Do the Poolbeg towers really define modern Ireland?

Artists and activists are searching for a national character lost in the boom and forgotten in the recession

In a city defined by its Georgian architecture, Dublin’s most iconic landmark is an unlikely hero of aesthetics. Poised on a finger of land that encloses the capital’s port, the Poolbeg stacks offer little visual relief to the grey sky into which they rise or the dishwater bay over which they loom. They are hardly a symbol of a proud industrial heritage, nor are they a stoic maritime guardian like the Poolbeg Lighthouse.

However, on the ubiquitous greeting cards, tea towels, t-shirts and prints which they adorn, Poolbeg's grimy chimneys are rendered in spotless red and white, devoid of context but laden with cultural significance. Filtered through graphic representation, the towers take on an almost mythical resonance, as symbolic of Dublin as saints and scholars are of Ireland itself.

The improbable popularity of the Poolbeg stacks, spurred on by their proposed demolition in 2014, speaks to a shift in public consciousness regarding contemporary national identity.

Ireland in 2019 is unrecognisable from what it was in 1978, the year the second chimney was completed. In that time, Ireland has transformed from parochial outlier into progressive European powerhouse. The excesses of the Celtic Tiger were swiftly replaced by crippling austerity, and the country now finds itself back and booming.


But such dramatic changes in a short time frame can have profound effects on the psyche of a nation whose identity has at turns been defined by British or Catholic rule, yet always by a unity borne out of collective classlessness. National character is eternally a matter of public discourse, and Ireland’s cultural and artistic landscape is attempting to answer a critical question: who are we now?

The years 2011/2012 were peak recession, however creativity thrives in a crisis and many who eschewed emigration became cultural entrepreneurs, thanks to low rents and having little left to lose. This was the climate in which the Jam Art Factory, along with Designist, Irish Design Shop, Hang Tough, This Greedy Pig, Cows Lane Designer Studio and Dublin Flea, opened their doors.

Jam Art's shop on Patrick Street began as a gallery for high-end artworks, but owner Mark Haybyrne quickly realised that the luxury market was anything but buoyant, so shifted towards targeting the footfall that the shop's location benefited from. He noticed that there was an increased demand for work by Irish artists during the recession.

“People wanted to buy Irish products, made by Irish artists, to support Irish people. People who stayed wanted to make it work for each other.” If solidarity bound the creative class to a supportive consumer base, its real strength lay in focusing the lens back on Ireland and what it had to offer.

Of the Poolbeg towers, whose image abounds in the pieces sold in Jam Art, Haybyrne explains their proliferation to customers, saying, “It’s an ugly building, but it’s our ugly building”.

What is “ours” translates to indigenous heritage. There are rich graphic design and architectural traditions visible in Ireland’s country towns. However, the insidious creep of branded convenience stores has turned characterful main thoroughfares into quasi-British high streets, and the migration of town populations to cities has reduced once-vibrant market squares to surface car parks.

Towns are no longer destinations, now merely bypassed or passed through. However, there are those who are focused on unearthing Ireland’s visual and built heritage. Graphic designer Trevor Finnegan’s Our Type project and Free Market, the Irish pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, are two interconnected undertakings which have awakened the unsung beauty of rural towns.

There was an awful lot of really terrible restaurants during the Celtic Tiger because anyone could open a bar or restaurant and just profit

Finnegan’s photographs of Ireland’s disappearing shopfronts capture porcelain signs executed in distinct typographies, patchworks of tiles around windows and across thresholds, lace curtains and colourful facades that act as a counterpoint to the bleak Irish weather.

“Houses are painted completely different colours to their neighbours in those old towns, but in the boom all of the houses in estates were painted this magnolia colour, 50 of them in a row,” he says. “The exact same design, the exact same colour, no imagination going into it, just throw it up. It was just money rather than having a bit of pride in what we’re doing.”

The homogeneity that characterised Irish construction during the Celtic Tiger is held in sharp relief when looking at this catalogue of idiosyncratic shopfronts, and the most striking thing is their identification by proprietor – P J Smyth, B Corcoran, Veronica Broderick, J McHugh, Murphy – family names hung with humility over pubs, hardware shops, grocers, butchers, hairdressers. It illustrates how an influx of easy capital so efficiently eroded our sense of ourselves, the communities we relied on and the people who built them.

