The loss of some of the capital’s favourite venues has led to protests that tourist accommodation is being prioritised over the arts and locals’ needs. John Meagher investigates whether the claim is fair
For Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, it was the final straw. The musician had witnessed beloved venues associated with Dublin’s rich artistic culture being levelled to make way for hotels. Now he was hearing that the Cobblestone’s future was under threat.
Plans to build a nine-storey hotel over and adjacent to the Smithfield pub, famed for its trad music sessions and as an incubator of emerging talent, were made public last month. He was determined to make his voice heard, especially when it was clear that much of the venue would be erased.
Thanks to social media, Ó Ceannabháin and other like-minded people organised a series of protests.
The first attracted widespread media coverage and featured hundreds of campaigners marching from the site of the Cobblestone, which faces Smithfield’s centuries-old square, to Merchant’s Arch in Temple Bar, on the other side of the Liffey. Another hotel is being planned for that site, which would, its detractors say, forever alter the complexion of the 200-year-old laneway. In a show of anger at the changes wrought in the capital, protesters carried a mock-up coffin with them.
“The two protests that we’ve had over the last month or so are indicative of the importance of the Cobblestone,” says Ó Ceannabháin, who is a member of People Before Profit, “but it also speaks to something wider that’s happening in the city, the way planning and development happens here, and a lot of the anger ties into the housing crisis and the fact that the city is so expensive for people to live in.
“Decisions are being made based on what will maximise the profits of developers and speculators and that can mean, in the case of Dublin, that catering for tourists is going to be a lot more profitable than building affordable housing.
“Too often cultural sites are being destroyed, or completely undermined. In the case of the Cobblestone, the front bar would remain, but the back venue would be gone, so while the front bar might be there, and attractive to tourists, it wouldn’t be anything like the place we’ve known for so long.”
It’s a sentiment shared by the musician and film-maker Myles O’Reilly. “Without the Cobblestone, we mightn’t have bands like Lankum or Ye Vagabonds or Landless,” he says, “and its importance goes back to people like Liam Weldon and Christy Moore. For 50 years, it’s been turning out great musicians, partly because it’s been bringing them together. It’s one of our great community meeting places in terms of music.”
O’Reilly is troubled by what he sees as the prioritisation of hotel-building over the preservation of cultural venues. The Tivoli Theatre, which hosted Oasis’s first Irish gig among countless other shows, and Andrew’s Lane Theatre, a favoured haunt of David Bowie’s in the 1990s, have both disappeared in recent years. Finishing touches are being applied to the hotels that now stand in their place.
“The focus is on tourism rather than the needs of those living here,” he says. “I don’t know what Dublin is trying to become. I’ve been to some cities, like Zurich, that was just so soulless — people hiding behind rich doors — there was nothing happening there. Culture seemed to be squeezed out and Dublin is heading that way. And where do the tourists go when they come to these new hotels?”
Hotel development is in the crosshairs of many of those who rail against what they see as a destruction of Dublin’s soul.
Last week’s news that the country’s largest bookshop, Chapters, would close its doors after 40 years’ trading in central Dublin only amplified questions about the city’s future, especially as Dublin is designated a Unesco City of Literature. In 2010, it became only the fourth place in the world to be bestowed with the honour.
But is pitting culture against new hotels fair? Fáilte Ireland has long argued for the need for more hotel rooms.
“Tourist accommodation is a vital part of the tourism and leisure product in Ireland,” says Weldon Mather, Failte Ireland’s head of accommodation development.
“While accommodation is just one part of a wider tourism product, which encompasses a much broader spectrum of attractions and activities, it is a core component of what makes up a successful tourist destination, and its presence in a destination is instrumental in facilitating and maximising tourism spend in the area, with significant benefits for local businesses such as cafés and restaurants, local visitor attractions and local residents.”
Mather points out that “tourist accommodation, and especially hotels, often plays an important role as a ‘community hub’,” which, he says, provides other benefits for residents and businesses such as employment, recreational facilities and “area regeneration effects, environmental and sustainable development”.
According to Fáilte Ireland, more than 4,000 new hotel rooms are expected to become available in Dublin over “the coming years”. About 2,000 rooms were scheduled to be completed in 2021 (but some have been delayed by Covid) followed by 1,600 next year and 800 in 2023. This is an increase of about 50pc on the number of rooms delivered between 2018 and 2020.
Just before the pandemic, it was estimated that about 100 hotels were being built in Dublin. Many are still under construction.
“Failure to provide adequate tourist accommodation in a tourist destination will ultimately lead to a situation where potential overnight visitors will instead become lower-spending day trippers, or indeed, lack of adequate tourist accommodation might deter potential tourists from visiting a destination at all,” Mather says.
