and if it’s a big Victorian house the reception rooms aren’t even being used, but everyone’s driving each other crazy at the breakfast bar. It’s just interesting how fashion influences how you live.
“We were set up in 1992, at a time when there was no statutory protection at all – Ireland was one of the last countries in Europe to formally adopt legal protection for historical buildings. Though we had a wishlist of buildings as far back as the 1970s, it wasn’t legally enforceable, and it was only with the passing of the 1999 planning act that Ireland got listed building status. Most people are staggered when they find it was as late as that.
“Now the record of protected structures has 9000 buildings and 17 architectural protection areas, so from that point of view we’ve come on in leaps and bounds. But the enforcement of it is infinitesimal in comparison. There are 1 and a half conservation officers for the entire city of Dublin, but for enforcement, like if windows are being taken out of a building, there’s no-one at all. If you go to some salvage yards, you see Georgian doors from 1730 that should not be there. But that’s the dilemma in conservation. If you’re missing a door or a window, are you feeding the salvage trade, or are you finding a home for something that would otherwise be thrown out?
“Up until the early 20th century most people and most trades operated within a tradition – a loosely accepted series of values and ways of doing things that are unconsciously carried out. Items would have been reused or reappropriated within that context. But I think we’ve lost the confidence to do that. Street buildings were always changing, and we need to be much more confident in making changes within the tradition or the idiom. For example, the staircase in Marks and Spencers in Grafton street has been moved twice. It was in the Theatre Royal on Hawkins street, and when that was demolished and rebuilt, the staircase was rebuilt in it. Then it was demolished for a second time, and the staircase was moved over to Grafton street. There’re loads of examples of that around Dublin.
“What I find fascinating is the whole hipster phenomenon of the past 10 years, of gritty interiors; really what it’s doing is commercializing authenticity to a society that doesn’t know what authenticity is. It’s particularly galling to go to a typical Irish town where the whole place is an archeological remain lined with beautiful 19th century merchant buildings, but the only cafe is in some hideous modern contraption with a faux heritage interior, with an entire decaying streetscape next door. There’s such a lack of recognition of what’s actually authentic.
“Depending on whether buildings are protected or not, very often their value is the site they’re sitting on. Currently we don’t have a site value tax or a dereliction tax, which means you’re incentivised to keep these buildings truncated or vacant. Certainly, what we’re seeing now is that with the building funds that are pouring into Dublin, the brownfield sites are drying up, the first-generation office blocks that can be demolished and redeveloped are drying up, so the backlands of historical streets like Capel street become attractive, particularly when there’s very little left of an existing structure.
“In Ireland we tend to place much more weight on music or literature or other art forms, but the built environment never lies: it’s the ultimate honest manifestation of cultural identity.”
Words: Eanna Cunnane
Photos: Johnny McMillan