‘Not flashy’

The self-indulgence of the Celtic Tiger was perhaps most visible in Dublin's restaurant scene in the 2000s. "There was an awful lot of really terrible restaurants during the Celtic Tiger because anyone could open a bar or restaurant and just profit. You didn't have to be good," says Robert Collender, co-owner of the Michelin-starred Mews Restaurant in west Cork.

Collender returned to Ireland from Australia in 2012 and found a culinary landscape at best incapable of delivering high-quality yet affordable food, at worst an embarrassing pastiche of external influence. "It was so bourgeois. Luxury was big brands, champagne bars opening up. That is so not Irish. We are not flashy people."

The launch of the Wild Atlantic Way struck a chord with Collender, who marvelled at its simplicity – a new name on an old road, some signs and a map. On a sailing trip in 2014, he wrote his next move down on a piece of paper. It read, “a nice little plan – open a restaurant serving Irish food along the Wild Atlantic Way”.

He drove the coast road with friend and Mews co-owner James Ellis, and they settled on west Cork. "For me, everything was moving towards what was indigenous to Ireland. Virtually nobody was doing it, which seems odd now. When you go to west Cork first, as someone interested in food, you start to explore the ingredients, you just go 'wow, I had no idea this existed in Ireland, why are we buying stuff from all over the world if we have this in our own country?' It's hugely exciting."

Generally, Ireland could benefit greatly from people becoming kinder towards each other

In Mews, the menu lists the ingredients alongside the names of the local suppliers – tomatoes, Vincent Collins; wild salmon, Sally Barnes" – firmly tying the community to the plate. Every meal is served with potatoes in their skins. "The reaction to a bowl of potatoes is extraordinary, because it takes you back to the hearth, to your family, to the kitchen table, to memories, whether they're good or bad. Bowl of spuds, with butter and salt. That's Irish."

If the humble spud is a distillation of all that is native, then imbued in it too is a dark history. The famine is only one chapter in the annals of Ireland, but despite huge strides made in just over a century to liberate us from both foreign and domestic powers of subjugation, it would appear that our struggles have not yet fully schooled us in the art of compassion.

The titular essay of Melatu Uche Okorie’s collection This Hostel Life sheds a light on the power dynamics, racism and suffocating idleness that are the experience of those in direct provision. Okorie, who lived under Ireland’s system of institutionalised poverty for eight and a half years, compares her time there to “being in an abusive relationship”. In the book’s foreword, the author says, “Generally, Ireland could benefit greatly from people becoming kinder towards each other”. This overturns the notion that we are a warm and welcoming people. Often, it takes an outsider’s perspective to illuminate the realities we choose to ignore.

Artistic arsenal

Ireland today finds its pendulum swinging. In the past three years, the public has cast two landslide votes to reverse constitutional restrictions on same-sex marriage and abortion. However, there are almost 10,000 homeless people in Ireland. Buying a house is a dream many have long said goodbye to, and rising rents are turning cities into ivory towers. Beneath the surface sheen of the Celtic Phoenix, Ireland is having to reckon with its polarised present.

This reckoning has manifested itself in powerful voices that examine the cracks in our society with an eloquence and directness that cannot go unnoticed. Large-scale murals are weapons against wilful ignorance, forming part of an artistic arsenal employed in times of crisis. If Maser bolstered our mental health during the recession with reassurances that, despite everything, we were alive, Subset’s Grey Area project arrests our attention with works such as No Place Like Homeless.

Joe Caslin's The Claddagh Embrace and Aches' Savita murals reminding us that the battles fought were won at significant cost. The video for Emmet Kirwan's poem, Heartbreak, was gripping not only for its ferocious artistry, but also for its pathos. Fabiana Mizzoni, campaigner for the Repeal movement, says the importance of these works is that they foster awareness and empathy. "When you see that video, you see that mural, it's like it matters, like people are listening, and people care. It's a sense of community. It also spurs you to stay engaged."

Potatoes, shopfronts, the Poolbeg stacks – these are not mere elements of nostalgia. They embody a search for national character that was lost in the boom and forgotten in the recession. As the Celtic Phoenix forges ahead, those covered in its ashes worry where it will take us. The fear of losing this is perhaps most keenly felt in the arts, which offer a window into the soul of an era.

If Ireland is to find itself again, it needs to look deep within. The Mews’ Collender defines this quest as “a discovery of Ireland, not a rediscovery”.