Life

Thursday 21 August 2014

Our twin towers: once hated, now loved

The proposed demolition of the Poolbeg chimneys 
has divided opinion.

John Meagher

Published 16/07/2014 | 00:00

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On the face of it, few people should have any affection for the Poolbeg chimneys at the ESB plant in Dublin. Standing 207 metres tall and dominating the skyline of the city's striking horseshoe-shaped bay, these discoloured steam stacks with their faded red-and-white stripes are ugly remnants of a recent industrial past.

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And yet, remarkably, they have come to be regarded as among the most beloved structures in the entire country. "The overwhelming feeling I have had from people is one of love," says Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, who has been at the forefront of a campaign to save them from demolition.

Dog-walking on Dublin’s Sandymount Strand with the giant Poolbeg chimneys dominating the skyline Photo: Steve Humphreys.

"They have become the iconic backdrop of the city, whether it's in movies, music videos, photographs, whatever," he says. "People might have been unsure of them when they were first constructed, but today most seem to have a lot of affection for them because they have come to symbolise Dublin.

"They're the first structures you see clearly when you fly into Dublin and they're the last that you see when you fly out. In that respect, they have resonance for all Irish people, because they're a marker of leaving or arriving in the country."

the chimneys that have stood alongside each other since 1978 - the first one was completed in 1971 after construction had started two years earlier - could be knocked by the end of this year as the ESB is arguing that they may become too costly to maintain.

ESB chief Pat O'Doherty points out that they have not been used since 2010 and there are no plans to re-commission them, but insists that any decision to demolish them will be made in consultation with Dublin City Council.

Cllr Lacey called for a motion for the chimneys to be listed for protection at an emergency meeting of local councillors on Monday night. It's a view shared by Chris Andrews, the former Fianna Fail TD and now a Sinn Fein councillor.

"They have stitched themselves into our cultural landscape," he says. "While they may not have the architectural merits of Georgian or Victorian Dublin, for instance, they should be placed on a protected-structure list. The first McDonald's restaurant in America is protected - not because it is of architectural importance, but because it has cultural significance. Anybody who questions the cultural importance of the Poolbeg chimneys should think of all the movies, TV programmes and ads that have featured the stacks.

"They've become immediate signifiers of Dublin - and in a matter of a few generations. The fact that you can see them from all over the city means they are part of the backdrop of so many of our lives and, of course, they're part of life for the tens of thousands of Dart users every day."

Pat Liddy, the author of several books on the history of Dublin and the creator of the city's best-known walking tour, acknowledges that the giant structures have become an emblem of the capital - "the totem poles of Dublin" - but he questions the cost of keeping them.

Poolbeg chimneys from across Sandymount Strand (Photo: Denise Calnan)

"They serve no function any more and are essentially decorative," he says. "We need to know how easily and safely they can be maintained and how much their upkeep will cost. They appear to be corroding badly. Will the ESB pay for it, or the tax-payer?"

As a painter, Liddy has often been drawn to Sandymount Strand near the chimneys . "They have a certain beauty about them," he says, "but I wonder would people really miss them if they were gone?" He points out that an imposing gasometer stood on Dublin's Sir John Rogerson's Quay and dominated the docklands skyline for more than 50 years until it was demolished in the early 1990s, but insists that "nobody ever mentions it today. It's as though it never existed. People's memories are selective."

Despite this, Liddy says the chimneys didn't take long to become an emblem of Dublin. In his book, Dublin be Proud, he wrote of how they had come to symbolise his city. That was in 1987 - less than 10 years after the second chimney was constructed.

Cllr Lacey believes the chimneys would be greatly missed. "When you think about it, they're there dominating the background during fun, recreational times - whether it's walking along Sandymount Strand or swimming at Seapoint."

Cllr Lacey believes there is potential to create a tourist facility at their base. "You could have a museum celebrating our industrial past. There could be a cafe there. There are lots of possibilities. As for the cost of maintaining the chimneys as they are, I don't accept that it would set the ESB back an awful lot to preserve them."

In the days that have followed since Pat O'Doherty suggested the chimneys could be pulled down, there have been a number of social-media campaigns to have the structure preserved. There have also been several suggestions about how best to utilise the facility.

Two stand up paddle boarders pass the poolbeg towers in Dublin Harbour. Photo: Laura Hutton/ Photocall Ireland

One of the more inventive ideas has emerged from the Dun Laoghaire-based interior designer Michael O'Mara, who believes that a 'sky-bridge' could be built between the two near their tips and would offer the potential for bungee jumping.

He insists that the plan, which would involve a cafe with unrivalled views of Dublin and the eastern coastline, has the potential to become an international landmark. It is a massive opportunity to develop a prime piece of real estate. If you look to the Opera House in Sydney or the Eiffel Tower, this could be Dublin's chance to have something like that."

Poolbeg Power station at the Pigeon House in Ringsend, Dublin City. Picture:Arthur Carron/Collins
Poolbeg Power station at the Pigeon House in Ringsend, Dublin City. Picture:Arthur Carron/Collins

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