Can Parnell Square become Dublin’s cultural hot spot?

New Poetry Ireland HQ will add Seamus Heaney library to artistic environment

From the Mansion House to City Hall, Leinster House to Charlemont House, you can see the shifts of ambition and power in the shape of Dublin city. While, today, it is city planners and the developers of shopping centres that seem to hold most sway over where the major civic and public centres sit, back in the Georgian era, Dublin was defined by the social and financial aspirations of its various landowners. With that in mind, you could almost look at Georgian Dublin as an architectural Game of Thrones.

First it was all about the route from Dublin Castle to College Green. Then, when Lord Mountjoy (also known as Luke Gardiner) created Sackville Mall, the precursor to O'Connell Street, everyone began to look north. Enter James Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare. He believed, in his entitled manner, that fashion would follow in whatever direction he led. He was right too. His Leinster House was a sufficient magnet and the southside became the place to be once more. Now there are moves afoot to rebalance things, with a new cultural quarter planned for Parnell Square.

Cultural quarters have a chequered history in Dublin, but although parts of it may have appeared neglected over the years, Parnell Square also has a head start, with the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane having presided over the top of the square in Charlemont House, since 1933. Add to this the Dublin Writers Museum, the Gate Theatre, the Garden of Remembrance and Hillsboro Fine Art, plus the Luas extension making access even easier, and the real question should perhaps be why hasn't something happened there sooner?

Hot spots

In fact, “something” had already happened and, back in its heyday, Parnell Square was one of Dublin’s hot spots. When Bartholomew Mosse founded the Rotunda Hospital, in 1745, his dream was to make childbirth safer for women of all classes. His first wife, and son, had died after complications in labour, and he was a man on a mission. To help fund the hospital, he commissioned concert halls and a pleasure gardens on the site.


It’s an interesting reversal, as today, cultural institutions are dependent on subsidies, but evidently, back then, classical music concerts and performances could be money spinners to support healthcare. Georgian Pleasure Gardens were also, apparently, quite the thing. Lanterns cast enticing light over paths after dark, and visitors could book booths for supper, or wander about to listen to music played on various stages. In the closely monitored moral world of the era, Pleasure Gardens were something either to be feared, or eagerly embraced.

A centrepiece will include the Seamus Heaney Working Library, comprising the books the poet referred to when working on his own compositions and translations

Today, all that remains of the green space is the Memorial Gardens. The assembly rooms are still there, however, which the Rotunda leases to the Gate Theatre and MCD, who run the Ambassador. Pleasure Gardens aside, there are ambitious plans to develop the area as a literary hub, with a major new Central Library, designed by Grafton Architects, with project partners Shaffrey Associates, plus a new headquarters for Poetry Ireland and the Irish Heritage Trust, designed by McCullough Mulvin at 11 Parnell Square.

A centrepiece at the new Poetry Ireland HQ will include the Seamus Heaney Working Library, comprising Heaney's own collections of poetry. These are the books he referred to when working on his own compositions and translations, as well as volumes from his student days. According to Heaney's daughter, Catherine, who is director of the Seamus Heaney Estate, "the idea of donating them really came from my mother, but we agreed with her, me, and my brothers, Mick and Chris. It seemed exactly the right place. He would be really gratified, she says.

"I'll be excited to see how they're used," she continues. "You get a sense of who Dad read. He had such a keen interest in other poets, and also younger poets. Each writer is different, but Dad went on writing jags. For a lot of poets it works that way, things would come in a burst, but all those books were kept in a study in our house in Sandymount, and down in Wicklow in the cottage in Glanmore. That's where he did his writing."

Tendered for another building

Poetry Ireland director Maureen Kennelly picks up the story. "The discussions date back as far as 2009, but the climate wasn't particularly good then," she says ruefully. "We had tendered for another building in Temple Bar, but when we saw this one, we realised what a gem it was. That, and the chance to be part of the literary hub on Parnell Square. With the Irish Writers Centre there too, there's a nice confluence. The timing is good, with the Luas Cross City opening up the whole area. The Olivier Cornet Gallery, O'Reilly Theatre, Fishamble and Children's Books Ireland are all on the doorstep, so it's time for it to regain its former glory."

Niall McCullough of McCullough Mulvin, who had already delved into the history of the area, in his fascinating book Dublin an Urban History (Anne Street Press, 2007), is passionate about the project. "No 11 was built by the Earls of Ormond in the 17th century," he says. "It was their townhouse, the top place in town, looking out over the park, with a sedan chair taxi rank at the corner." He describes how later the building was bought by the County Council, and Victorian rooms added, which, to him are part of the building's charm. "I love mixed things that evolve over time," he says.

“A lot of this project is about repair, rather than dramatic extensions,” he continues. “The ground floor and first floor are really about opening the house up as public space again. They were party rooms. Georgian houses always had three public rooms, so that you could circulate, and escape from a bore.” The plans also include a new cafe area and a re-landscaping of the gardens at the back.

Central to life

The cafe will be part of the Poetry Ireland plan to celebrate poetry as something central to our lives, for while politicians and public figures frequently trumpet the successes of our poets on the international stage, how many people actually embrace it on a daily basis? Maybe we’re scarred by rote learning, or frightened off by the perceived tedium of forms that, at the end of the day, quite simply weren’t for us.

