The Drama at the Dockside


The debate over Spencer Dock has now gripped us all, and no one is neutral any longer. To say people are touchy about this vast project is putting it mildly. The whole thing has become a powder-keg ready to explode at any moment. As a subject of national division, the proposed development of dockside buildings is now on a par with the 1916 Rising, the murder of Michael Collins, the Playboy row in the Abbey, the 1913 Lockout and the Mother-and-Child Scheme, all rolled into one. It is only a matter of time before we have Spencer Dock - The Musical, or more likely, Riverdance at Spencer Dock.

To engage properly in the debate, we have all had to become experts on architecture and the environment. Gratifyingly, ordinary people are already airily dropping the words "campshire" and "cityscape" into their conversations, and we have very quickly become au fait with the fabled concepts of linear canal parks and grey water recycling.

It's great when you recall what a short time it has been since many of us, especially our country cousins, hadn't a bloody clue in this regard. We could string a few words together all right, and turn out poetry like nobody's business, and hold a tune and play a fiddle and dance a decent reel, and all the time firing back pints, no bother to us. What we were doing was resting on the laurels of our literary and musical heritage: but we were no good at the visual stuff at all.

For us harmless country innocents in those days, a picture was something which you stuck up to cover the damp patch on the wall over the chimney. It usually involved a mountain and the odd cloud or a patch of sea. An "artist" was a local chancer, usually a successful one. And as far as we knew or heard, aesthetics was what you got in hospital when you were roaring with the pain and ready for the knife.

You could go down to Ballyhaunis, for example, in the wilds of winter, or maybe Claremorris, or rain-sodden Ballycroy out on the Mullet peninsula, and ask the locals to evaluate in terms of aesthetic appeal the following local structures: a bicycle shed, a pig sty, a slurry pit, an abandoned national school, a railway siding, a half-built dancehall, a stack of turf, the parish hall, the local midwife and a handball alley.

And damned if you would get one single person, bar only perhaps the local schoolmaster, or the parish priest if it was one of his sober days, to differentiate between them at all. In all likelihood they would say they were all grand and then bring you in for a cup of tea or something stronger and tell you not to be bothering your head with such nonsense.

But we did know one thing. We knew what open space was. We knew it unconsciously, so we didn't even think about it. We certainly did not need to have it explained to us in the manner it was explained the other day at the Spencer Dock hearings.

The definition was taken from the 1999 Dublin City Development Plan, and it defined local space as "any land, including water, whether enclosed or not, on which there are no buildings, or of which not more than 5 per cent is covered with buildings, and the remainder of which is laid out as a garden or for the purposes of recreation, or lies waste or unoccupied: it also includes school playing fields, playgrounds, urban farms and forests". The bit about "any land including water" is good. There is a philosophical depth to that, and almost as much in the "urban farm", which gives the lie to the slanderous notion that planners see only what is physically put in front of them. I don't doubt that it was planners, too, who came up with the enchanting notion of the "country town", though we still await a definition.

In the wilds of rural Ireland in days gone by, it was the notion of enclosed space that was alien to us. Drenched as we were from incessant rain, and up to our waists in bogland anyway, land and water were all the same to us; they merged seamlessly.

Indeed, there was so much water of one kind or another about that the only time our parents ever needed to actually use the Irish word for it, namely uisce, was when they felt the need of a sup of uisce beatha, which was often enough, as I recall. That was the only uisce of which there never seemed to be enough about.

With this kind of ignorant country background shared by so many of us urban dwellers, it is no wonder we are now confused when developers take a 52-acre city-centre site, outline a plan to enclose this vast area in concrete and glass and at the same time talk so much about open space.