A Turn for the Better – Frank McNally on the view from one of Dublin’s most dramatic corners
An Irishman’s Diary
Heuston Station. “One of Dublin city’s most dramatic panoramas.” Photograph: Frank McNally
One of my favourite corners in Dublin, although it doesn’t even have a name, is the junction between Parkgate Street and Wolfe Tone Quay, where the Luas Red Line turns to cross the Liffey, heading for Heuston Station and the southside. Best appreciated on foot, it gradually reveals one of the city’s most dramatic panoramas. Off to your left, across the river, is the vast lower yard of Guinness’s. To your right, the even vaster greenery beyond the main entrance to Phoenix Park. Straight ahead is the impressive frontage of the 18th-century Dr Steevens’s Hospital, beside which the now-southbound Luas line climbs the hill along the brewery wall.
This corner of Dublin is where the Liffey ceases to be a meandering country river and goes fully urban. Like a train-traveller arriving at Heuston for an important meeting in town, it straightens itself up here and now heads for the city centre with renewed urgency, accompanied by steep walls on both sides.
Nor is it just the Liffey that undergoes transformation. The river now arriving under Platform 8 at Heuston is the lesser-spotted Camac, serving Saggart, Clondalkin, Inchicore, and Kilmainham, before entering a tunnel at St John’s Road and joining the mainline Liffey via a pipe.
Then there is the Italianate drama of Heuston itself. This may be one of Dublin’s least appreciated buildings, because people entering it tend to be in a hurry and because, once you’re through the front doors, it disappears, above and around you. Suddenly, you’re in the main railway plaza, which like most railway plazas, is a glorified shed.
The original 1846 design was to have extended farther back, before money ran out. But the handsome façade is still worth admiring. And it’s easier do that since a 1990s redesign turned the building’s face to the city. The night-time floodlighting now helps too.
As I realised only this week, however, the station’s Italian palazzo look may be best appreciated from an elevation of 30 metres. From there, you could also see the Dublin mountains beyond it.
Alas, this view is not available on the walking route. I only saw it thanks to a picture posted on Twitter by Ciaran Cuffe MEP, a resident of the lofty purlieus north of Parkgate Street. From where he captured it, Heuston was bathed in golden light, while the mountains beyond had just been bathed in hailstones. With a few jagged ridges, they could have been snow-capped alps, seen from Turin.
But even at ground level, the sky around Heuston also has its dramas. Tram-wires slash the air above you and occasionally threaten to slash the birds there too. Walking across Heuston Bridge once, I saw a swan, coming into land on the Liffey’s main runway, clip the wires and crash onto the Luas line instead.
Minus a few feathers, it survived, although clearly in need of a head injury assessment, it now tried to continue its descent via a hole in the floral-design iron railings of the old bridge. Unfortunately, the hole was half the width of the bird. But a passer-by who had seen this before calmly extracted the hapless creature and set it on an even keel above the railings, from where it fluttered safely down.
Getting back to the Camac, its arrival here is mostly unnoticed these days, but this was not always the case. Remember that summer in Dublin, when the Liffey it stank like hell? Well, apparently, much of the bouquet – sulphur dioxide with occasional notes of oil spillage and fish-kill – was acquired second-hand, from the Camac, once Dublin’s most polluted river.
A 1975 report on Liffey water quality put it even more starkly. “From its appearance, and from the dramatic deterioration of the uppermost part of the tidal estuary at Kingsbridge,” it read, “it is clear that the Camac would be better classified as a sewer.”
The cause was industrial pollution, from one source especially. When Clondalkin Paper Mills closed in the early 1980s, it cost many jobs. It also resulted in what a Dublin Corporation spokesman called a “spectacular improvement” in Liffey water quality. Despite a long hot summer in 1983, the smell Bagatelle’s song had immortalised only five years previously was all but gone.
The Camac clean-up reminds me of another feature of Parkgate Street corner. A small pond there is now home to the relocated Anna Livia sculpture, better known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi and by another rhyming nickname, somewhat ruder. The figure now sits in still water, facing Heuston. And while she looks a bit naked without the cascades of old, she undoubtedly gains in dignity from not having to share her new neighbourhood with a sewer.