Post-Cullen Abbey move on GPO should be scrapped


Keeping the GPO as a living post office and less grandiose plans for the Abbey could be a reshuffle bonus, writes FRANK McDONALD

THE FIRST thing Martin Cullen’s successor as minister for the arts must do is review his supposedly bright idea of shovelling the Abbey Theatre into the General Post Office. Airily dismissing a previous proposal by Bertie Ahern that the GPO should house a museum commemorating the 1916 Rising, Cullen said last December: “I don’t want another museum there, open nine to five, then the whole bloody thing is dead. Think of the wider context of O’Connell Street and try to rejuvenate it.”

Let us first locate Martin Cullen in a wider context. While having personal sympathy for his current plight, I believe he was one of the worst ministers for the environment in living memory. He eviscerated the social and affordable housing provisions of the 2000 Planning Act at the behest of developers, practically nullified the National Monuments Acts so that archaeology wouldn’t get in the way of motorway plans, did nothing whatever to halt the sprawl of Dublin, and promoted “Bungalow Blitz” in the countryside.

He ran with moving the Abbey to the GPO – an idea canvassed by Senator David Norris in June 2008 – after shooting the breeze with an unnamed “very good international architect” (believed to be Ian Ritchie, who designed the Spire in O’Connell Street).

But if one of the key objectives is to contribute to the rejuvenation of O’Connell Street, Cullen was seriously misguided. Did he not realise that the GPO is by far the busiest post office in Ireland, with thousands of people using it every day? They’re customers buying stamps, as well as tourists and history buffs who come to see an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation that Pearse read outside the building after the insurgents had seized it. They seized it precisely because of its importance as Dublin’s chief post office, the point from which all distances from the capital were measured.

It was built as the GPO, designed by noted early 19th century architect Francis Johnston (the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle and St George’s Church in Hardwicke Place were also his works), and opened on January 6th, 1818. Reduced to a smouldering shell by British forces during the Easter Rising, it was rebuilt in the 1920s along with the Custom House, the Four Courts and much of O’Connell Street by the first Free State government and an enlightened city administration; its public office is undoubtedly one of the most important neo-classical interiors of that period, with its high-quality fittings all intact. If the post office use is lost, so will much of the activity it generates on a daily basis, which adds a lot more to the life of O’Connell Street than a theatre ever could.

It is quite remarkable that those who have campaigned to save a nondescript building in Moore Street, where the 1916 leaders took refuge before surrendering – preposterously billing it as “Ireland’s Alamo” – are so silent on the threat to the GPO. Because if ever there was an Irish equivalent of the Alamo, in San Antonio, Texas, this massive neo-classical building with its hexastyle Ionic portico and symbolic statue of the dying Cúchulainn surely qualifies. It would be tragic if Ard-Oifig an Phoist no longer housed a post office when its bicentenary is marked in 2018.

The earlier plan promoted before his untimely death by David Byers, then commissioner in charge of State buildings and projects at the Office of Public Works, was much better. It would have reconfigured the post office to provide a ceremonial route to a vast column-free underground space as impressive as the concourse of the Louvre in Paris; it would not only house a 1916 museum, but could also have been used for presidential inaugurations, as an alternative to the rather cramped St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle.

Martin Cullen’s secondary argument for moving the Abbey Theatre to the GPO was financial – it would cost a lot less than the misconceived plan to place it at (or rather, in) George’s Dock, flanked by the International Financial Services Centre and the failing CHQ shopping mall.

However, the real question his successor should be considering is whether we need a new Abbey Theatre at all. Since the existing 1960s theatre was reconfigured in 2007 – with raked seating offering far superior sightlines to theatregoers and actors alike – it seems perfectly adequate for a small, virtually bankrupt country. All it really needs is more backstage space.

The National Theatre of Scotland doesn’t even have a “home”. Launched in 2006, it has performed in existing theatres, ancient woods and even on ferries, drawing more than 450,000 people to see and enjoy its work. Indeed, there is great excitement about where it will pop up next. “This . . . is made possible by our innovative building-free model, which means we can put on a great variety of work all over Scotland,” says Vicky Featherstone, its artistic director and chief executive.

Cullen was hooked on grandiose building projects that no longer make any sense and are quite unaffordable in our current straitened circumstances, such as the madly over-the-top plans, conceived at the height of the boom, to redevelop the National Concert Hall site on Earlsfort Terrace. This is especially so when the privately funded Grand Canal Theatre is opening on March 18th.

Realism must prevail, with some sense of horses for courses. That should mean leaving the Abbey where it is and keeping the GPO primarily as a post office.

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