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O'Connell Street: Where the street has no shame

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O'Connell Street

O'Connell Street

17/9/12 Clery's department store on O'Connell Street, Dublin. Picture:Arthur Carron/Collins

17/9/12 Clery's department store on O'Connell Street, Dublin. Picture:Arthur Carron/Collins

Clery's, O'Connell Street, Dublin. c.1924

Clery's, O'Connell Street, Dublin. c.1924

Grand Central Cinema, O'Connell  Street, Dublin circa 1930

Grand Central Cinema, O'Connell Street, Dublin circa 1930

O'Connell Street, Dublin

O'Connell Street, Dublin

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O'Connell Street

James Connolly was famously so blinded by ideology that he believed that no capitalist government would bomb the property of fellow capitalists who owned huge stores on O’Connell Street.

This was a sound argument in theory, but the theory got blown asunder by the first shell fired on O’Connell Street from the gunship Helga.

Nobody wishes to see another insurrection in the GPO, but working on the premise that (as Connolly discovered) governments tend to use heavy artillery to settle arguments, some people might argue that it would at least have the merit of O’Connell Street needing to be rebuilt again.

It would be hard for new city planners to make a worse fist of it than what exists at present, with dodgy touristy shop fronts, gaming emporiums and fast-food outlets occupying swathes of what was once the most imposing thoroughfare in our capital.

Its current honky-tonk ambiance was recently denounced by David Norris in the Seanad.

“What kind of a street is this for a capital city of a European country in the 21st Century?” he lamented, listing the gaping spaces left by failed developments, describing the old Dublin County Council headquarters as “an ignorant, appalling building of mass concrete” and dismissing the street as a mishmash of “knickers shops and an amusement arcade”.

There is merit in Senator Norris’ comments, though the Ann Summers lingerie store – with its cornucopia of unusual but undoubtedly useful small items to have around the house – might feel aggrieved to be lumped in with fried chicken outlets.

It’s 15 years since the Ann Summers outlet opened, causing such a welter of moral outrage that its chief executive received a bullet in the post.

A sign of our national maturity is that the main objections to the Ann Summers store now come from environmentalists concerned about the ethical disposal of used batteries.

The revolution which started in the GPO was followed by a counter-revolution where the freedom of women was rigidly repressed.

If liberty means the freedom to express all aspects of yourself, including your sexuality, there is probably no greater tribute to Cumann na mBan (who were marginalised by De Valera’s constitution) than that their great-granddaughters now happily browse through Ann Summers’ stock.

It is harder to find justification for some fast-food outlets which occasionally attract patrons who add a sense of menace to the street after dark. All cities have such streets: they just don’t have them masquerading as their principal thoroughfare.

O’Connell Street’s decline can almost be dated to its rebuilding in the early 1920s. Whereas bombed towns such as Ypres in Flanders were rebuilt as an exact pastiche of what had previously stood there, no attempt was made to reproduce O’Connell Street’s grand 18th and 19th Century frontages destroyed in the shelling.

Concrete replaced the original brickwork. While the corporation insisted on a uniformed height for fenestration  lines, the rebuilding was left to private entrepreneurs and, architecturally, much of the street became dull.

There were obviously exceptions, such as the Gresham Hotel, which I was overawed by as a child, and the Venetian-style Savoy Cinema, which cost £200,000 before its grand opening in 1929. The GPO also had its imposing Greek-style porticos restored.

But the street’s beating heart in the 1940s was the famed Metropole Ballroom, Cinema and Restaurant near the GPO where revellers posed for street photographers who plied their trade when O’Connell Street was a fashionable and glamorous boulevard.

In 1973 the Metropole was demolished and replaced by a department store so ugly that when Neil Jordan shot his movie, Michael Collins, he built a replica GPO elsewhere rather than film exterior shots in O’Connell Street.

What Norris calls the “ignorant, appalling building of mass concrete” of Dublin County Council’s old HQ became a cattle mart in which certain developers herded a handful of corrupt councillors whose votes swayed disastrous decisions.

Their pay-off normally occurred in the luxurious surroundings of Conway’s pub, where Pearse signed the surrender. This pub is now closed and forlorn.

Parts of O’Connell Street do resemble a war zone, with gaping holes patched over. But not all development has been negative. Nobody misses the gloomy London Plane trees removed in 2003. The replacement trees lend a sense of grace on spring mornings when light glistens off the Spire.

It will never be mistaken for the Champs-Elysees, but ordinary Dubliners are not seeking such miracles. We just want a thoroughfare where it is safe for our children to walk after dark and to which we can direct visitors without misgivings.

Commercial development is impeded by the fact that so many shoppers are lured into malls. But I had an instructive experience when I put down two shopping bags and momentarily leaned against a wall in the nearby Ilac Centre to make a phone call. A security guard threatened to evict me, explaining that I had no right to rest against a wall on private property.

What makes public spaces like O’Connell Street different from malls is that we exist there not as consumers but as citizens.

Amid its contradictions, occasional gems and hideous flaws, O’Connell Street needs to become a boulevard that we are allowed to take pride in.

It is an indictment that at present we are often too busy to take pride in anything there, because we need to keep looking over our shoulders once darkness falls.


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