A tale of two towns
Ambitious plans are under way to develop the seafront of Dún Laoghaire, but its Victorian main street is in a sorry state of decline
If Charles Dickens was writing about Dún Laoghaire in 2014, he might call the book A Tale of Two Towns. Look at it this way. Walk from the main gate of the People’s Park, along what used to be a thriving George’s Street to York Road, at the other end of the town, and you will encounter too many abandoned premises. By my count last Tuesday, and taking into account side streets, there are 101 empty premises, including 39 in Dún Laoghaire Shopping Centre.
Dún Laoghaire may even win the dubious title, “Irish town most decimated during the recession”– although there are many local people who maintain, with a sense of outrage that is palpable, that its recent rapid rate of deterioration has more to do with decisions made by the county council, particularly in relation to car parking, rates and one hugely contentious new development. In this sense, Dún Laoghaire has become a microcosm of every town, city and country in Ireland and its fate tells us a story from which we all can learn.
As someone who lives in the area, like my parents and grandparents did before me, it is infuriating and heartbreaking for me to take that walk. I inevitably end up asking myself three questions that must trouble the minds of many people from the area: who let this happen to the main thoroughfare and shopping area in Dún Laoghaire, why, and how can its fortunes be reversed?
This brings us to the “second” Dún Laoghaire. Take a similar walk, starting at the seafront gate of the People’s Park, head towards the East Pier and it is like being transported back to the Celtic Tiger era. Renovations and developments abound. For example, at the end of the park – itself undergoing painstakingly precise restoration – the railway line has been roofed to provide an architectural bookend for the Parisian style café area at the end of Marine Road. There also are plans to renovate Dún Laoghaire Baths, which include a new scenic path across to the East Pier, and this project is awaiting only a foreshore licence before work begins.
All of this is positive and Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council deserves credit. Other planned developments include, a Diaspora Museum, ‘Urban Beach’ and extended halting site for Travellers. And looking beyond the seafront there are developments such as the Braemor Road Enhancement Scheme, Samuel Beckett Civil Campus and a new playing pitch in Marley Park.
However, all the good being done by the council is negated for many people by the arrival of our very own Titanic – at least that’s what the new Central Library and Culture Centre in Moran’s Park resembles, viewed from the East Pier. Built on an incline, it looks like it is about to set sail and plough right through the now ludicrously dwarfed National Yacht Club.
What the library has actually sheared in half though – apart from the elegant Victorian architectural symmetry that made the coastline a delight to behold – is any sense of social calm among locals. Mention the library – at gatherings from the dole queue to a dinner party in Killiney, then watch sparks fly.
Ann Joyce runs Costello’s Florists and was a member of the Dún Laoghaire Business Association, but is now part of its Community Association. “What is happening to Dún Laoghaire has hit everyone, not just businesses,” she says. She has had printed a “very popular” postcard – alongside a picture of the library. It states: “Look what Owen Keegan left us . . . and a town full of empty buildings”. It claims the development cost €35-€60 million.
Owen Keegan was Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council manager from 2005 until 2013, when he became manager of Dublin City Council. He declined the offer of an interview for this article.
“The library is called ‘Keegan’s folly’ by local people,” Joyce says, angrily, “but then, the first day we [Dún Laoghaire Business Association] met him, he was only two months into the job and said he had ‘great plans’ for Moran’s Park. So it is his baby, but none of us could have guessed where it would all lead.
“Some of us even think there is a ‘let’s- f**k-up-Dún-Laoghaire brigade’ in the Town Hall [county council offices] made up of people who don’t live in the area or give a damn about what happens to us. One day, on Marine Road, I said to Jane Dillon Byrne, who is on the council: “Nobody wants the library” and was told, ‘The staff wants it.’ That said it all, as far as I am concerned.”
Dillon Byrne is happy to address the claim that “the staff” wanted the library. “It was driven by the staff, who were very ambitious to have a central library,” the councillor says. “A library report had been done four to six years ago, was circulated to us and we said yes. We hadn’t had a new library. We had a refurbished one, in Deansgrange, and a small one in Dalkey, but the rest were complements of [Andrew] Carnegie from 1902, or whenever, and they were not offering, say, the facilities, computer-wise, that were becoming the norm around the country, as in, reading rooms, music rooms, all that.”
Even so, claims that the staff wanted the library will feed into the widespread rumour that the new development is “not really a library”. It is an office block that includes a library, and extra floors have been added to accommodate council employees who want to relocate and avail of the sea view and parking facilities.