Tuesday 12 December 2017

Dun Laoghaire library: They built it... and they came

Sea view: Dun Laoghaire’s controversial new library
Sea view: Dun Laoghaire’s controversial new library

Sophie Gorman

Who knew a book repository could provoke so much controversy? But ever since it was announced back in 2012 that Dun Laoghaire was building itself a brand new state of the art 6,500 square foot library at a cost of €36.6m, feathers have been ruffled.

Some critics claimed the new modern design was nothing short of a 'monstrosity', that it was single-handedly destroying the Victorian seafront vista. It seemed doomed before a single book was placed on a shelf.

Thankfully, it survived the slings and arrows and the dlr LexIcon is now open for business. And what business it is doing. Arrive on a Saturday afternoon and you will find yourself one of more than 3000 visitors reading books, using computers, enjoying the extraordinary views out over the sea.

For this dramatic new building does not actually intrude on the seafront, instead it is in line with the Pavilion Theatre and provides a vital link between the popular marina and the town centre. And clearly the local population (and also the not so local population) have given it a ringing endorsement with their feet. More than 80,000 people have turned up since it had a soft opening in December, that is more than 10,000 a week. And it doesn't even have all its books yet.

"What is particularly satisfying for me is the diversity of our visitors," says county librarian Mairead Owens. "Yes, we are getting the children and the school groups, but we are getting a lot of retired people and college students too, using it as a proper library rather than just a curiosity."

The library officially opens at the end of March and it will also be a key venue in the upcoming Mountains to Sea book festival (mountainstosea.ie). Where the library is built was previously a solid granite escarpment, they had to drill down into the rock. And this investment is not just in the building itself, the LexIcon includes significant outside space development too. There are landscaped gardens and green spaces. A polluted water reservoir has been re-imagined as a series of connected ponds. What was considered an anti-social space around the entrance to the Maritime Museum has now been opened up for a broad walkway from the coast to the centre of the town.

Its dramatic architecture has won as many fans as dissidents. Controversially, it is built perpendicular to the coastline rather than the more traditional and familiar parallel Dun Laoghaire structures. And much debated are the almost dinosauresque humps on the roof; picture a stegosaurus.

"I'm not sure about the dinosaur connection," laughs Mairead, "but they are like the spine of our building and they are not purely decorative. The building is naturally ventilated and they are chimneys. They take all of the carbon dioxide out and bring the fresh air in."

This is just one of a number of novel innovations in this truly modern library. There is a children's library, a large art gallery space, a studio space for spoken word events and even a laptop library with 24 laptops you can borrow for free to use in the library. Not to mention that this is the only public library in the country with an automated book sorter. You place your book through a slot and watch as it travels on conveyor belts to a sorter, where the code is read and then it disappears to be relocated on the correct shelf. Best of all, this sorter is accessible from outside if you are late returning a book and have missed opening hours.

A regular outcry before the library opened was that the cost of €36m could have been better spent on the nearby St Michael's Hospital, which is in need of investment. This is something of an old chestnut of an argument whenever serious money is spent on the arts. "Yes, it's apples and oranges," says Mairead. "The money for hospitals does not come from the same funding source as for libraries. There were development levies earmarked as cultural spend and they were gathered by the local council for this.

"What is very important to point out too is that we started this at the peak of the recession. The council had this vision and were extremely brave to back it. And this resulted in an injection of significant money back into the local economy through many jobs. We had an Irish design team and Irish builders, with up to 150 guys working on site. All the workmanship and the joinery in the building, that's all Irish craftsmanship. There is a knock on effect. This building will stand the test of time, it will be here in 100 years and then the thought of spending €36.6 m on it will seem relatively small."

Exhibit A

There is something wonderfully natural about how Ben Lennon holds his fiddle. His big paw hands fit around the delicate violin neck as easily as if it is an extension of him.

This photograph of the acclaimed fiddler (right) was taken by Clare Keogh and it features in an engaging exhibition of her photographs entitled Nature of Music - Masters of the Gradam Ceoil, currently on display in the Atrium, Cork City Hall before it goes on tour (gradam.ie).

Clare was commissioned by TG4 to travel Ireland photographing famous traditional Irish musicians who were all former recipients of Gradam Ceoil TG4 in their own surroundings. "I met Ben in his home and, when I arrived, he said that he would need to play a few tunes to set the atmosphere," says Clare.

"So I sat in the kitchen while he and his son [internationally acclaimed musician] Maurice Lennon played their fiddles. Apparently, the kitchen is better for music as the soft surfaces absorb the sound. It was a beautiful moment, a Thursday morning in January listening to the most incredible fiddle playing and drinking tea."

Among the other celebrated musicians featured are Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Peadar Ó Riada, Edel Fox, Michael Tubridy, Matt Molloy and Seamus Begley; all of whom were photographed with their own instruments in surroundings of significance to them.

"I saw myself as a complete outsider but every musician afforded me the time to make their portraits. I asked the artists to take me to places relevant to their own musical history, the places varied greatly from kitchens to classrooms to places of incredible natural beauty, lakes and forest walks."

Sophie's choice

1 It takes a brave person to invite the general public into your newly renovated home and Aoibheann MacNamara (left) is as brave as they come. The owner of Ard Bia at Nimmo's is throwing open the doors of her beautiful home in Galway city next weekend for two days and nights of talks, workshops and wonderful food. ardbia.com/the-house.

2 2015 is the year of the sheep in the Chinese calendar, which brings with it characteristics of reliability and loyalty. Today is the last day of the Chinese New Year festival in Dublin, so why not follow the flock (ahem) to Pearse Street Library to learn how to make Chinese kites, thought to bring good luck to those who make them fly. cny.ie.

3 Sligo's third annual Children's Book Festival kicks off on Thursday in the Hawk's Well Theatre and promises four days of storytelling, theatre, shadow puppetry, poetry play, Lego workshops, music, a show all about books and the return of the Kids' Own Book Factory. Events are taking place all over the county. hawkswell.com.

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