“This will mean a loss of revenue for local tourism businesses and wider economy, with knock-on effects for local employment and for the wider community benefits that hotels provide. Hotels are major employers and remit significant tax revenues.”
Richard Guiney of Dublin Town, the association of city centre retailers and businesses, says the capital needs more hotels, but not at the expense of cultural institutions. He recalls a similar conversation at a convention he attended in Philadelphia three years ago.
“A number of American cities were trying to get the balance right between preserving what makes a place attractive and then people want to visit it,” he says. “The concept then was moving to a model of preservation of use and preservation of buildings so within the planning system, important cultural assets would be protected. The thinking is that that’s what gives an area its reputation and identity.
“We were underserved for hotels, but we [in Dublin Town] would be erring towards the idea of preserving what we have, especially as the city moves towards a night-time economy. Our own research with Dubliners indicates that they want to engage more with arts and culture.”
He believes there is comparatively little opposition to hotels in themselves; it’s more when any future development threatens an existing cultural space.
From a purely commercial point of view, tourists are important to Dublin businesses. Guiney says that while tourists represented 7pc of the footfall in the city centre pre-pandemic, they were spending, on average, three times more than Dublin residents. But, he says, getting the balance right is important.
“It comes down to what defines a city. Why would people visit a city? A lot of the cultural assets and instructions are what give you your identity. If we strip out too many of those assets, it will impact on our long-term vibrancy.”
Dublin City Council wrestled with those questions when it set up the Dublin Recovery Taskforce in April, a matter of weeks before Covid restrictions started to lift. Coilín O’Reilly, executive manager, North City, is heading the taskforce but an interview request was turned down by the council. “We do not have anyone available for this interview,” a press officer told Review.
The council suffered another contentious week when it was reported that it had recommended rezonings in the draft Dublin City Development Plan maps without councillors’ knowledge.
Independent councillor Damien O’Farrell uncovered the executive’s actions.
“The maps included over 100 amendments and they weren’t highlighted to us,” he said at a meeting of city councillors on Monday. “These maps now will go out after our meeting as our draft development plan public consultation with the implication that they are approved.
“I want the CEO [Owen Keegan] to clarify that this is not the case — that they’re not approved by councillors because councillors didn’t know anything about them.”
The news has generated a strong reaction on social media, with many criticising Dublin City Council’s role as a custodian of the capital.
The veteran Labour politician Joe Costello, Dublin’s deputy lord mayor, is among those questioning the need for more hotels.
“At the present time, I don’t see any shortage of hotels, to be honest,” he says. “There’s better footfall in hotels around the country than in Dublin at the moment. Dublin is having trouble getting people to come to the existing hotels. There was a shortage of [hotel] space years ago, but that’s not the case now.”
The councillor is frustrated with the role developers continue to have in Irish life.
“They are like lemmings,” he says. “They latch on to an idea and they all follow each other. A few years ago it was student accommodation and they were all building student accommodation. Now they want to change over that accommodation to Airbnb. Then they have build-to-rent, which leads to a transient population because all the people are renters. Then you’ve co-living. They follow the fad. And the fad at the moment is that hotels are where you put your money in.”
Costello believes there are more than enough hotels in the north inner city. Dublin City Council had ruled against the building of a hotel on Capel Street on the basis that there was an over-concentration of them in the area, but the decision was overturned by An Bord Pleanála last month.
“Rather than hotels, I want to see more emphasis on getting indigenous footfall into the city centre and bolstering the historical and cultural aspects of it,” Costello says. “I’d like the focus to be on Dublin becoming an attractive place, firstly, for our population and then for tourists. We have to put down roots and the problem with a lot of the development we’re seeing in Dublin militates against putting down roots, especially for families. There are no family-friendly units being built at the moment.”
Costello says he is heartened by the public’s response to the Cobblestone and Merchant’s Arch plans.
“I don’t like any development taking over what is a little gem of a cultural place. The Cobblestone is an important cultural site; Merchant’s Arch is important from an architectural point of view. It just wouldn’t be the same if you just incorporated a pub into a hotel. It would lose that thing that made it special.”
Meanwhile, Myles O’Reilly and Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin insist that the mobilisation of people opposed to hotel-building at the expense of culture is only beginning.
O’Reilly believes the fight to preserve Dublin’s cultural venues is his generation’s Wood Quay — a reference to the high-profile protests in the late 1970s centred on Dublin Corporation’s plans to build its headquarters at the location of one of Europe’s most significant Viking sites.
“There’s a lot more voices now that are being heard and many of them are musicians with 30,000 followers on Twitter,” he says.
“Maybe we can make a difference, maybe decisions that would have a long-lasting impact on Dublin can be changed.
“There’s anger and frustration out there. We’re going nowhere.”