The Factory is being evicted from Dublin’s Docklands. Set up four years ago by the film directors Kirsten Sheridan, John Carney and Lance Daly, it is an independent hub for directors, writers and actors in the Irish film industry. When the property market was dead these artists moved into the semi-derelict stone building on Grand Canal Dock, renovated it and filled it with life. They rented the 1,200sq m (12,500sq ft) space, once part of the Boland’s Mills complex, from Johnny Ronan of Treasury Holdings.
When Treasury went bust they continued to pay rent to Nama. And now Nama wants them out by the end of May. On January 24th they got notice to quit.
The problem is that this stretch of the dock has become globally desirable. The Factory is a few doors one way from the Google HQ, a few doors the other way from Facebook. The row of buildings facing on to the canal basin also houses Windmill Lane Recording Studios, Pulse College and the high-tech venture centre Dogpatch Labs. The surrounding area is also home to LinkedIn, Twitter, Zynga Games and the Gilt Groupe.
This is no longer a little bit of Dublin, Ireland. It has been rebranded as Silicon Docks or the Silicon Valley of Europe. It has its own microclimate of tax-sheltered cosmopolitanism. It is a kind of futuristic Irish Utopia, in which everything is new, clean, high-tech and globalised. And in this Utopia, as in Plato’s ideal republic, there is apparently no place for the arts.
This is not supposed to be the case. If you’re selling Dublin and Ireland as hip, vibrant and creative, it makes no sense to have walled-off complexes that become the industrial equivalent of gated communities. The high-tech companies bring people, most of them young and highly educated. (Sixty-five per cent of the population of the Docklands area is between 25 and 44, and 78 per cent of the over-15s have at least a third-level degree.)
Everyone knows there’s no point in dropping such people in an antiseptic zone of apartments and offices. They need to feel that they live in a real place with some kind of creative buzz in the air. As Dublin City Council’s development plan for the special development zone (SDZ) around the Docklands puts it, “there would appear to be a tension between office use and its tendency to configure and cluster in single-use character areas, and the aspiration to deliver quality of life through mixed use and a rich cultural identity”.
The Docklands SDZ plan says all the right things about the importance of arts and culture: "The enhancement and promotion of culture is central to making Docklands a vibrant city-quarter that is an attractive place to live, work, study and visit. A richer cultural environment with a vibrant artistic community can enhance international image, foster creativity and entrepreneurism, and also act as a vehicle for social inclusion and community integration." So "making space for artists and the production of artistic work will be central to reinforcing the area's existing cultural assets and fostering a creative quarter. Artistic production in itself is important as a means of shaping a distinct cultural identity for the area and city, whilst the presence of artists will animate the area . . . It will be a priority to encourage artists to live and work in the area."
The Factory is named in the plan as one of the area's existing cultural assets. It has been a space for cultural activity for a long time, first as a recording studio used by everybody from David Bowie to U2, then as the National Performing Arts School, which still uses the building at weekends.
Since Sheridan, Carney and Daly took over they have installed five studios and a screening room. Courses in film acting have been run for 30 actors at a time. The casting director Maureen Hughes works from the building, making it an important point of contact between the creative and economic sides of the industry.
Evicting the Factory goes against the city’s development plan and the long-term growth of a new community in the Docklands. And the landlord in this case is a public body, Nama. But Nama has no real cultural remit beyond flogging off the art collections of indebted developers and perhaps promoting “artists’ impressions” of glorious new developments. There has been, from the Government, no serious effort even to discuss how the State’s role as a gigantic property company might relate to its role as, among other things, a protector and developer of Irish culture.
This absence is so stark that there’s not much point in calling for the Factory not to be evicted. Nama’s not interested, the Government’s not interested and the bodies that might be interested, Dublin City Council and the Irish Film Board, have no power. There are lots of good intentions about making cities and towns in which spaces for artistic production are as much a part of the mix as other kinds of workspace. But if the property market dictates otherwise, those intentions are as solid as an ice cube in Death Valley. For all the talk, the place of the arts in Ireland is tenuous, fragile and, if something more important intervenes, elsewhere.