"I think it's more like homoeopathic doses," says poet Paula Meehan. "People often reach for poetry at threshold experiences: like birth, falling in love, death; when they're trying to make language fit the intensity of those experiences. Poetry has to be there when people need it, and that involves having communities of poets. When the tsunami is coming towards you, you mightn't having the space to make elaborate odes and poems," she notes, underlining the reason to cherish our poets, even when we may not be reaching, daily, for their work.

“To ritualise language is so inherently human, whether it’s in prayers or hunting spells or song. Also poets keep track of the dreaming of the human species. . . That doesn’t mean we can all be famous and rich, but there has to be a critical mass.” That critical mass is now expanding to embrace the new communities and groups making their home in Ireland, and the new centre will include a resource space. “It’s a very rich time,” says Meehan.

People still have a barrier. And we earnestly believe that once you open it up to people and make it real in their lives, you're unlocking something

Some works from Ireland’s poets will be embedded in the walls of the centre itself, and Kennelly and her team have been enjoying seeking out poems that allude to architecture, and, following our conversation, she sends on some of the words they have found, including Derek Mahon’s “Even now there are places where a thought might grow,” and Vona Groarke’s “rooms that listen nicely to each other”, concluding with Heaney’s own “I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing”.

“We’re acutely aware of the need to push the art form out there,” says Kennelly. “People still have a barrier. And we earnestly believe that once you open it up to people and make it real in their lives, you’re unlocking something.”


The Parnell Square Cultural Quarter project replaces the current library at the Ilac Centre with a new Central Library on the site of the former Coláiste Mhuire, on the north side of Parnell Square. It will include a music hub, a design space, an intercultural space, an education centre, cafe, and exhibition areas. Going to planning this summer, the estimated completion date is 2022.

The project is financed by the Parnell Square Foundation, and implemented by its wholly owned development company PSQ Developments Limited. The foundation includes representatives from Dublin City Council and Kennedy Wilson, an international real estate investment and services company based in Beverly Hills, with offices in countries around the world, including the UK, Ireland, Spain and Japan (

Seed funding of €4.8 million has been committed by Kennedy Wilson to bring the project to planning, with €2.1 million expended to date. Total project costs are currently estimated at just over €100 million, and a minimum of 51 per cent of the project is to be funded via philanthropy.

The Poetry Ireland Centre with The Irish Heritage Trust has already received planning permission for No 11 Parnell Square. Almost €1 million has been raised against a total target of €5 million. According to Poetry Ireland director Maureen Kennelly, “we’d like to be opening the doors of the completed centre in late 2019 or Spring 2020”. The Dublin UNESCO City of Literature designation is a great help in fundraising, says Kennelly. “Internationally it’s a really good calling card for us.”

The Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane will embark on a major refurbishment of the original galleries in Charlemont House later this year. According to director Barbara Dawson, the 2016 wing will remain open, with exhibitions by artists including Amanda Dunsmore, Niamh McCann, Doireann O’Malley and Rachel Maclean.


As the Labour Party pushes for an Educational and Cultural Hub in Drumcondra, based on the proximity of DCU, St Patrick's College and the Marino Institute of Education, you could forgiven for wondering if any small cluster of vaguely creative spaces are hubs-in-waiting. The history of Cultural Hubs proves that it's not always plain sailing.

Running alongside the Liffey, Temple Bar was set to be a bus station. Cheap rents, and stalwart tenants, including the Project Arts Centre and the Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, led to artists moving in, though judging from experience, their "bohemian" life was pretty damn cold in the winter. Group 91, a consortium of architects, won the competition to recreate the area as a Cultural Quarter in 1992. While today Temple Bar is frequently in the news for superpubs and stag and hen parties, don't forget it still houses cultural hot spots including the original TBG&S and Project, the Gallery of Photography, Smock Alley Theatre, the Graphic Studio and The Library Project.

Back in the days when the Irish Museum of Modern Art was just a twinkle in Charlie Haughey's eye, the large glass-fronted warehouse space known as Stack A in Dublin's Docklands (DDDA) was one of the options for Ireland's new museum of contemporary art. Alongside the founding of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority came a cultural levy of IR£1 (€1.27) per sq ft of office space to subsidise the creation of a cultural space in the area. The levy was never applied, IMMA went to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, and Stack A became CHQ, now home to EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum.

Alongside the Grand Canal Theatre in the Docklands, there was talk of the Abbey Theatre moving to George's Dock, and a 48 metre Antony Gormley sculpture was commissioned but never concluded. With all the building going on in the area, the DDDA had the scope to become a major player on the cultural scene, and initially things looked like they could be good. Their 2008 Docklands Masterplan had, as its primary policy, that they would "ensure that arts and culture become an integral part of the Docklands' identity…" The document also noted that "the development of affordable live-work accommodation and studios/workspaces for creative practitioners including craft workers should be encouraged and promoted in the Docklands." Today, The Green on Red Gallery at Spencer Dock is one of the few cultural outposts in an area where galleries and other creative facilities could easily have been knitted in from the outset.

Elsewhere, Smithfield looked as if it could become interesting, with The Lighthouse Cinema as an anchor, and the artist's collective Block T taking on a huge disused warehouse on the Square, which they configured to include 70-plus studio and workshop spaces. But as Smithfield finally began to thrive, the Block T artists were forced out when a commercial tenant eyed up their building. They have since decamped to Dublin 8, where doubtless they're considering any further potential gentrification of their new area with a wary gaze.

The experiences of both Dublin Docklands and the artists of Block T prove that whether the cultural element of a regeneration project is top down, or grassroots, it is generally the first to suffer when things take a turn for the better – or for the worse.