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Sunday 18 March 2018

Eight years late and six times over budget, a book on the history of St Stephen’s Green is costing the taxpayer €900 per copy

St Stephen's
Green over one
hundred years
St Stephen's Green over one hundred years ago
the park as it is today

IT IS the final chapter in the saga of a book that has to date cost taxpayers €900 for each copy sold.

Documents released to the Irish Independent reveal the litany of delays and cost-overruns that plagued the now abandoned project to compile the official history of the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The project has been held up as a spectacular example of wasted taxpayers’ money – as costs far exceeded initial expectations and a two-year deadline was repeatedly extended.

Correspondence shows how OPW boss Clare McGrath was forced to pull the plug on the publication after its author, Dr Desmond McCabe, wanted to extend the deadline to 2019. This would have been 17 years after he was commissioned.

Instead the OPW dramatically scaled back what they wanted, despite paying about €400,000. It was agreed the author would write a standalone title on St Stephen's Green. The book ‘St Stephen's Green 1660-1875’ has been acclaimed by critics, but has sold only 443 copies since it was published in October. The book retails at €35, which equates to a cost to the taxpayer of about €900 per copy if you take the overall €400,000 payment into account.

Documents released under Freedom of Information reveal:

- Despite the delays, the OPW agreed to pay an extra €7,000 to complete the St Stephen's Green title, even though the entire project was initially supposed to cost €76,184.

- An OPW official was “holding off ” the Comptroller and Auditor General after it asked when the book would be published.

- The OPW still encountered delays even after the project was scaled back, with one OPW official in a May 2011 email to Dr McCabe stating they were “desperate” for the text and warned any delays would have “severe knock-on effects”.

- Bizarrely, Dr McCabe said he had no interest in attending a launch for the book when it was published, but later queried ways in which the book could be better marketed, including the possibility that he would drop flyers into bookshops.

- In correspondence, he stated he had been feeling despondent and that he had been reassured as to the value of the text when his “spirits were low”.

Despite the cost-overruns and delays, Dr McCabe, who lives in Co Down, said that in 10 years the value of the “cultural study” would become clear. He said he hoped the work would be a standalone, judged on his own merit, but he would not comment on whether he would end up completing the full history of the OPW.

The historian added that he felt he would not get a fair hearing in the media and anything he said might be “distorted”. Dr McCabe was initially contracted in 2002 by the OPW to write the official history, with a completion date of 2004.


When work was not completed by then, the deadline was extended until 2006, and later until 2009. In a meeting in October 2010, OPW chair Clare McGrath pulled the plug after Dr McCabe wanted a revised deadline from 2015 to 2019.

Ms McGrath acknowledged Dr McCabe’s work, but said that as accounting officer, she couldn't let it continue as it was. It was decided that instead Mr McCabe would complete the St Stephen's Green title.

For that, he wanted €25 per hour over an estimated 280 hours, at a total cost of €7,000. The C&AG had highlighted the project in its 2009 annual report, and the matter came before the Public Accounts Committee in October 2010 at which Ms McGrath appeared. The OPW boss commended Dr McCabe for doing “exceptional” work.

Ms McGrath was not available for comment yesterday.

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