Wednesday 21 August 2019

Flashback 1982: closing of Grafton Street to traffic

This week 33 years ago, one of Dublin's most iconic streets was officially closed to traffic

Grafton Street before it was closed to traffic.
Grafton Street before it was closed to traffic.

Ger Siggins

It has been an inspiration for writers and musicians, from James Joyce and Patrick Kavanagh to Bagatelle and Nanci Griffith, but there was never anything romantic about a traffic jam on Grafton Street. The narrow thoroughfare was always one of Dublin's most fashionable, with early photographs showing horse-drawn carts and carriages making their way up and down.

By the late 1960s there were few horses, and sporty Triumph Heralds vied for road space with Hillman Imps. Parking meters were introduced in 1969 and sparked debate about closing the street to traffic.

Grafton Street's future was widely debated - one suggestion, from auctioneer Corrie Buckley, was to roof the whole street with sheets of perspex, turning it into a giant arcade. But the future was believed to be pedestrianisation.

Henry Street was closed to cars as an experiment in June 1971 and, with a 10pc lift in trade, was judged a success. Grafton Street followed in December but had problems, perhaps due to the festive season. One shop owner complained it had become a haven for "layabouts, beggars, spongers and tap dancers".

Traffic returned early in 1972 but the campaign to ban it went on, both in Dublin and elsewhere - Cork experimented with four motor-free streets in 1976.

In 1981, Alderman Pat Carroll proposed a ban to Dublin Corporation (now Dublin City Council). One of those who spoke against was Cllr Ned Brennan, who complained that the last time the street was closed to traffic, "some immoral things went on, and there were numerous complaints from Clarendon Street Church".

Alderman Carmencita Hederman was one of a majority of councillors who supported the move, saying it would bring Dublin into line with the great European capital cities.

It was decided to close the street to traffic on November 22 but a snap general election forced the move to be delayed.

From December 1, 1982 cars were banned on the street from 11am to 6.30pm, Monday to Saturday. Environment minister Ray Burke stressed the Government's commitment to urban renewal and Dublin's inner city, in particular, and said the result of the pedestrianisation of Grafton Street would be a "safer and more attractive shopping environment".

Irish Independent reporter Liz Ryan - now a novelist - wrote that "Grafton Street's a wonderland, there's magic in the air… and even better, there's no longer any lead fumes in the air. Cars were unceremoniously banned from the street yesterday to the delight of some, surprise of others and suspicion of one and all".

"People are in better form," said one shopkeeper. Buskers and shopkeepers were reportedly happier too, with takings on the up.

Within 10 days the plan was deemed a success and extended immediately to Sundays from 11am to 9pm. Corporation monitoring showed the number of people using the street had grown by more than 50pc. "The response from traders has been overwhelmingly favourable," said a spokesman.

But six months later, the enthusiasm had flagged and opponents emerged. Cllr Brendan Lynch said "the street has always enjoyed a deserved reputation as a cosmopolitan upmarket area. But now it is in danger of losing its character and has degenerated into a honky-tonk district. It is in danger of becoming a stomping ground for layabouts".

However, Dublin Corporation pointed to a 23pc rise in business and pressed on with its plans to introduce paving and street furniture.

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