Listed suburb – An Irishman’s Diary about the greatness of Kilmainham
Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Photograph: George Munday/ Getty Images
We all like to think we live in a great place, but I was delighted to see this week that my Dublin neighbourhood of Kilmainham has been formally recognised as just that, by an international body.
The London-based Academy of Urbanism has named it on a shortlist of 10 locations from which the 2019 “Great Place in the UK and Ireland” will be chosen.
And yes, the competition is tough, including Derry’s Guildhall Square, as well as Granary Square in London, with its “1,000 fountains”. But if I may speak on behalf of an entire suburb, we are in no way intimidated.
The nomination’s specific focus is Kilmainham Civic Plaza, one of the finer legacies of the 1916 centenary. It coincided with refurbishment of the old courthouse as an extension of Kilmainham Gaol, and involved widening footpaths, narrowing access to Inchicore Road, and other “traffic-calming” measures.
The traffic could do with even more calming, in my opinion, because that car-choked artery, the South Circular Road, still runs through the area.
In an ideal world, I would dig a tunnel at the bottom of the hill in Islandbridge and, as a sideways tribute to the 1916 conspiracy, turn the local traffic into an underground movement too. But that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.
In the meantime, the plaza is a vast improvement on what was already one of Dublin’s more interesting junctions, one of those places that you normally hear of only as a metaphor at summer schools – a crossroads of history.
I was briefly alarmed of late, by the way, when browsing the Twitter account of a local pub, the Royal Oak.
Promoting a certain drink, the proprietor there had recommended it be enjoyed with “one of our excellent selection of guns”.
I know the pub is across the road from an old military hospital but offering customers a “selection of guns” seems a bit over the top.— Frank McNally (@FrankmcnallyIT) April 12, 2018
And if the first-mentioned drink had been whiskey – which is indeed sometimes offered as accompaniment to a revolver – this would have been even more worrying. In fact, the first drink was nothing stronger than “grapefruit tonic water”. So of course it was their selection of “gins”, not “guns”, the pub meant to recommended mixing it with.
Still, the typo was more than usually plausible in our neighbourhood.
The pub’s stately neighbours include the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, which for 250 years housed wounded soldiers from the British army’s various wars, starting at the Boyne and ending with Irish independence.
Little but the aforementioned South Circular now separates the RHK Officer Cemetery from the extended Republican shrine that Kilmainham Gaol has become, although this tense, eternal face-off is lightened by the joke of having the Gaol’s no-frills accommodation facility juxtaposed in turn with a modern Hilton Hotel.
All this, combined with the 1980s reinvention of the RHK as Irish Museum of Modern Art, has placed a once-neglected suburb firmly on the tourist map.
If anything, we now get too many visitors, although I say this only because of a recent incident involving some young Asian women and a pizza.
I’m used to seeing people look lost at the end of my road: they’re usually searching for the gaol and have found the hospital instead. In this case, there were seeking the “Clare Street entrance” to the art museum.
This was a new one on me.
So I had to think a moment before assuring them that there was no Clare Street anywhere locally, but that there was one in the city centre, and funnily enough, it also had a major art gallery, the National Gallery of Ireland.
I added, as gently as possibly, that it was about “three kilometres” away.
But they greeted this news with obvious distress, before setting off again on foot. I hope the pizza wasn’t supposed to be hot.
Getting back to local tourist map, it has been hoped for years that our already rich tapestry of historic attractions would be added to eventually by a restored Kilmainham Mills.
Alas, the fate of that building, on the characterfully-named Rowserstown Lane, has had more turns than the river Camac, which runs alongside it and powered milling for centuries.
In the latest twist, the site was offered for sale by receivers, with potential buyers including Dublin City Council.
But the council’s offer was turned down and, instead, to the concern of the Save Kilmainham Mills campaign, the new owners are something called Quanta Capital/Goldstein Fund, or an entity under that umbrella.
The mills remain on the council’s protected buildings list, so there are limits to what anyone can do there.
Pending more information about the mystery investors, however, heritage campaigners will worry about getting caught – to coin a phrase – with their Rowserstown.