Can the Abbey's move make some sort of paradise of Eden?
AS WITH SO MANY of Dublin’s streets, the only way to get a sense of what Eden Quay once was is to look up.
There you see the muted grandeur of the exhaust-dusted facades, with badges that reveal their original occupants: the Seaman’s Institute where the Salvation Army now is; the Mercantile Marine Office’s lettering half-gone even though the building is still in use; a pub so modern it looks as if it was built yesterday but tells us it was founded in 1769; and the plaster crest of the long-defunct City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, clinging to the building the Abbey Theatre bought this week.
When you look down to ground level again you bring your gaze to the present. At the foot of the Abbey’s future home the stonework has been chewed by the years, and the building is like a destitute person slumped in a doorway, just another hard-luck story on a street exhausted by them.
Eden Quay is a front of shutters, of derelict buildings with windows so dulled by grime they offer neither a reflection nor a view in. Many of its buildings are hunched on a row that, from the abandoned Nationwide building at the corner of O’Connell Street to Liberty Hall jutting tall at its east end, carries a demeanour of bitterness and ingrained malevolence.
Its stretch of the Liffey Boardwalk, a highway for the city’s half-dead, is off limits for now, but it always felt like that anyway.
Even if its casinos do their best to hide it, there is life on Eden Quay too: the Laughter Lounge, where the Astor Cinema once stood; a hotel; a restaurant; the antiques shop in which a statue of a miniature Native American stands guard.
Before the Abbey gets there, there are already two theatres: Liberty Hall’s stage and the innovative Theatre Upstairs, above Lanigan’s pub, which puts on excellent new writing for €10 (including lunch).
But to thrive each must battle the street itself, where buses slope in and loiter, offering an ever-shifting wall between the street and the river.
The rest of the street is a mess of construction, an epicentre of the Luas expansion that has given it a street furniture of fences and Portakabins.
The quay, originally at the mercy of the estuary’s curves, was developed from the 18th century as part of the Wide Streets Commission’s project to replace narrow, crowded lanes with streets befitting a major European city.
And it worked for a time. Look at a picture from the late 1800s and Eden Quay has a Parisian quality: awnings, continuity, grace. It is an equal in the city.
Yet today it is a strange feature of Eden Quay that despite its width it feels like one of the narrowest streets in the city, crowded and jostled by traffic and dereliction.
Its current name is not Old Testament but old money: after William Eden, first baron of Auckland, former chief secretary of Ireland. It has a most unlikely twin – well, quintuplets, actually – in the uninhabited subantartic Auckland Islands of New Zealand, also named after Eden. (An aside: one of these volcanic rocks carries the evocative name Disappointment Island. Spare a thought for the poor sailors compelled to name it thus.)
The decline of Eden Quay can be traced to the Easter Rising, that scar on the city whose wounds were so badly stitched that it requires new grafts still.
Photographs from May 1916 show the disembowelled buildings, rubble gathered at their feet. In one shot of the scene the gaze of every person in it is towards Sackville Street to the left, out of shot. It is as if, in the extraordinary devastation of that week, Eden Quay is not worthy of any further spilling of shock.
The quay was bombed again in 1922 and yet again in 1972, on a day largely forgotten in Dublin history but when two bus workers were blown up around the corner on Sackville Place. The same stage, just different acts in the same conflict.
The national theatre will not transform Eden Quay, but it will write significant lines in a new story. The eventual expansion of the Abbey will coincide with a new bridge, its Luas line and the clearing of the detritus that chokes the area.
For the past 20 years, as the city returned to the riverfront, Eden Quay was unloved, unregarded, while the growing gleam of the Docklands taunted from upriver. But its name clings on to promise. It is worth sparing some hope that Eden Quay will get some sort of new beginning.