Sunday 23 October 2016

How Dublin 4 turned into Dublin forlorn

Kim Bielenberg drives up to a €171m car park and reflects on how it sums up post-boom Ireland

Published 08/08/2009 | 00:00

This week, the Dublin Horse Show has brought much-needed gaiety to an area that is going through troubled times. Dublin 4, the pulsing heart of Boomtown Ireland and the only Irish post code that became a term of derision, will never be poverty-stricken.

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The diplomats and lawyers who inhabit its tree-lined avenues will always ensure that it remains a by-word of affluence, but there is no doubt it has lost some of its lustre.

Even here, in a district of chi-chi cafés, hidden, glass-covered swimming pools and ambassadorial limos, 'To Let' signs have almost become fashionable accessories.

As thousands of rural visitors ambled over to the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society for the horse show, they may have noticed buildings lying empty with their gardens sprouting weeds.

Outside the more salubrious Ballsbridge Motors showroom on a sunny summer morning this week, a young man in overalls was diligently hosing down an apparently never-ending row of second-hand Mercedes with their 05, 06, and 07 reg plates gleaming. In a more prosperous time, these vehicles might have been snapped up in jig time, but who has upwards of €30,000 to spend on a used car nowadays?

The grandiose ambitions of developers to turn Dublin 4 into a mini version of Manhattan -- complete with its own gleaming skyscraper -- epitomised the gung-ho Celtic Tiger spirit.

Stretching from the coastal area of Sandymount to Donnybrook, Dublin 4 has long had a reputation as the poshest area in the capital.

The Dublin 4 address could always be guaranteed to add thousands, if not millions, to a property's value.

But the megabucks megabuilders who came to dominate this country and this district hoped to gild the lily with their dreams of glass skyscrapers.

Sean Dunne had aspirations to build his own Trump tower, a vast 32-storey structure close to Lansdowne Road. It was a diamond that would dwarf the Ritz.

Dunne's city-within-a-city featured an ice-rink and glass pyramids modelled on the Louvre in Paris.

Plummy local residents almost had to reach for the smelling salts when they saw the bold and extravagant plans.

There has always been a tension here between a genteel old money class that passed its wealth through generations, and the self-made "arrivistes".

Just next to Dunne's site, a less well-known figure, Ray Grehan, hoped to build an office, hotel and apartment complex on the site of an old veterinary college. He shelled out €171m on the site four years ago.

With a spanking new stadium to be built nearby, in 2007 the area was billed by property pundits as the "Golden Triangle".

This week there was more stark evidence that the recession has even seeped into the heart of Dublin 4.

Grehan, who paid a record amount for the Shelbourne Road site, has been forced to turn the place into a lowly car park in a bid to raise money.

He has been left with no other option after he shelved plans to develop the old college site due to the property crash.

This week, the horsey set have been parking their trucks there while they attend the show at the RDS.

The front of the building is a sorry sight. The walls are covered in graffiti and the flower beds are overgrown.

Over at the RDS, the straight-backed, jodphured country girls sitting on board their immaculately groomed horses at least gave the appearance of being cheerfully oblivious to the recession.

On a sunny morning, with the verdant RDS lawns as magnificently manicured as fingernails of the lurid best-dressed ladies, it simply was not the done thing to talk about economic woes, property busts and all that "boring stuff".

Traditionally, the show has turned Ballsbridge into one great party -- rivalled only by the Six Nations rugby internationals at nearby Lansdowne Road for their social significance. The crowds again brought good cheer this week, but even the equine frolics have been curtailed. The Dublin Horse Show ball, once the main social event of the week, was cancelled this year, to be replaced by a cut-price beano.

One of the ball's organisers, Peter Murphy of the epilepsy charity Brainwave, told me: "We were not confident that we could sell tickets for €150 each in the current recession.

"In the ball's heyday, we had people who might book a whole table and lots of corporate sponsors, but times have changed. Hopefully, it will be back again in the coming years."

The temporary exile of rugby and soccer internationals across the river to Croke Park has not helped the area through the early stages of the recession.

At rugby internationals in particular, the now defunct Jury's and Berkeley Court, and all the pubs around from Donnybrook to Ringsend, were thronged. The international weekend was the time of the traditional D4 mating ritual, when thousands of tipsy rugger huggers rubbed shoulders in bars -- and then perhaps went a little bit further.

The new stadium, to be completed next year, already looks magnificent, sweeping curvaceously across the skyline. When rugby returns, the Dublin 4 social scene will probably be revived, and the birth rate will probably go up.

For the moment, the old Jury's and Berkeley Court hotels are still operating as cheaper and less opulent versions of their former selves -- the Ballsbridge Inn and the Ballsbridge Court. The old Coffee Dock, once a refuge for all-night revellers, has been turned into a cheap and cheerful eatery offering "any pizza and a dessert" for €16.95. Rooms can be had for as little as €39.

It has become a cliché to suggest that Dublin 4 is not so much a place as a "state of mind".

The postcode, which came into being in the 1960s, was long used as a slur to describe an elite with liberal views. But over the past decade the Dublin 4, or D4, tag has shifted in meaning.

It now has connotations of a pampered generation of brats, sheltered from economic realities and dependent on daddy's credit card for €20 Champagne Mojitos and holidays in the Bahamas.

The new cut-price discount version of D4 is far from those glorious days of affluence when no expense was spared. It was an era when parents booked helicopters for their children's parties.

Back in the good old days, one Ballsbridge matron reportedly shelled out €45,000 on bedding plants for her son's communion party in a marquee. On the morning of the event, an unfortunate minion was spotted hairdrying the plants in order to get the damn flowers to bloom.

The partying spirit of Celtic Tiger Ireland seemed to reach its apogee two years ago when a property developer from outside the area threw a 21st birthday party in the local Four Seasons Hotel, and flew over the chart-topping band Girls Aloud by private jet at a cost estimated at up to €400,000.

Many of the plutocrats who bought up the most expensive streets on the Monopoly board, Ailesbury and Shrewsbury, have had the wind taken out of their sails, sometimes literally. There has never been a better time to buy an ocean-going yacht.

Times are a little bit harder -- many may have to do without a fifth foreign holiday this year -- but you can rest assured that this spot of unseemly bother is only temporary. Dublin 4 was fabulously wealthy before the Celtic Tiger arrived, and it is sure to rise again.

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