Skip to content

Dublin Conservation and Heritage Movement -1980s – By JayKay

JayKay has posted a number of comments on the site over the years, many adding extra information related to the post.  After his response to our two posts on the late Deirdre Kelly’s 1976 book “Hands off Dublin” we asked him to do a guest post on his 1980s experience with the conservation and heritage movement in Dublin.

JayKay has obliged and we thank him for sharing his press clippings  and taking the time to  write the post below.

I’d like to take some of the images from that time, from Deirdre’s book and other sources, and look at what has happened in the interim: did people in authority finally wake up and see the danger? Has the city become a better place since the dereliction of the 1970s? I would tend to think that the answer is yes… and no. Take a look and decide.

Where it all began for me was with, surprisingly enough, An Óige, which would normally be associated with outdoors activities decidedly well removed from an urban environment. In fact, this was never totally so: An Óige had, and has, one of its largest hostels in Dublin which up to the end of the 1980s was in a well-preserved Georgian building in Mountjoy Square also serving as its head office and there were always plenty of activities going on. There was a group of younger members who were already involved in conservation and heritage through their daily work and, with the support of the An Óige Council, they formed the An Óige Environmental Group in 1986.

The group wanted to capitalise on the great asset An Óige possessed in its extensive countrywide hostel network (then standing at over 50) by organising a range of different activities with environmental themes to raise awareness of the need for conservation and protection, using the hostel network as a base for access. Since the HQ was in Mountjoy Square, itself a badly run-down area at that time with many of its original Georgian buildings either derelict or demolished, it was natural that there should also be a strong focus on urban conservation, something I personally had been interested in for many years. So it wasn’t long before the newly established Environmental Group was in touch with various city conservation groups, one of which was Deirdre Kelly’s “Living City” Group. In that regard, the Irish Times’ Frank McDonald had accepted the invitation to chair the public launch of the group in Buswell’s Hotel and we were able to build on his support to good effect as will be seen later. His landmark book “The Destruction of Dublin” had been published only the year before and, together with his articles in the Irish Times, was sowing the seeds of awareness. Students again became very active, with “SADD” (Students Against the Destruction of Dublin) staging some attention-grabbing protests.

Deirdre Kelly and other campaigners had started the “Dublin Crisis Conference” some years before in an effort to mobilise the various groups to lobby for action – as much as to incentivise them in the general air of hopelessness that hung over the whole country at that time. As a pointer towards how bad things were, in 1986 there were over 600 cleared sites and derelict buildings within Dublin City, comprising 65 hectares, of which approximately 40 per cent was owned by Dublin Corporation itself. As the earlier post on Deirdre’s book showed, plans for a network of inner city dual carriageway roads encapsulated the “vision” of those in power, which was dominated to a huge extent by traffic management considerations with seemingly no overall strategic conservation policy.

It was in the light of these road plans, which seemed unstoppable, that the Crisis Conference in conjunction with the Liberties Action Group organised the protest march in November 1987 against the proposed widening of Clanbrassil Street, which still retained its historic width and layout but was seen by the road engineers as a prime candidate for a dual carriageway. Hundreds of people turned out on the evening of Monday 2nd November to march from the Liberties to City Hall, with SADD providing a voluble accompaniment of chanting US Marine–style over megaphones (Full Metal Jacket came out that year!).

Sadly, the vote subsequently went in favour of the widening proposals but there was a general sense that a corner had been turned and that things would start to improve – albeit slowly and with many more fights. Of course nobody could foresee just how rapidly this change would actually come but then, in November 1987, who would have thought that the Berlin Wall would be history in just two years? (in fact the Berlin of those days with its large expanses of wasteland had more than a passing resemblance to Dublin, although it had a far better reason for having them!).
This was the flyer for the Clanbrassil Street protest march:


The Environmental Group organised a series of evening walks in the summer months, in and around Dublin. This one in May 1987 was led by the then City Manager Frank Feeley, and he confirmed that the road widening plans would be modified. As far as I recall this was taken with considerably more than a grain of salt, given that there was no money for anything, anywhere, and we all thought it was just a temporary postponement of the evil day.


Click to read full Herald Article


The following year, 1988, with the road plans (it seemed) shelved but with very little, if anything, happening elsewhere in the nature of hopeful signs, we decided to organise an evening walk on the theme of “The Destruction of Dublin”, with Frank McDonald leading. The walk was to start at the Black Church and proceed along the areas suffering the worst dereliction from the inner-city road proposals i.e. Parnell St, North King St, Church St and over into the Liberties where the demolition of what remained of the original structures on the west side of Clanbrassil St was progressing for the widening. It was a terrific success, with perhaps up to a hundred taking part, and was a very sobering reminder of what the reality on the ground still was. The poster above was by yours truly:

Just to illustrate how bad things actually were back then, see below:
Lower Ormond Quay in the 1980s (large stretches of the Quays looked similar):


I well recall back in the early 1980s meeting young Italian backpacking visitors coming from Cork at Heuston station, and being so ashamed to take them down the Quays that I took them on a deliberate detour up past Dr. Steeven’s hospital and round by James’s St. – on the pretext that we’d have a look at Guinness’s (they being no strangers to the brew!). The top picture encapsulates exactly what a good deal of the cityscape – if one could dignify it with such a title – along the Quays looked like in those days. The bottom picture shows how much has changed and, whatever one’s views on reproduction architecture as seen on the extreme left, two of the original buildings (first two arrows) have survived, albeit only the facade of one (second arrow) with a complete new building inserted behind – it’s been sort of “re-invented” – and a new urban space has been created in the new lane running between the Quay and Great Strand St. behind. I have to say I quite like the arched feature (third arrow) which gives the new thoroughfare a bit more interest and definition, and the new buildings on the right are a good example of the modern idiom, blending in without slavish kow-towing to “the old” but yet more than holding their own as architecture.


