Nightmare in a city that never sleeps

 

Noisy venues are making our city centres impossible to live in, and Temple Bar is a prime example, argues Frank McDonald, Environment Editor, who lives in the area

ON A RECENT Tuesday, walking home after midnight along Pearse Street from Dublin's Docklands, we could hear very loud music blasting out from somewhere. The culprit turned out to be Doyle's pub on College Street, where the windows were open as a live band banged on - all within earshot of Pearse Street Garda Station.

Dozens of patrons were gathered on the footpath, which serves as the pub's smoking zone, and they weren't missing a beat; the music was just as loud on the street as it was inside. A few doors away, residents of the Westin Hotel (€245 per night, minimum) were probably trying to sleep, but the Garda were doing nothing to stop the racket.

A few weeks earlier, when I phoned the same Garda station at 1am to report that someone was loudly playing a drum on Eustace Street, the garda on duty said: "Is that a problem?" Well yes, I said, asking her to imagine how she would feel if there was a drummer outside her home at that hour. "Oh, I see," she said.

In the summer of 2007, up to five bongo drummers were playing nightly in Temple Bar, often until 2am, and I went down to confront them. Tapping a young man on the shoulder - he turned out to be Czech - I pointed out that the building opposite them was residential, as well as the one behind and another just beyond.

"Dublin is the best place in Europe for buskers," he said. Why was that, I asked. "Because we get no trouble from the police," he replied. When I said the noise was a real problem for residents of the area, and what were we going to do about getting some sleep, he had a simple - albeit perverse - solution: "You should move out."

In fairness to the Garda, it must be pointed out that Insp Dan Flavin of Pearse Street Station took my complaint about the bongo drummers seriously. After walking around Temple Bar himself at around 1am, he heard the din they were making and ordered the gardaí to stop the drummers; we have only had sporadic outbreaks since.

Of course, when you tell people you live in Temple Bar, nearly everyone asks the same question: "Isn't it a bit noisy down there?" It sure is, you have to admit - not just the ordinary hubbub of people in the street, but heavily amplified music blaring out of pubs and other late-night venues. And it has got steadily worse over the years.

In 1995, when we moved into an apartment on the top two floors of a converted Victorian warehouse building on Temple Lane, the noise wasn't anything like as bad. But that was before the Temple Bar Music Centre opened its doors, the Temple Bar pub quadrupled in size and a new "pub-hotel" materialised on Eustace Street.

Since then, we've had to fight a war of attrition over noise from these and other sources. Indeed, it was Fitzsimons Hotel on Wellington Quay (backing onto Essex Street) that set the tone for what was to follow: doors to its basement nightclub were - and still are - left wide open, creating a vortex for noise to escape into the street.

The Music Centre, one of 12 State-funded cultural facilities in Temple Bar, was a persistent nuisance - mainly because live gigs (usually involving DJs) were being staged in the bar, which wasn't sound-proofed, rather then being confined to the auditorium, which was. And despite numerous complaints, nothing was done.

Eventually, in 2005, we objected to the renewal of its music and singing licence. This led to negotiations between the two sides, with lawyers in tow, and produced an agreement covering not just physical measures to insulate the premises, but also management issues covering the behaviour of patrons on Curved Street.

It was not until Paddy Dunning, the original operator, brought in Eoin Foyle and John Reynolds as partners that the works were carried out. Even so, there are still problems with the operation of this venue, now called the Button Factory. Music is played far too loudly and many of its drink-fuelled patrons often don't disperse until 4am.

THE RIVER HOUSE HOTEL on Eustace Street became an even more virulent offender. Like Fitzsimons, it had the minimum number of bedrooms - 20 - to qualify for a bar licence, and this entitled the proprietor, Frank Conway, to turn most of the ground floor into a pub (Danger Doyle's) and install a nightclub in the basement.

Mind you, that's not what was in the planning application. It referred to the nightclub as a hotel "function room", which would be used for "musical activities", and identified the ground-floor bar as a "buffer zone" that would insulate the "function room" from transmitting noise to the hotel bedrooms and the surrounding area.

At first, the noise from this hotel-pub stretched between two streets wasn't so bad. But as more "special exemptions" were sought and granted, the hours of operation of the pub were extended to 3am, with live gigs most nights of the week - and little or nothing done by management to contain the noise they generated.

