Dún Laoghaire's 1.3km-long mental-health facility


GIVE ME A BREAK:WALKING THE East Pier in Dún Laoghaire, I wondered what the Scottish engineer who designed it in the 19th century, John Rennie, would think of it now. It is not the only one of his projects that has stood the test of time: London’s Waterloo Bridge and London Bridge and the Plymouth breakwater were also designed by him.

I imagine Rennie would be amazed at the high-speed Stena ferries and the planes flying overhead. I see him staring curiously at the mobile phones, iPhones and Blackberries that people, even when out walking the pier, can’t seem to live without. What might surprise him just as much, is the fact that the East Pier has evolved into a 21st-century mental-health facility.

Local historian Tim Carey puts his finger on it when he says you can start out at the beginning of the pier, heading for a 2.6km walk that takes you to the Battery at the end and back, confident in the knowledge that whatever problem was worrying you at the beginning of your walk, will be resolved by the end.

Something about this walk along a flat concrete surface out into the bay and back clears the head and by the time you finish your journey and head for a well-deserved Teddy’s ice cream, you’re looking at the world completely differently.

People have healed from heartbreaks and anxieties and solved moral dilemmas by striding up and down that pier, alone or in tandem. One of the pier’s delights is that when walking you can’t help but hear snippets of private conversations.

The two women you just passed sounded like they were talking about what to do about their mother. The couple behind you are trying not to argue as they analyse a brother-in-law’s behaviour at a family event. The couple ahead of you are in the first flush of love (you can tell because she’s walking the 2.6km in high-heels, not yet ready to be seen in her jeans, T-shirt and flat-shoe glory).

You could write novels based on these little soap-opera snippets, though something about the acoustics of the pier means that a snippet is all you ever hear.

It might have something to do with the strange silence in what is a public space. Around one million people walk it every year, yet no matter how crowded it becomes, the pier is quiet. There’s no traffic noise, just the clinking of the boats and the sound of the water. Everyone walks with purpose, so that even though you’re in a crowd on sunny summer days, you can still feel solitary, and people out walking and talking can still feel a sense of privacy.

On summer evenings, it’s hard to walk the pier without seeing someone you know, yet you won’t be collared by anyone because everyone is after the same thing: a bit of peace.

Today on the East Pier there will be an event: the official opening of the refurbished Victorian bandstand, with the Garda and Army bands playing. In 1900, just after the bandstand had been built by a Glaswegian firm, the Kingstown Permanent Amusements Committee organised bands to play nearly every evening in the summer.

Also being opened today is the rather ironically named “sun shelter” – a Victorian glass roof with ornate metal detail that won’t keep out the sun, but is useful in the rain.

Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council has spent €400,000 on the project, which has been handed over to the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company to maintain. You might wonder whether restoring two not particularly thrilling icons is worth the price, but it’s all part of a discreet mental-health project, I think.

Historic buildings create a sense of place, and that sense of place grounds us. We like bringing our children and grandchildren to places that are the same as when we were kids. Such structures also help us see ghosts of the past – the Victorian women with their parasols, the hordes of emigrants, the 19th and early 20th century people who saw Dún Laoghaire, believe it or not, as a holiday destination. Long before airports, Kingstown, as it was known, had a glamorous feel, quite unlike main street Dún Laoghaire now, where €2 stores, charity shops and empty shopfronts dominate.

This summer, the East Pier Battery at the end of the pier will be open to the public, and Teddy’s will be selling its famous ice cream there, so you can have your vanilla cone with a Flake half-way through your walk, rather than having to wait until the end. (The Battery was created as a defence and a housing for guns. It’s one of only two places in the State where a 21-gun salute can be fired.)

Starting today, the East Pier will also feature wildlife tours of Dublin Bay and Dalkey Island run by Sea Safari, and c-cycles (pedal boats) for hire. Five telescopes have been set up at the Battery for use at €1 a go. These are all old-fashioned inexpensive pleasures, but perhaps such simple things are what we need right now to clear our heads.

For more on the pier and Dún Laoghaire Harbour, see dlharbour.ie