Sunday 21 July 2019

Colourful character who has changed face of Dublin

Crosbie made a world-class district from a rundown wasteland – and should be commended for his efforts, writes Niamh Horan

Harry Crosbie stands at the then under-construction big wheel beside the O2. Photo: Conor Healy
Harry Crosbie stands at the then under-construction big wheel beside the O2. Photo: Conor Healy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

IN the heart of Dublin's Silicon Docks, Harry Crosbie cuts an unassuming figure among the Googlers and techies who have flocked from all over the world to live and work in the vibrant district.

As they chat over brunch and their laptops, few realise how significant the man sitting next to them is.

Yet they are surrounded by his life's work: a bustling neighbourhood which was once a washed-out landscape of decaying warehouses choked by toxic fumes from a local gas company.

The surface layer of the ground was so polluted it had to be excavated and shipped to the Netherlands where the gas it contained was 'flared off'. Only then was the soil good enough to be used.

In the midst of it all, Harry and his young wife Rita moved into a warehouse by the canal at Grand Canal Dock.

The area was such a no-go area, the couple had to coax friends through the wasteland to see them in their renovated home.

Harry's vision for this corner of Dublin city was forged during his travels through European cities along the Baltic coast for his tanker business.

Long before anyone had ever heard of the Grand Canal Theatre, or stood in the plaza filled with lopsided neon red poles, the developer forecast that "the centre of gravity of Dublin would move eastward down the river".

His first venture saw him transform an old railway station at the entrance to Dublin Port into The Point theatre.

Far from being an overnight success, the venue was slow to get off the ground and only came into its own after Harry teamed up with Live Nation to entice the biggest bands on the planet to perform there.

Stories of his encounters with his many rock star friends are the stuff of legend. To Harry, however, it was just another night with pals.

He would counsel the late Gerry Ryan about his troubles over a bottle of whiskey until the early hours and entertain megastars over a breakfast fry-up.

To the stars, he became their confidant, a trusted pal and source of revelry.

His house should bear the legend: if these walls could talk.

As fans around the world hung on every news update for U2's next release, the Dubliner was banging on his kitchen wall with his slipper roaring at them to keep the racket down in their adjoining secret studio.

Indeed, it was he who brought the four to the area to rehearse their music.

The move eventually attracted fans from as far afield as Mexico and New Zealand – their visits cast forever in spray-painted messages on the walls outside his house.

As his empire gradually took shape, everyone from Bob Geldof to Michael Jackson could be seen slipping in and out of his front door.

A fan of the arts, he eventually brought the Grand Canal Theatre to the quarter, basing its capacity on the Greek model that 2,000 seats was the optimum number where the audience could still hear voices clearly and make out the facial features of those onstage.

It led to his involvement in Queen Elizabeth's state visit in 2011, for which he received an OBE.

Now 65 and coming through his fourth recession, it has been for him – by far – the toughest.

Embroiled in a David-and-Goliath battle against NAMA, the State's heavy hand has come down on each one of his creations leading him on a painful journey to the High Court.

With one of Dublin's most colourful characters at its centre – his well-known friends in the corridors of RTE, showbiz and the art world have yet to speak up in support of their pal but it's early days.

And the national media are waiting to record every second of his showdown with the State.

In the meantime, this weekend as the summer festival kicks off in the docklands, the flags have been raised and thousands will descend on the square outside Harry and Rita's home for a party on the open plaza.

As headlines roar from newsstands of the latest twist in the unfolding tale, Harry will be among them, helping his wife at her bar, Cafe H.

Hard at work as always, doing what he does best.

Sunday Independent

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