Who can save Dublin's fair city?

A new government has pledged to restore Ireland's shabby capital. Not a moment too soon, says Dan Cruickshank
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Dublin remains one of the most beautiful of European cities; it is also one of the most vulnerable. Commercial pressure over the past two decades has done appalling damage to the city centre, where the vast majority of historic buildings enjoy no official protection, and the government's ploy to boost the construction industry by offering tax incentives on house building in Dublin has proved to be a disaster for the city's historic buildings.

Ian Lumley, co-founder of the recently established Dublin Civic Trust, points out that some of Dublin's greatest ornaments, the quays that line the Liffey, have been favoured targets for "tax-break" redevelopment. Lumley calculates that no fewer than 28 pre-1820s riverside houses have been demolished during the past eight years to be replaced by over-scaled and crudely detailed apartment blocks. This has led to the devastation of some of Dublin's most characteristic and delightful terraces. Esse x Quay and Bachelor's Walk lie in ruins, while 15 Usher's Quay, a literary landmark in Dublin because of its starring role in James Joyce's short story "The Dead", lies empty, minus its top storey, and surrounded by new apartment blocks.

A walk through central Dublin is at once elevating and deeply depressing. Virtually every street, even the most historic, has its crop of empty, abandoned or ruinous houses. A late-18th century terrace in Upper Merrion Street, off Merrion Square, languishes after years of government ownership; Sir Edward Carson's 1790s house in Harcourt Street stands boarded up; Granby Row, off Parnell Square, has its group of recently fire-damaged and hopelessly abandoned 1780s houses; two sides of the mighty MountjoySquare are scarred by groups of 1790s houses in ruinous condition; in Capel Street, the remnants of a fine panelled interior of 1730 is cruelly exposed to the elements following recent demolition of the front portions of the house.

This sort of neglect and destruction by careless or calculating owners is the direct consequence of Ireland's virtually non-existent conservation laws. It was in the face of this official apathy that Ian Lumley founded the Dublin Civic Trust. Its aim is to acquire, conserve and sell on neglected historic buildings and to inform house-owners and builders about correct methods of repair. The trust has so far managed to acquire a pair of outstanding and decaying mid-18th century houses in South Frederick Street from New Ireland Assurance and to persuade the Department of the Environment, Dublin Corporation and Irish Life Assurance to advance a total of £105,000 towards their repair.

Dublin's physical decline is undeserved. Its urban ambitions and the scale and quality of its 18th-century public buildings and private palaces outstrip those of London. Dublin's Four Courts and Custom House are Neoclassical monuments of sublime quality,while Trinity College forms the largest and arguably the most impressive 18th-century collegiate complex in the British Isles. Dublin Castle's Classical courtyards and state apartments vie with the best architectural ensembles in any European capital, while the Taoiseach governs from the palatial splendours of mid-18th century Leinster House.

These buildings are not by any means pale shadows of contemporary London buildings and were not, in the main part, designed by English architects. The best of Irish 18th-century buildings were designed by Irishmen who had experienced mainstream European Classicism at first hand, or by Continental architects who brought the influence of France and Italy directly to bear upon Irish design traditions: Richard Castle, the designer of Leinster House, was a German by birth; Davis Ducart, who worked i n Cork and Limerick, was from northern Italy; and Alessandro Galilei, a key participant in the development of Irish Classicism, was a Floren-tine. In Dublin, 18th-century Classicism developed a rich and highly distinct expression, not least because of th e skillof Dublin's joiners and plasterers who created handsome and sometimes flamboyant interiors that are second to none.

Like other great Classical cities, 18th-century Dublin was a corporate work of art, created over many years by different hands, achieving a wonderful architectural coherence in which the diversity of individual monuments and the drama of monumental urbancomposition were counterbalanced by the uniformity and modest manners of the streets and squares that formed the primary fabric of the city. It is what survives of this more humble fabric - the anonymous terraces that knot the monuments together, and make Dublin a great city - that is under threat.

Along with other Irish local authorities, Dublin has produced lists of its historic houses - one contains 110 historic interiors alone - yet Irish law has no power to punish those who alter these buildings without consent. This failure contrasts with Ireland's eagerness to secure substantial financial aid from the EC for urban regeneration.

The persistent failure of successive Irish governments to bring the country's conservation laws into line with most European countries worries and embarrasses those who care about the country's culture and reputation. Frank McDonald, environmental correspondent of the Irish Times, believes that "there is no state policy on conservation because recent governments have not wanted to introduce regulations that might prevent them from `fixing up' friends when necessary. In Ireland there is a general feelingthat jobs, not buildings, are important, and demolition is seen as justified if it creates employment; a very Third World attitude."

The official attitude to Dublin's architectural heritage is revealed by recent events in the city's 30-acre Temple Bar area. Until 1987, the area was to be flattened to make way for a giant bus station. The government was persuaded to step in to save Temple Bar and to turn it into a centre of cultural activity instead of bus fumes. A new quasi-government body, Temple Bar Properties, reporting to the Department of the Environment and drawing more than half its £70m budget from the EU, was set up. Work has been under way for three years and, generally, new buildings have been designed to a high standard. However, even this project is infected by the demolition bug.

On one edge of Temple Bar stands the picturesque early 19th-century church of St Michael and St John. It was created within the partial remains of a former theatre-cum-warehouse in 1810-15 to the designs of John Taylor, and is of great historic interest:it was one of the earliest Roman Catholic churches to be built in post-Reformation Ireland, anticipating Catholic emancipation by more than a decade. The church was declared redundant in the late 1980s, modestly vandalised and then taken on by Temple Bar Properties and Dublin Tourism for conversion into an "interpretation centre" and museum of Dublin's Viking history. This curious project, designed by Gilroy McMahon Architects, involves the destruction of authentic history to make way for a world of conjecture and make-believe.

Over Christmas, much of the church's Regency Gothic interior was removed to provide room for, among other conceits, the thatched cottages of a Viking village. The shameful sacrifice of this fine interior provoked an outcry that seems to have genuinely surprised Temple Bar Properties. The Irish Times has called the scheme "fundamentally misconceived", while An Taisce (the National Trust) has pointed out that the cost of the project (£5.7m, most of it from the EU) would have been far better spent on repairing Dublin's endangered churches, including the late-17th century St Mary's, the water-sodden mid-18th century St Catherine's and the monumental St George's, Harwicke Place. (This was built in 1802 as one of Dublin's most ambiti ous churches; most of its pews have been redistributed among local pubs during the past few years and it is now a bingo hall.)

The immediate hope for historic Dublin is Ireland's new government. It seems that some lessons have at last been learnt and a number of encouraging promises have been made. Under the heading of "heritage", the government has promised that it will "improve the protection for listed buildings, placing the system of listed buildings on a statutory basis and introducing incentives for proper upkeep and maintenance."

If this happens, and the long overdue "national audit" of historic buildings is also undertaken, Ireland will at last begin to catch up with the rest of Europe. Its architectural heritage will be identified, protected by law and eligible for grant-aided repair. Only when this happens will the erosion of Dublin be halted.