If you told any Dubliner in the 1980s that, a few decades hence, the most talked about locales across the city – the country, perhaps – would be Portobello Plaza and South William Street, he or she would have poked you in the eye with a sharpened Hot House Flower (or whatever). “South William Street? Has everyone gone mad for wholesale drapers and sheet-music retailers?” our fictional boulevardier might have pondered. “Portobello Plaza? What in the name of Cactus World News is that?”
There were similar puzzled exhalations when, just a few weeks ago, this newspaper and other organs explained that this tiny enclave of south Dublin was to be shuttered off due to “unacceptable” behaviour. Many of us living within a flung Prazsky can of the Hogarthian bacchanal greeted the announcement with bafflement. Are they really talking about the slab of uninviting pavement immediately northwest of La Touche Bridge? Is that swollen street corner now in the same rough category as the Plaza Mayor in Madrid and the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires?
There are reminders here of the universally derided efforts to reclass areas of the capital as 'quarters'
So it seems. Whether you are reading an appalled article about squatting teenagers doing number twos on concerned citizens’ doorsteps or an outraged post about how the authorities are to blame for not providing satisfactory public spaces, you will almost certainly encounter, with no helpful gloss, mention of the State’s newest rival to Piazza San Marco.
The plazafacation really does seem to have come out of nowhere. A search on The Irish Times’ website finds no mention of “Portobello Plaza” before May 14th of this year. In contrast, the words “Portobello Harbour”, the official name for that area, turn up in countless articles going back to the 1990s (and, presumably, on into the pre-digital age). Accidental mentions of the “Plaza” turn up on Google over the past decade, but the first of any significance is within a change.org petition from four years ago.
The “Save Portobello Harbour” campaign was launched to – you’re way ahead of me, Dubliners – protest the building of yet another hotel. “Portobello Harbour has a rich history as a friendly area where people from all across Dublin use regularly to enjoy as a public plaza for a variety of activities,” the organisers explained. Later a version of the dread phrase itself appears. “Portobello plaza has been an instrumental part of Irish skateboarding and has consistently been utilized [sic] by young people for the last decade,” we read. Note, however, that “plaza” is still all in lower case. Somewhere between then and now the word shifted, in this context, from improper to proper noun. I have yet to find it on any maps. But it is there in The Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the RTÉ News website.
We are used to lexicographers explaining that the origins of some placename are “lost in the mists of time”. It is less common for the roots to go missing in just a handful of years.
There are reminders here of the universally derided efforts to reclass areas of the capital as “quarters”. Recall with a shudder the absurd “Welcome to Grafton Quarter” message that became part of the Grafton Street Christmas lights display in 2019. This stuff is still going on. The Dublintown.ie website tries to tell us that the “Creative Quarter” stretches from (you again) South William Street to George’s Street. For a few years, futile efforts have been made to persuade Dubliners that the area just north of Ha’penny Bridge is the “Italian Quarter”. Let us just say that Naples need not beware.
Such waffle is much beloved of developers, estate agents and marketing wonks. Indeed, there are rumours that "Portobello Plaza" may have emerged from just such a source. No estate agent is, however, now likely to boast that a property is within easy vomiting distance of a locale that has – perhaps unfairly – been so associated with the licentious disarray we more usually expect from the grimmer corners of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
I have chosen to associate the Plaza redesignation with less sinister urban mischievousness such as the habit in Limerick of referring to a particular fluvial postage stamp as Poor Man's Kilkee. Poking into the Shannon immediately down river from Sarsfield Bridge, the tiny public space – now looked over by an eccentric statue of Terry Wogan – has long welcomed citizens eager for an hour's fresh air in their lunchbreak. Few men are too poor to visit the eponymous Clare resort, but "Poor Man's Ibiza" isn't nearly as funny. So Poor Man's Kilkee it became, and remains.
The borderline self-parodic grandiosity of “Portobello Plaza” belongs in the same dictionary of Irish geographical irony. In this case, the irony may have been unintended, but there is a pleasing mesh between the linguistic elevation of these two humble gathering places on opposite sides of the island. A few square metres of skateboarding territory becomes not just a plaza, but a Plaza. A still smaller space becomes a seaside town.
The marketing mind could not conceive of such things.