The town that almost was: What became of an ambitious urban development near Dublin?
Work began on the Clongriffin development at the Celtic Tiger's peak. Then Ireland's economy crashed. Photographer Dragana Jurisic captures the gleaming, empty train station intended to serve a town that never got built
Saturday 05 October 2013
To get to the Clongriffin commuter rail station from the North Dublin coast, head down Willie Nolan Road, up through the valley of the Mayne River, where Danish Vikings once moored their longboats.
At the Donaghmede Roundabout, take the third exit and head north past the tidied remains of the medieval Grange Abbey, whose rubble was used to fill in its many goldfish ponds, thus transforming fields that had been grazed for 10 centuries into shy-faced 1960s tract housing, and head down The Hole In The Wall Road.
Just before you get to the estate first envisioned by ex-IRA hunger striker-turned-developer Tom McFeely, Priory Hall, whose residents have since been evacuated with no relief from mortgage payments by the city council due to unsafe conditions – the properties being, counter-intuitively, both flood-prone and highly flammable – hang a right. (If you reach Tir na N-Óg, you've gone too far.)
On your left will be Father Collins Park, whose €20m renovation outfitted it with amphitheatre, skate park, a water recycling system to feed the wetlands and five wind turbines to power it all. Follow this road until you reach the end of the 200-yard green wire fence behind which tarmac laneways meander through wetlands like the footprint of a civilisation that never existed.
Then take a quick jog left and right by the glass tower of Clongriffin's shopping centre, with its ground-floor banners promising that restaurants, florists, daycare centres and grocery stores are all COMING SOON. You'll know you've arrived when you see the powerless electric sign hung 20 feet up the tower wishing you a Merry Christmas.
Clongriffin was dubbed thus, about a decade ago, by one of its architects, who took the Irish for 'meadow' and tacked on the griffin from a neighbouring district, Balgriffin. The latter area, too, was a semi-rural outpost until the Celtic Tiger gifted it the Belmayne estate for more housing development. During Ireland's supposed boom period it was known only by an ostentatious marketing wall featuring staged images of giant middle-class families laughing maniacally, frozen in the act of drinking from glasses large enough to hold half a gallon of merlot.
The Dart (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) station, built to the highest standards, stands empty (Dragana Jurisic)
Years later, the wall was finally taken down, revealing, approximately, a half-formed thought in a whirlpool of mud. Clongriffin lies in a similar state of partial dormancy bordering on paralysis, a state not exactly conducive to a healthy community morale. A taxi driver who was asked for directions advised against going there at all, particularly after dark. Not that daylight is always sufficient protection in Clongriffin – ask the Real IRA leader who a year ago was assassinated just after 3pm in front of his home, less than a minute's walk from the train station.
In the full light of a warm, breezy autumn noon, however, standing in Father Collins Park, one can't help but want to be positive. The industrious hum of the turbines fills the air. A child throws himself on to the recycled-rubber surface of the carefully designed playground. The sun bouncing off a preserved patch of wetlands shows its water to be clear and inviting. All these things make the better angels of our nature want to imagine that the developers, the city planners, the architects and all the rest of them – McFeely excluded, one assumes – wished only to establish a happy, fulsome environment for the gathering hordes to live.
Whatever the intentions, that has not been the result. The apartments encircling the park are a quarter occupied at best. Those that are habitable at all have already begun to lose the sheen of newness, and it's difficult to imagine the rest of them filling up in the near future. The Dart (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) station itself, built to the highest standards, is empty on that same autumn day, though in operation on a commuter train line from the city to the suburbs. Outside, people, many of them eastern European, push prams, going somewhere or other.
Clongriffin was named by one of its architects, who took the Irish for 'meadow' and tacked on the griffin from a neighbouring district, Balgriffin (Dragana Jurisic)
Buses wait but no one boards. A note in the window of the tenantless main hall that reads 'No Skateboarding or Cycling in this Area' seems more a lament than a ban. In the ticket hall, a glass wall gives a view beyond the railway on to marshland stacked with crates of paving stones. The only sound comes from a poster flapping in the breeze. The poster, part of a safety campaign, shows a silhouetted grim reaper hovering over a section of railway under the phrase 'Keep off the Line', and along the reaper's scythe someone has written the word 'Death' in blue marker. A train pulls into the station. No one gets on or off. It waits for a moment and then, after a few warning beeps, departs.
These beeps, dissolving into the air, sound like a death knell for poor Clongriffin – but perhaps there's room for a second act. Gannon Homes, the estate agents responsible for the vicinity of the station, have been approved by Dublin City Council to build a 60,000 square foot Islamic Cultural Centre there, complete with three-storey domed mosque (Ireland's biggest), a project that will cost an estimated €40m.
Whether this be folly piled on folly or inspired piece of last-minute transformation is not yet clear, but it appears that for Clongriffin, we're not yet at the end of the storyline.
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