Saturday 20 December 2014

The people can reclaim the silent watchmen

The Poolbeg Chimneys are no longer the ESB's to do with as they wish, says Brendan O'Connor. They belong to us now

Published 27/07/2014 | 02:30

poolbeg
dublin 
pic mark condren
february 2009
Poolbeg Dublin
Plans for Poolbeg Chimneys

In one sense there is nothing natural about the Irishtown Nature Reserve. Certainly, it is remarkable in that it is probably just a mile from the centre of a European capital, but once you get into it, it feels incredibly remote.

You are by the sea as well and early mornings, or in the evening, you get stunning views over lunar sandscapes and seascapes, weird textures and colours you don't see anywhere else - some of the colours are no doubt connected to pollution of some form. You also get the kind of huge skies you never get in a city centre, and you walk on sand, soil and stone.

But this is not pretty nature, or even natural nature. You don't associate it with birdsong and flowers. This is harsher nature, and growing up through it is an equally harsh post-industrial landscape.

When you walk out the top of Sandymount beach and through the reserve and out the other side down as far as the South Wall, the feeling is not one of being enveloped in Eden. While it does take you away from the city, the mood is less pastoral, more post-apocalyptic. There is a haunting strangeness and grimness about the place. It's the kind of place you'd expect them to make a zombie film.

Indeed, as you hit the road again down towards the South Wall you will pass the car park where Colm Meaney memorably, and with dignity, lived in his car in Parked, an initially bleak but deceptively warm Irish movie. From that point of view the place was perfectly cast.

The wonder and awe of nature, but stark and modern too, and with small specks of humanity beavering around in there.

If this area had old statues and Victorian gardens it would of course be deemed an area of conservation, perhaps a Unesco World Heritage site. But it's not as obvious as that, so it is a slightly forgotten waste ground. As you walk through it, metal fences and mysterious looking power-plant buildings loom up through the landscape. But, in fact, they don't ruin the character of the place. They are the character of the place.

The jewel in the crown of this strange limbo is the South Wall. For anyone who walks it, the wall had a special place in their heart. It is a beautiful, haunting place where you walk in a straight line over broken stonework out into the sea. Indeed, on a stormy winter's day with high tide, the seas often seems to be reclaiming the wall, spilling over from either side until it envelopes it. Or if there is mist, you can feel like you are walking into a mysterious nothingness, the lighthouse at the end not even visible.

And all around you the ecosystem is a uniquely modern one. Old geezers getting in to swim at the swimming club half way down, lads fishing and having a few joints. Recently you'll notice that a lot of Asians seem to have taken to fishing off the wall. You'll notice the odd Dub schooling them in it some evenings.

Older people just come and park and sit, to be haunted by it all and to watch the world go by.

And then you get to the end, swing around at the lighthouse and you begin the walk home. Coastal south Co Dublin stretches out to your left, the northside to your right out as far as Howth, and in front of you the docks and the ghosts of the docks and of course the chimneys, the two towers of Poolbeg that loom and watch silently over it all.

They bid farewell to the boats that head out and cause waves against the wall, slow monsters of ferries that glide quietly past you, and they welcome home the planes.

Their original purpose long gone, they have now transcended their brutalist, utilitarian roots to become something of beauty in their own right, a symbol of Dublin, and as much a part of the skyline as the other twin towers were. What may once have been seen to be ugly has acquired a grace and a warmth and a personality simply by virtue of hanging in there.

A landscape is a growing, evolving thing, a palimpsest on to which the story of a city is written and rewritten. And through boom and bust, as a city grows and then retrenches and then grows again, the patina of time gets written on to it, the textures of the past. And things like the chimneys become part of that patina, part of that story.

Sean Scully has a book of photos of stone walls on Aran. Because to him, they are "much more than functional barriers on the land. They are anonymous sculptures that reflect the elemental nature of life on this windswept and rocky terrain."

The chimneys, in their own way, reflect the elemental nature of urban life in Dublin. And in a sense, they have been colonised by the locals and turned into something other that what they were, in a kind of bottom-up planning process.

Architects and city planners around the world are starting to turn their attention to spontaneous, unplanned, informal development, like barrios and favelas, for solutions to housing the poor. There is a growing notion that some of these "slums" may not be a problem to be cured, but a solution from which we can learn, like the Torre David in Caracas, an unfinished office block from the 1990s which has now become a vertical barrio, where life and commerce teem in this reclaimed space.

In Dublin's most recent recession, the hipster economy that has grown out of areas like Smithfield essentially recolonised dead commercial spaces in Dublin and brought life to them again. And the hipster aesthetic welcomed the retooling of these places, while preserving the patina of time, because while the hipsters fetishise the future through their embrace of technology, they also fetishise the past through their embrace of the crafty and the authentic.

In a similarly spontaneous, organic act of democratic planning, the people of Dublin have rezoned, retooled, reimagined and given a second life to the Poolbeg towers.

This is the ultimate reclaimed space, life breathed back into the chimneys, as the watchers, the welcomers and the ones who say goodbye. They are no longer the ESB's to do with as they will. They have been reclaimed by those who live under their watchful shadow.

It is as well the council stopped the ESB from destroying this icon of our city, its past and its future and its ebb and flow. The ESB will now have to get planning permission if they wish to destroy them. We can only hope in the name of Garth Brooks that this planning is never forthcoming, that the post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, reclaimed natural wasteland of the south city remains intact.

Especially so for all of those who walk out into the sea, into themselves, 'Heart of Darkness' style, and leave their troubles out there, before being welcomed back in along the wall by the watchers.

Sunday Independent

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