I wrote numerous letters to the proprietor over the years and called in sometimes to complain directly. The music was often so loud that I had to lean over the bar counter and shout to make myself heard. God knows what damage is being done to the hearing of bar staff; their health is protected from cigarette smoke, but not from noise.

Regularly, I would ring the hotel reception desk at 1am or 2am to complain that we couldn't sleep. "If I lived near here, I'd be complaining about the noise too," said a disarmingly frank night porter once. But the bar manager was quite unapologetic: "What do you expect? It's a nightclub."

We objected to the renewal of the River House Hotel's licence in 2005, but withdrew after getting a written undertaking from the proprietor that the doors of its pub (then renamed The Mezz) "will not be left in an open position". Later, we discovered that he had given a similar assurance to Michael Egan, a resident of Eustace Street.

These assurances - one of which was given in court - meant nothing. After the smoking ban was introduced, the doors were constantly being opened to let patrons in and out. Night after night, up to 70 of them congregate on the street taking cigarette breaks, lounging around the footpaths and even on the carriageway.

It is normal practice for The Mezz to have its doors wedged open earlier in the evening, with the result that amplified live music permeates the street. The only conclusion one can draw is that this is done deliberately in order to attract custom; the Purty Kitchen (formerly Bob's) on Essex Street does exactly the same.

SINCE THE PURTY KITCHEN'S Conor Martin took over Bob's last year, it has become one of the noisiest venues in Temple Bar, thumping music out into Essex Street on a nightly basis. Residents in buildings opposite, as well as those in the Clarence Hotel, must have to keep their windows closed even on balmy nights as a result of this incessant racket.

In July 2006, something happened that made me lose my cool. The heavy bass music emanating from somewhere was so bad that our windows were reverberating. It was around 2.30am, so I got up out of bed, dressed and went out to investigate. Sure enough, I discovered that it was coming from The Hub, sister nightclub of The Mezz.

There was a large crowd outside. I asked to speak to the bar manager, who turned out to be Czech, and told her that the noise was really terrible. She feigned understanding of my complaint, but maintained a smirk on her face, saying, "It's a nightclub", and declined to close the doors or do anything to alleviate the problem.

Through tiredness and frustration, as well as her unsympathetic attitude and the whole history of noise problems associated with the River House Hotel over the years, I reacted irrationally by putting my hands on either side of her and shook her briefly. I regretted this immediately and apologised. The DJ played on until 3am.

BACKED BY TEMPLE Bar Cultural Trust and the Irish Landmark Trust - which has lost money from people shortening their stay in its charming 18th-century house next door as a direct result of the noise - a number of residents objected to the renewal of the River House Hotel's licence in 2007, engaging solicitors and a barrister to take the case.

As part of this legal action, we had to permit a noise consultant hired by the other side to carry out sound tests in two apartments. These tests were done under unreal conditions that didn't reflect the true situation; the level of "entertainment noise break-out" that night was determined by the people running both The Mezz and the Hub.

The hearing in Dublin Metropolitan District Court went on for three days, with the judge patiently listening to legal arguments from our side about the planning status of the premises and the legal standing of its licence. However, he made it clear that a licensing court was not the appropriate forum for pursuing nuisance cases on noise.

We were advised by our legal team that there was a real risk of costs amounting to €100,000 being awarded against us if the licence was renewed, and we simply couldn't afford to take that risk. Even as it is, our own legal costs were quite substantial. We are now reviewing our options, particularly as the noise has been as bad as ever since then.

In August 2006, I wrote to both Temple Bar Cultural Trust and Traders in the Area Supporting the Cultural Quarter (TASCQ) warning them that Temple Bar would become uninhabitable unless the problem of noise pollution was addressed. Over time, apartments would be turned into offices, decimating the residential element of the area.

The definition of disturbance of the peace is "any act of molesting or interrupting or hindering or disquieting or agitating or arousing from a state of repose or otherwise depriving inhabitants of the peace and quiet to which they are entitled".

But some publicans in Temple Bar seem to believe they have an entitlement to disturb the peace.

We will certainly be making a submission to Minister for the Environment John Gormley in response to his consultation paper on noise. After all, it is public policy to encourage people to live in city and town centres. If that policy is to be more than a mere aspiration, the relevant authorities will have to take action to match their words.