It’s pretty impossible to recreate the original angle, which seems to have been taken from the block of flats overlooking the junction, but Google satellite helps a bit! The arrows show how what was set to become yet another Dublin road-planners’ eyesore has in fact been rescued with the original road-lines largely reinstated, and the buildings on the west side have survived. Hopefully the remaining derelict site along North Brunswick St. will be tackled also.
Again it’s difficult to recreate the original 1976 viewpoint because of the trees, but the left-hand arrow shows roughly where it was taken from – it seems the traffic median is exactly the same anyway: after all, we’ve got to respect our traffic-related heritage. Note that even in 1976 the original rather narrow Cornmarket had been radically widened (almost tripled, it was originally quite a bit narrower than High St. which has remained at its present width) – and was then left in that derelict state for almost two decades until the new developments commenced in the 1990s. The range of buildings in front of the medieval St. Audeon’s church has unfortunately gone and despite the new buildings on the south side I feel that it’s become a bit of a soul-less canyon, although the park surrounding St. Audeon’s is very interesting. The original quite small park dated back to 1895; its present much larger size is due to the fact that the buildings on the corner of Cornmarket and Bridge St. were demolished in the 70s.
While it might seem at first glance that the only difference is that the buildings on the west side have been replaced, in fact the street was almost doubled in width to take the dual carriageway. The arrow shows the approximate original width, where the traffic median is today. This is what the 1987 protest march was about. It’s still very dangerous crossing this street which with Clanbrassil St. has effectively become, as was warned, an urban motorway.

From roughly the same spot today (without the foreshortening) looking towards the Church of Ireland Synod Hall. What was an atmospheric and very historic street (the medieval St. Nicholas’ Gate was to the right), albeit in need of comprehensive regeneration, has become a dangerous and featureless freeway with only the Iveagh buildings giving it any character.
This view pretty much sums up a lot of the ass-ways “planning” that went on. Superficially they look much the same, but in fact every building in the lower picture is 1980s reproduction architecture, modern office spaces concealed behind mock “Georgian” facades, with the original diversity of form wiped out, not to mention having doors at a much higher – and more inaccessible – level than the originals. The point is: why were the original buildings demolished at all? They could easily have been restored, as has been done very successfully elsewhere. It’s a sad commentary that the only “original” building still left is the truly horrific 1963 office block, formerly known as Sugar Company House.
Well, to finish on a positive note, the fears Deirdre expressed in the 1976 caption happily did not come to pass, and this has actually been a pretty good example of urban regeneration, imho. Charlemont St. itself has been widened, as can be seen from the right-hand arrow which shows the original building-line, but most of the buildings on the left-hand side have survived and still thrive. Anyone who remembers this area in the 1980s will recall the huge derelict site that occupied the entire area on the right-hand side down to the corner of Peter Place (the 1982 issue of “In Dublin” featured in the 12 January 2014 BNR shows how appallingly bad it was). The Canal system was taken under OPW care in the mid-80s (now Waterways Ireland) and from then on substantial restoration took place, such that crowds now throng the lock opposite the Barge on sunny days. This could never have happened had the original road plans been carried out: a salutary reminder that it wasn’t called “road planners’ blight” for nothing, and of the very often thankless and lonely struggle that a few visionaries like Deirdre Kelly carried on at that time.

6 replies »

  1. Really excellent guest post by JayKay. Often said that when Britain sneezes, Ireland catches cold and the book review linked below from the weekend’s Irish Times outlines the extent to which post-WW2 British planners were in thrall to the motor car and indifferent to the needs and concerns of pedestrians and indigenous inner-city inhabitants…

    Like JK’s Italian tourists, visitors to Dublin in the post-WW2 decades were often under the impression that Ireland had been a participant in that conflict, whereas some of those sites had been left derelict since the destruction in 1916.

    Finally, referencing the 40% figure given above, I think it’s correct to say that 25% of currently boarded-up and undeveloped sites around the city are also owned by the City Council, which is indicative of the financial mess we’ve got ourselves into. With a lack of accommodation in the city, increasing rents and so many unemployed workers and struggling firms in the building trade; it’s hard to believe that ‘we’ own the sites, there is no scarcity of bricks and mortar and labour, but the powers-that-be can’t find the wherewithal to put it all together and get people and businesses back to work…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for that, Jake. Yes, we in Ireland certainly followed the UK model but lack of funding prevented a lot of the purely car-focused “planning” that was all the rage. There was actually a Dublin development plan in 1947 or so by the leading British town planner Abercrombie. I don’t actually know a whole lot about it but I suspect the Birmingham model would have been the result had it ever really got off the ground.


  3. “but lack of funding prevented a lot of the purely car-focused “planning” that was all the rage”. Hmmm… that’s a bit iffy as it stands. But that’s what you get for a rushed comment on a mobile!

    What I should have said was “… prevented a lot of the car-focused development that was all the rage being carried through”.

    In fact, the “planning” itself was there, of course, but in the Ireland of those days the worst elements couldn’t be carried out due to lack of funding. Instead, what they did was lay waste to large areas in the hope that when funding became available their plans would be executed. Frank McDonald’s “The Destruction of Dublin” is very illustrative of how it all began, as early as the 50s. Such a pity it’s out of print. Good photos in it as well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Keep Updated

BrandNewRetro on twitter      Brand New Retro on Facebook     subscribe & get eMail for new posts

Posts by Month