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Town faces monstrous fate, all in the name of progress

Of all the travesties perpetrated in the name of progress in Ireland, this surely has to be the grimmest

A fate is being proposed for the pleasant little town of Celbridge which is so monstrous, so implausible, so fatuous, that it could almost come from one of Swift's ghastly, satirical fictions about human conduct. But this is not satire, nor is it fiction, though Swift would recognise it as a towering example of utterly Brobdingnagian folly.

Celbridge lies along just one side of the Liffey, and its spine, parallel to the river, is a predominantly Georgian main street: and appropriately so.

Jonathan Swift would often journey to Celbridge, to calm the passionate yearnings of his inamorata, Vanessa, at one end of this main street. At around the same time, at the far end of the same street, Speaker Conolly was erecting what is now the greatest surviving Palladian mansion in Ireland, Castletown: and roughly midway between Vanessa's home and the entrance to Speaker Conolly's great house, Arthur Guinness was later to start his first brewery.

Now, there are very few Irish exports that are known around the world. The tale of 'Gulliver's Travels' is one, and the name Lilliput exists in just about all languages. In this creation, Swift invented the literary form of the traveller arriving in a country which is so similar yet utterly different. Celbridge was never Swift's home, but, as a regular visitor, it was where he first heard Irish spoken. Indeed, the concept of Lilliput might well have had its spiritual genesis in this modest Liffeyside town, where the contrasting worlds of Hiberno-English and Gaelic cultures met.

It was certainly the home of the one other great international Irish brand. Arthur Guinness, Celbridge-born and bred, opened his first brewery in the town while still in his 20s.

As we all know, in time he moved his business to Dublin, and thence the world. Not merely did he start Ireland's greatest company, but he also begat perhaps Ireland's most distinguished family, who down the generations have contributed more to this country than any other.

Arthur and Jonathan could return to Celbridge's main street today, and recognise it still; they could walk up the driveway at its eastern end, where Jonathan might admire the finished Palladian splendours of Castletown, which he saw building during his visits to Vanessa.

But if Kildare County Council, and a company called 'Devondale' (where do Irish developers get these absurd, cod-English names from?) have their way, our two visitors from the 18th century will be able to see the house and the gardens, and the entire town, on the northern side of the Liffey, dwarfed and violated by a vast new extension to Celbridge, fronting on to the southern riverbank beyond.

The school of architecture which seems to have inspired the proposed Celbridge New Town is the M50 Orbital: a jumble of characterless, bland, concrete blocks, only suitable for lining a motorway. Some of these blocks are eight storeys, made taller still by the greater height of the far bank.

This hilariously named 'town centre' is said by the planners to be an 'organic' development: but the 'o' word is merely another meaningless piety of our times. New Celbridge is as organic as DDT: in other words, mere modernistic cant and developmental humbug.

It's one thing to build factories and shops near Celbridge: quite another to create ludicrous juxtapositions, a narrow river's-width apart. On the Liffey's left bank, Lilliput, on the right, Brobdingnag. On one side, naturally brewed Guinness, on the other, Milwaukee industrialised lite. Here stands Sir Edward Lovett Pearce's great mansion, with its majestic Francini ceilings of Castletown: and there, while overlooking it, lies a hideous chunk of the LA beltway.

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Of all the travesties perpetrated in the name of progress in Ireland, this surely has to be the grimmest: for Castletown House was the first great test of independent Ireland's ability to recognise, restore and cherish its pre-independence, unionist legacy. And the man who was the pioneer of this was Desmond Guinness, descendant of Arthur. So the new, post-independence, tolerant Ireland was born in Celbridge, and its great declaration of intent was the Palladian mansion which Desmond rescued from ruin 40 years ago.

Well, if Kildare County Council and Devondale have their way, visitors to Castletown will soon be able to drive down a tidy little Georgian street, overlooked by huge office blocks. They will then enter the splendid traffic jam outside Castletown, caused by the new bridge which is to connect the new and old towns.

Yet this horror will not have been done in immediately post-independence Ireland, when ignorance and naivety allowed many terrible things to be done, but by our new enlightened Ireland, which in Celbridge once recognised the glorious legacies from the past, and now knowingly chooses to overpower them with brutal modernism.

Yet, I must be missing something. For, tragically, incredibly, Kildare County Council has already zoned the 98-acre site for commercial development.

Furthermore, the creation of a Burbank-like Retail Mall and Industrial Park at Celbridge also has the support of all sitting TDs in Kildare, and most of the county's councillors. That, notwithstanding, if you share my horror at the perfectly monstrous proposals for the town, you have until April 21, at the very latest, to lodge your objections.