Tuesday 28 June 2011

Street life

Frank McDonald writes in the Irish Times:

LOCAL HISTORY: Rathmines is historically where most country people get their first taste of life in the capital, and it is a diverse, intricate model of how a city area should be developed, writes FRANK McDONALD. Four residents give their views.

HERE ISN’T ANYWHERE else in Ireland quite like Rathmines. It has everything a mixed urban area needs – students living in flats, older people, families, immigrants, social housing, private housing, a wide range of shops, cafés and pubs, and great landmarks, such as the dome of the Catholic church and the clocktower of the old Town Hall.

Rathmines has a real main street, with its own shopping centre and cinema complex, a fine post office and public library, schools for all ages and a college of further education. And now it has a wonderful leisure centre – perhaps the last major public project of the boom years – built on the site of a decrepit 1970s swimming pool.

Once synonymous with “flatland”, a transition zone for lowly-paid public servants and third-level students coming to Dublin, Rathmines in more recent years saw many Victorian houses that were carved up for grotty bedsits revert to family use as the area became gentrified – although not as overwhelmingly as Ranelagh.

Together with Ranelagh, Rathgar and Harold’s Cross, it formed the Borough of Rathmines, which remained a unionist-controlled council even after independence; hence Seán O’Casey had the “Lady from Rathmines” with the posh accent getting lost in the city centre during the Easter Rising in The Plough and the Stars.

The independence of Rathmines, granted by an Act of Parliament in 1847, was extinguished in 1930 when it was taken over by Dublin Corporation – along with the adjoining (equally unionist) borough of Pembroke. The rationale was that this would make for a much more efficient city administration, untainted by petty corruption.

Perhaps inevitably, a long period of decline followed absorption into the city. More and more houses were turned into bedsits, single-storey shops were shovelled into the front gardens of grand 19th-century terraced houses on Lower Rathmines Road, and the trams that had fostered the area’s growth were replaced by buses.

The old Town Hall, designed by Sir Thomas Drew and completed in 1899, suffered the indignity of having its galleried main hall cruelly subdivided to provide classrooms for the College of Commerce; the elaborate red sandstone facade and four-faced clock made in Dublin by Chancellor and Sons are resonant relics of its glory days.

The main street became a traffic-choked artery populated by transients. There was no one to speak up for it, apart from the late Deirdre Kelly, who extolled its faded elegance in her book, Four Roads to Dublin (O’Brien); local residents’ associations were too preoccupied with their own areas to care about what was happening to it.

Not until 1998 did concerned citizens who had a “strong sense that the core of Rathmines was in decline on many fronts” get together to do something about it. They set up the Rathmines Initiative and went about publishing their own plan, with help from architect Gerry Cahill, UCD School of Architecture and Dublin City Council.

The idea of rebuilding the swimming pool – a flat-roofed, single-storey box clad in grey concrete brick sitting in a tarmac carpark – was first suggested by their study. The plan put forward by Cahill and his students was that this should be done in the context of creating an elongated plaza in the heart of Rathmines.

Donnelly Turpin Architects, who are based in the area, won a competition for the €36 million project – a joint venture by the city council and John Paul Construction. It was more than just a swimming pool; effectively, the “air rights” above were sold to John Paul so that 46 apartments could be stacked on top of the leisure centre.

“It was a New York thing,” says Charlie Donnelly. And what made it even more so was the architects’ determination that passers-by would be able to see through the generously-scaled reception area (soon to be provided with a café), the 25-metre swimming pool and a heavily-worked gymnasium at the rear, facing a Victorian terrace.

They also envisaged that the café would spill out on to the plaza in front, adding more life to the street. Even at the back there is activity, because the multi-level underground carpark is roofed by an undulating grassed landscape drawn straight from the Tellytubbies; it’s fun to watch toddlers making their own of this unusual free space.

The shell-and-core of a three-storey creche stands on the north side of it, ready and waiting to be fitted out, and the council is “actively working to get tenants for it”, according to Donnelly. More eye-catching are the three-metre projecting balconies (“big enough to have a party”, he says) above the gym and multi-purpose sports hall.

Apartments are arranged in a U-shaped block that faces south, with panoramic views of the mountains from the upper levels. Apart from six randomly located social-housing units, they were all intended to be sold. But the property bubble had already burst by the time construction was completed, so now they’re being rented out.

