Why should Dublin’s O’Connell Street need to carry the load of our national expectations, just like the granite plinth at the doorway to the road that bears the bronze bulk of Daniel O’Connell himself?
ecause Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Collins, among the many patriot dead, were paraded down this majestic boulevard while sombre crowds looked on, it’s a straightforward goal.
But the fact is that it’s just one other primary street, little different from another within the cities and towns of contemporary Ireland: A spot where antisocial behaviour abounds, residents discard litter with abandon and tacky outlets benefit from the general public appetite for fast food.
Last Tuesday, just across the time Prime Time was trashing O’Connell Street, a pleasant guy in a black and white striped outfit was standing outside a tent erected on the plinth that runs along the centre of what the programme described as “the spiritual heart of Ireland”.
He’s on hunger strike. After I asked why, he delved into his yellow tent and got here out with seven demands that he says, if not met, may even see him within the mortuary.
He wants housing for all, an end to hospital waiting lists, free water for the masses. In a way he’s a metaphor for what we expect of O’Connell Street: The unimaginable.
Formerly Sackville Street and before that Drogheda Street (because it was originally developed by Henry Moore, third Earl of Drogheda) O’Connell Street will not be the “spiritual heart” of Ireland — it’s just a protracted, once-elegant thoroughfare that has fallen out of fashion.
After many incarnations it has now gone to seed, beset by a concoction of greedy developers, rapacious drug pushers, individuals who can’t hold their liquor and feral gurriers with no fear of authority.
Yes, the scenes depicted on Prime Time were horrible, but I’ve seen brawls in Donnybrook involving private school boys after a senior cup match and in Dalkey on a gorgeous day after the primary lockdown, a full-scale rolling maul along the Major Street.
The state of O’Connell Street is now the topic of dinner-party conversation within the suburbs, the consensus being that it’s unsafe for atypical residents. It’s hard to argue with this conclusion, although I worked in and around there for 40 years and never really felt any fear, while seeing flashes of the malevolence that may suddenly erupt.
“Some would say that the fate of O’Connell Street was sealed when the varied burger joints arrived within the Seventies with their vulgar plastic fronts and their low cost, processed food,” wrote Peter Pearson in his erudite The Heart of Dublin, published 22 years ago. “They continue to be on the street today, producing vast quantities of throwaway cartons and mountains of black refuse bags.”
He adds that there are numerous buildings and businesses on O’Connell Street “that reflect the dignity of the road and have gone to great lengths to keep up high-quality shop fronts”. But then Dublin all the time had about it a likeably seedy air. Because the poet Louis MacNeice wrote in Dublin:
“And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse.”
It wasn’t only Nelson who watched with horror the changing face of the road, meticulously rebuilt after the demolition of 1916.
Great names like Kingston’s department store, W&A Gilbey, the Capitol, Carlton and Pillar “picture houses”, Alex Findlater’s grocery shop, Sir James Mackey’s seed shop and the Catholic Industrial Club at No 42, the last surviving constructing from Luke Gardiner’s original street of the 1700s, are gone, although a number of the buildings survive.
As Pete St John recalled in his song The Rare Ould Times, ‘The Met’ (Metropole) and lots of other great landmarks of O’Connell Street were either torn down or disfigured within the buccaneering era of the “men in mohair suits” in the course of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies. In 1966 IRA-leaning ‘patriots’ blew up its focus, Lord Nelson standing on his magnificent plinth designed by Francis Johnston.
In Tom Corkery’s Dublin, published in 1980, the creator recalled that “it definitely was not the customary thing for any snooty southsider to drink north of the river”, so perhaps its dislocation from the broader city will not be so surprising now.
As for the crack cocaine within the alleyways off O’Connell Street, that exact scourge was first revealed back in 2003 on this newspaper by Jimmy Guerin.
The interminable rows concerning the way forward for the Carlton Cinema site and other yawning gaps haven’t helped its image. But there are hopes that the resurrection of Clerys may bring a revival.
As you pass the Gresham Hotel today you can’t but reflect on its glory days of the past. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco stayed there, Richard Burton battled in an upstairs bedroom along with his wife Liz Taylor while her pet monkey wrecked the suite, and Muhammad Ali strolled out the front door with the film director John Huston before his title fight in Croke Park with Al ‘Blue’ Lewis on July 19, 1972.
It wasn’t even the primary great boxing match. In 1923 Mike McTigue fought for the World Light Heavyweight title on St Patrick’s night against ‘Battling Siki’ within the La Scala Theatre. The event got here to Dublin due to prejudice against the black Senegal boxer in London and went ahead after the Free State justice minister, Kevin O’Higgins, faced down threats by the IRA.
As I passed along at about 8.30pm last Tuesday night, groups of food delivery cyclists gathered across the base of Daniel O’Connell’s memorial, an empty bottle of vodka was thrown on the feet of William Smith O’Brien, and someone appeared to have peed beneath the plinth of Fr Mathew, founding father of the temperance movement. 4 gardaí huddled within the portico of the GPO, chatting.
Later I saw certainly one of them on an eagle-eyed lookout for trouble. That might be the largest problem with O’Connell Street; even when all is peaceful, with people perambulating along talking in all styles of foreign languages, it seems to carry out the prospect of lurking danger.
We are able to all hark back to the glory days, of the O’Connell Street we knew, when newspaper vendors were besieged for the primary edition on a busy news day, when taxi men loitered in gangs at their ranks and characters like Bang Bang, Dancing Mary or Mad Maggie provided a sideshow to a life before social media.
Possibly the answer is for atypical Dubliners to reclaim the road by taking the difficulty to walk along its wide pavements, taking in its modern-day sights and sounds.
If it’s abandoned to the thugs and feral gangs there is no such thing as a hope.
We’d like to understand it again and the planners, although they’ve been doing their best, must bring its derelict sites back to life. And yes, it needs a properly staffed garda station to cope with crime before it happens, not only to attend for tourists to be mugged or a passer-by attacked, in order that their details may be recorded for posterity.