Darragh Moriarty searches for answers on a walk down O’Connell Street
In the past twenty years or so O’Connell Street has undergone extensive renovation and regeneration. Having been formally planned and laid out between the 1740’s and the early 1800’s the street has had quite a history since.
Previously known as Sackville Street under British rule, here it was renamed in 1924 after Daniel O’Connell, sovaldi a Kerryman whose monument sits at the bottom of the street looking towards the River Liffey. O’Connell Street was designated as Architectural Conservation Area in July of 2001. This essentially meant that Dublin City Council wanted to preserve and enhance the image that O’Connell Street was projecting to the public, particularly aiming towards Ireland’s growing tourism industry at the time. 2001was smack-bang in the middle of Ireland’s now infamous ‘Celtic Tiger’. Planning Permission reins had indeed been loosened and enterprise was rife all over the country but particularly in the Dublin’s city centre. Through this policy, efforts were now being made to control the commercialization of O’Connell Street.
There were a number of objectives high on the agenda of the Spatial Planning Scheme. Particular attention was to be paid to restoring and maximising the use off all buildings. This maximising would occur by trying to use the upper and basements levels as well as ground levels for commercial purposes. Measures were also to be implemented that would encourage uniformity in the presentation of shopfronts. Another objective of the development scheme was to promote the appropriate mix of uses on the street for example, to limit the amount of fastfood restaurants and takeaways. They don’t seem to have done a particularly good job in achieving this objective considering there are two McDonalds and two Burger Kings, not to mention an Eddie Rockets and Supermacs, standing on O’Connell Street. A further objective was to control advertisement and its exhibition on the street. This aim to constrain advertising and ensure that it is carried out in a tasteful way that does not in any way diminish the historical appearance of O’Connell Street differs from the policy in play in a highly commercialised setting such as New York City’s Times Square where every inch of space that it is possible to advertise on is duly exploited. The final objective of the initiative was to promote high quality and inclusive design to improve the quality of the public realm and open spaces. This essentially meant, make it look nicer!
At nearly 50 metres wide and 500 metres long there’s a lot of space to fill on Dublin’s main street. It consists of wide footpaths on both sides as well as a pedestrian area in the centre. This feature was developed under the Spatial Planning scheme. It is on this central area where O’Connell Street’s monuments are situated. In 1899 the foundation stone was laid to dedicate a monument to Charles Stewart Parnell, ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’ according to his followers. Situated at the top of the street the monument wouldn’t be fully finished until 1911 making it the last monument erected under British rule. Walking south on Dublin’s great street the infamous ‘Spire’ is next. In 1966 plans were made by the government to commemorate the Easter Rising, but it seemed inappropriate to celebrate such a momentous event under the shadow of Nelsons Pillar, a symbol of Empire rule. Difficulties may have arose had the government decided to tear down the monument as there may have been some opposition from across the water and up north. Republican bombings meant the government didn’t have a decision to make and the spot remained idle until 2003 when the construction of ‘The Spire’ concluded. ‘The Spire of Dublin, The Monument of Light’ to give it its official name now sits centre stage on Dublin’s most historically significant street. A quote from the Executive Summary on the Architectural Conservation Area of O’Connell Street states: “It must be stressed that it is not intended to prevent development. Instead, it is intended to ensure that development, when it takes place combines positively with the historic fabric and is to a high design standard”. When designing this monument ‘combining positively with the historic fabric’ of O’Connell Street seems to have been thrown out the window. How can a 121 metre high spike be the main attraction at the centre of the street at the centre of our capital city? Maybe if other buildings were modernised and plans to preserve O’Connell Street’s historical design hadn’t been implemented this scheme wouldn’t be contradicted by the ‘Spire’. This is an expensive meeting place. This is the only purpose I can think of for the ‘Spire. That is; if you’re meeting people on O’Connell Street who aren’t entirely familiar with the street, you tell them that you’ll meet them there. Some people claim the monument was a waste of money, but the fact is, something was being built on the idle plot anyway. Personally, considering the initiative launched by the council, something more in keeping with the street could have been put in place, instead of this spike.
Continuing our journey down O’Connell Street we come to ‘Big’ Jim Larkin’s monument. Erected in 1979, it captures Larkin with his arms outstretched appearing to be appealing or attempting to inspire an audience he was delivering a speech to. This differs from the other monuments as the sculptor Oisín Kelly tried to capture Larkin in action by depicting him displaying his oratorical prowess.
The Daniel O’Connell statue at the foot of the street is both impressive in its design and its significance. Erected in 1882 on Sackville Street where only members Castle administration or the British royal family were commemorated, special dispensation was granted to commemorate one of Irelands leading revolutionaries whose writings inspired many others seeking to rebel. Monuments such as those of O’Connell, Larkin and Parnell are historically meaningful while the ‘Spire’ simply is not.
With shopping districts located in the surrounding areas of O’Connell Street it’s no wonder the street is also the focal point of public and private transport with every other vehicle being either a city bus or a taxi. While this allows easy access to Dublin’s city centre maybe the huge levels of buses that pass through the street contradict the council’s plans to limit advertising. With the sides of each city bus consisting of the latest upcoming cinema releases or a new breakfast cereal O’Connell Street is saturated with advertising. Although this is done indirectly through the huge levels of buses commuting through our main street it is still nonetheless a contradiction of the council’s attempts to limit such advertising. With plans for new Metro North system to go up or rather under O’Connell Street, the area is set to become an even busier transport hub than it already is. At the current rate, with the Luas, Dublin Bus and the ‘put on the long finger’ but still imminent Metro North, it won’t be long until they’re attempting to land planes on Dublin’s main street with advertising spaces on each wing.
O’Connell Street is the centre of a vibrant city where programs or schemes or initiatives or plans have been put in place to ensure certain practices are not carried out. Yes, under these schemes nice trees have been situated in a nice orderly coherent way on the newly developed wider footpaths and central pedestrian areas. And yes, a more stringent Planning Permission process has been put in place. But, the inevitable but, the ‘Spire’ and the reasons for its existence and the way in which advertising is shoved indirectly albeit down people’s throats cannot be excused. The number of insignificant fast-food outlets when an ‘appropriate mix’ was supposed to occur also contradicts the plans for O’Connell Street made by Dublin City Council.
In a time of prosperity plans were put in place and now these plans have evaporated under harder economic circumstances. O’Connell Street is too important for these plans not to be fulfilled.