Dublin has a dysfunctional relationship with itself


What’s so special about Dublin? At the beginning of the 21st century that was an easy question to answer. With all the flatulence of the new rich, the capital saw itself as one of the great cities of Europe. It was in this climate of clownish self-belief that our Civic Museum quietly closed down in 2003. It seemed that we had no need for such a place. Few of us mourned its passing.

A city decides to turn its back on history at the height of a boom. But is our position so different today? And how should we present our capital to the world? These are important questions. The Dublin region accounts for four of every 10 jobs in this country. It is responsible for nearly half of all goods and services produced, and nearly half of the total tax revenue.

To put it simply: without a strong, dynamic capital, you can forget about the rest of the country. For the benefit of Ireland, Dublin needs to shine.

Sometimes it is easier to love Dublin than to make peace with it. We all have our private battles. “I climb over the wall and I get out of here sometimes,” Bono once said, “because the place would make you tear your hair out. But I always want to come home to Dublin.” The rock star’s lament is typical. Indeed friction may be part of who we are. But there are also many positive aspects to being a Dubliner. I see them every day in my work at City of a Thousand Welcomes, a civic initiative to promote tourism and civic pride, and at the Little Museum of Dublin.

In trying to promote Dublin past and present I am alive to “the daily spite of this unmannerly town”, as WB Yeats called it, and what Louis MacNeice called “the catcalls and the pain, the glamour of her squalor, the bravado of her talk”. I love the place, and I want it to succeed. But making peace does not mean shirking from the truth.

Dublin has a dysfunctional relationship with the rest of the country. For so long the seat of occupation, the city acquired an English character, and even now, 90 years after independence, some people find it hard to move on. A 2010 survey revealed that only 24 per cent of Irish people feel any emotional connection to the capital. The figure goes down to 15 per cent when you exclude Dubliners.

The capital also has a dysfunctional relationship with itself. Even the proudest Dubliners think of the city as two towns separated by the Liffey. Yet the northside/southside divide is a shibboleth, encouraged in large part by the delightful satire of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. The east/west divide is ignored for the greater amusement of people who can’t get over a river.

It is not simply that Dublin is a divided city. There are moments of transcendence, when the capital appears to believe in itself, but most of us no longer have the luxury of worrying about civic pride. In a word, we are wounded. Even the city’s official cheerleader, Dublin Tourism, has become a casualty of the recession.

As tourism authorities search for a new way to promote the capital, and as it prepares to host the EU presidency, Dublin City Council and its partners in the Creative Dublin Alliance are trying to rebrand Dublin. Launching the project the city manager, John Tierney, said, “Now, more than ever, we need to build and manage Dublin’s reputation and image.”

He is right. Branding cities has a longer history than you might imagine. As Daniel A Bell and Avner de-Shalit remind us in their book, The Spirit of Cities, the idea that cities have an ethos – a shared way of life that informs thinking and judgments – is thousands of years old.

“Athens was synonymous with democracy and Sparta represented military discipline. Jerusalem expressed religious values, and the twin cities that made up the Zhou dynasty’s capital at Luoyang flourished as a commercial metropolis.”

In 2010 a study by Gallup revealed the link between money and civic engagement. Over the previous five years American communities with higher proportions of attached citizens (that is, people with high loyalty and passion for their communities) had stronger GDP growth than those with smaller proportions of attached citizens. More recent research suggests that rebranded capitals can help to revive moribund economies. Indeed the economic argument for rebranding cities may be the strongest of all: it pays to invest in civic pride.

The city council, in partnership with Tourism Ireland, Dublin Bus and the Little Museum, has just launched a competition, Uniquely Dublin. The competition invites artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers from all over the world to celebrate Dublin. There is a cash prize of €10,000 for the winner, the deadline is January 28th and the winning entries will be exhibited throughout the city in the spring.

My hope is that the competition will feed into a much larger conversation about the future of our country. It’s good to talk. As for the project to rebrand the capital, this is exciting work, and I think it deserves your support.

A strong local identity is essential, not simply for social capital but also for economic performance. If we get this right, Dublin may yet take its place among the great small cities of the world.

Trevor White is the director of the Little Museum of Dublin