Jewish museum receives Taoiseach’s backing

Project would involve demolition of five houses in Dublin 8, including a synagogue

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has given his support to the much-enlarged Irish Jewish Museum planned for the Portobello area of Dublin describing it as an "exciting project [that] mirrors the Government's wider plans for the regeneration of the city . . . through the development of arts and culture".

A letter from the Taoiseach, addressed to friends of the museum, was produced by its team at a recent Bord Pleanála oral hearing on seven appeals by local residents against a decision by Dublin City Council’s planners to approve the scheme for a site on Walworth Road.

“As a worthy heritage project, the Taoiseach provided a letter of general support on request in October 2011,” a spokesman said. “The Government has been supportive of the project, and the design and planning services of the Office of Public Works were made available.”

Tangible State support for the museum's expansion project was first given by Bertie Ahern when he was taoiseach; it was at his request that the Office of Public Works assisted the museum with the development of the design, a spokeswoman for the OPW said.

Private institution
In an arrangement believed to be without precedent, given that the Irish Jewish Museum is a private institution, the OPW has provided a full architectural service for the project, which would involve the demolition of five houses on Walworth Road, including a synagogue.


The spokeswoman said it was "providing support up to statutory approvals stage for the project" – a reference to An Bord Pleanála's decision, which is expected to be issued before Christmas, after it has read the report of senior planning inspector Tom Rabette.

The board will have to consider issues of authenticity and context in making its decision. These were raised repeatedly by objectors at the oral hearing last month as were fears that adjoining houses could be undermined by the excavation of a basement, six metres deep.

The residents were represented at the three-day hearing by a barrister, two planning consultants, a hydrogeologist, an architect, a museum expert and an archaeologist. Some of them commissioned a model of the proposed development to show its scale.

Representing the Irish Jewish Museum were one of its trustees, Edwin Alkin; Assersons, a law firm with offices in London and Tel Aviv, as well as a planning consultant, a structural engineer, a hydrogeologist and OPW senior architect Peter Rogers, who drew up the plans.

The museum said it needed the new facility to display more of its collection, arguing that the demolition of the existing building and adjoining houses and the basement excavation were necessary to comply with Heritage Council museum accreditation standards.

Its representatives argued that the new building was a good one and would have no negative effects on the area and that a projected increase in visitor numbers, from 10,000 to 50,000 per year, would not create any traffic or "parking congestion" problems for residents.

Historic attachment
Mr Alkin said the museum had not considered alternative sites because of a sentimental as well as historic attachment to the old synagogue, which is the last to survive in Portobello – an area that was synonymous with Dublin's once-thriving Jewish community.

Local Fine Gael councillor Kieran Binchy criticised the proposed demolition and reconstruction of the synagogue as "a Disneyland version of conservation". Others opposing it were Jim O'Callaghan (FF), Kevin Humphreys TD and Senator Ivana Bacik (both Labour).

Dublin City Council planner Mary Conway and conservation officer Nicola Matthews conceded that the scheme involved "facadism", in that the original synagogue would be rebuilt behind a replica façade, but this characterisation was rejected by the OPW's architect.

Letters from a number of art historians, architects and a leading conservation architect were read out at the hearing, supporting the residents' position. A petition calling on An Bord Pleanála to reject the proposal, signed by 180 residents of Portobello, was also submitted.

They claimed that the replacement museum, with a new entrance from Kingsland Parade, contravened the “residential conservation” status of Portobello, that it could put at risk the structural stability of adjoining houses and that it would result in traffic and parking congestion.