Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The recent loss of popular murals and local pubs is fueling a deeper angst over mass tourism, redevelopment and urban transformation in the Irish capital.
This month, Dubliners are saying goodbye to David Attenborough. A giant mural celebrating the naturalist’s 93rd birthday appeared on the streets of the Irish capital this summer, staring out from the windowless wall of a Georgian row house. The mural was well received, but now the city council insists that the artwork (approved by the building’s owner) was unauthorized and must come down.
A tempest in a teacup? It might be, if the Attenborough mural’s removal wasn’t just one of a long, ongoing string of losses to Dublin’s public sphere.
Spotted in Dublin. pic.twitter.com/kIdVitLMZK— SUBSET (@SubsetDublin) May 25, 2019
The past few years have seen several of Dublin’s murals painted over, street markets canceled, and bars and cultural venues closed. Often, the things replacing them are facilities for tourists. With many fearing that the city’s vitality and character is being permanently stripped away, there’s a growing concern that Dublin risks being totally surrendered to pressures created by developers and the tourist industry.
Among this month’s notable casualties is the Bernard Shaw, a pub and live music venue with a reputation for having great music. Eatyard, a street food market on the plot next door, will also close come October. Also leaving is the Tivoli Theatre, a 1930s building due to be replaced by a hotel. This comes on the heels of a popular nightclub that closed last year, and the proposed internal demolition of a popular traditional pub on the city’s Northside. And the Attenborough mural isn’t the only street art that is disappearing. A prominent mural of a red squirrel was demolished—yet again for a hotel—in August, as was a mural celebrating Dublin’s urban bareback horseriders.
This steady drip of closures is seen by many as evidence of a wider crisis, a hollowing out of the city’s vitality that risks going beyond a reparable tipping point. Twitter in particular has been full of laments for what’s being lost.
Bernard Shaw and Eatyard being forced to close, I could ACTUALLY scream, the hack of this town and its complete lack of foresight when it comes to anything that provides any semblance of culture for its people— Fionnuala (@FionnualaJay) September 9, 2019
Given the strength of the backlash, it’s unsurprising that criticism of the Bernard Shaw’s closure has been damned as “hysteria” by one commentator—but the reaction is arguably one of built-up frustration that’s finally finding an outlet. Meanwhile, a group of city councillors (from the Green, Labour and Social Democratic parties) have called for a special council meeting to discuss the closures, which they believe are a “symbol of Dublin’s cultural crisis” exacerbated by public policy.
Many of Dublin’s current problems, it should be acknowledged, are side effects of success. The city’s economy is booming. Dublin registered record employment levels in the final quarter of 2018, while the city has set itself a target of 3 million more tourist arrivals annually by 2028. In a country where the construction of new housing, public and otherwise, is currently falling far short of government targets, the result is a mounting housing crisis in which something inevitably has to give. As CityLab has previously noted, Dublin’s housing market is already stretched. The cumulative transformation of contemporary Dublin nonetheless reaches beyond homes, as locals see amenities submerged under the lava flow of the tourist industry and the rise of a blanker, more amenable canvas for developers.
An anecdote from a column by commentator Una Mullaly gives a snapshot of the rapid pace and tenor of change. Earlier this year, she notes, a “street art hotel”—that is, tourist accommodation decorated with work from street artists—was recently opened in Dublin’s Smithfield neighborhood, around the corner from a mural threatened with being painted over. Before anyone had barely a chance to make a joke about the crass irony of this juxtaposition, the threatened mural’s building had been demolished.
Changes like this might be resented but soon forgotten in a huge city like London or New York. Dublin, however, is not a big place. It has charm and vitality, but not a seemingly infinite number of spots for these qualities to express themselves. With just under 1.2 million people in its urban area, it’s a city where every cultural opportunity, every remaining characterful nook, counts for a lot. Remove one and the resulting sense of loss and disequilibrium is hard to overcome.
Local frustration comes, as this letter to the Irish Times suggests, in part from a sense that the city cracks down hard on planning breaches and street art while being notably less effective when it comes to managing more serious issues like traffic and pollution. So why isn’t more being done?
Part of the explanation is that the city’s council and the country’s overseeing planning board are taking a hands-off attitude. Both tend to take decisions that reflect an understandable keenness to keep pumping the economy up. That is fair enough—but their model for the city hinges on a brute trickle-down model that assumes that if Dublin can continue to attract high earners, everything will somehow turn out fine for everyone else.
Indeed the city council’s language is subtly saturated with indifference for the less wealthy. According to its senior economic development officer, housing costs and public transit limitations pose a problem because they hamper Dublin’s “ability to attract and retain the world-class talent that we need to propel key sectors forward.” The possibility of Dublin developing itself out of the livability that is a key attraction for outside investors is indeed a worry. But when the city’s problems are presented primarily as an unwelcome brake on attracting wealthy incomers, it’s perhaps no wonder that concerns of less elite Dubliners—indeed the continued feasibility of their remaining in the city—takes a back seat.
Calls for more protection for the everyday venues and corners that make Dublin characterful and livable may be growing by the day. For now, however, there seems to be too little meaningful commitment from the city’s government to preserving quality of life—and with it staving off the growing sense that a watershed is being breached.