A saw-toothed roof draws light into the swimming pool, which is so much brighter and more cheerful than its squalid predecessor. It has a a hydraulic floor to vary water depths, a spectator gallery, wet and dry changing rooms and translucent murals by Clare Langan. The only complaint from users is that the temperature is too hot.

Operated by Swan Leisure, an operating company at arm’s length from the city council, it has been a huge success. “They were targeting 1,000 members in the first year, but got 2,000 in six months,” Mark Turpin says. “People have given up membership of Richview because this is like an old-fashioned bath house where you meet friends.”

Of course, the location could barely be equalled, with several schools in the immediate vicinity. St Mary’s College is just down the road and St Louis infants and primary schools are right behind the leisure centre. Its multi-purpose sports hall, above the gymnasium, can also be used for community events and even, perhaps, for music recitals.

Sadly, the recession put paid to plans to extend the plaza southwards towards the former College of Commerce. A pair of houses that look as if they’d be more comfortable elsewhere were to have been demolished to make way for a smaller block of apartments, but estate agent Herman White has decided to wait for signs of an upturn.

Meanwhile, the Rathmines Initiative has been lobbying for valuable playing fields in Cathal Brugha (formerly Portobello) Barracks to be transferred from the Department of Defence to Dublin City Council, so that they can be managed for public use in conjunction with Rathmines Square – as the new leisure centre is officially known.

It also supports proposals that the former Town Hall building would become the council’s south-east area offices, with its main hall restored to its original use as a performance space. Indeed, with a reputed capacity of up to 2,000 after the subdivisions were removed, it could be one of Dublin’s most impressive concert venues.

Whether or not this happens, Rathmines will never die. It thrives on “constant churning”, as Turpin says. And for those who have “done time” there during their student years, however substandard their accommodation was, it will always hold a special place for giving them their first real taste of city life.

Paul Kane

I’m from the flats. I suppose I straddle the old and new Rathmines in that I rent the large basement flat of a friend’s Regency house in a small cul-de-sac. As it is my friend’s house I get to enjoy his beautiful back garden, a major attraction of living here. Our garden is surrounded by other back gardens on all sides. As a result, traffic noise doesn’t impinge; you could be in the country. It’s difficult to believe that you are only three minutes away from a 24-hour Centra, which services the old image of Rathmines.

My gallery is located on Merrion Square, so just a short 12-minute cycle to work each morning along the canal and a 15-minute cycle home every evening – it’s uphill to lofty Rathmines. I can also cycle into town, or to any number of my friends’ houses to socialise. A bit of exercise and a fortune saved on taxis.

Rathmines is seen as the poor relation of neighbouring Ranelagh and Rathgar, but to my taste, having lived for eight years in Hackney in London, I prefer this less rarefied air, with its multi-class/multi-cultural dimension. I always feel a bit more alive in these environs.

We still have some great old shops such as Cleggs, the cobblers on Rathmines Road, and can shop to suit our budget from Aldi and Lidl, through Dunnes and Tesco, to Upper Rathmines Road, which has Lawlor’s butchers and Fothergills.

The area has had a new dimension added by the completion of the new swimming pool and gym – we can all get fit – and the cinema in the Swan Centre, which replaces the now defunct, much loved landmark, the Stella.

Everything I need and 15 minutes from town; I love it.

The Paul Kane Gallery is at 6 Merrion Square, Dublin 2, thepaulkanegallery.com

Michael Kelly

Last weekend saw the inauguration by the Rathmines Initiative of the Rathmines Garden Trail, which involves several residents opening their gardens to visitors. Each garden was visited by around 100 members of the public and donations were collected for the Rathmines Women’s Refuge. The quintessential community spirit in Rathmines is alive and well. I say quintessential because Rathmines has its own version of community. It is not a close-knit, homogenous community. Yet many of its residents enjoy the special type of human encounter which Rathmines offers: random conversations between strangers at charity shops or cafes, human connections crossing traditional lines of age, class, wealth or ethnicity. Walk into Slattery’s pub any night and you will find a considerable mix of people, cheek-by-jowl.

When the Rathmines Initiative invited all candidates in the last general election to address the local community in the former Town Hall building, it was not surprising that almost all candidates turned up and that the hall was packed to capacity. Attendance was also high at the Rathmines Discourses , a series of Monday-night lectures given by eminent scholars on topics of broad national interest, which were followed by discussion and debate. There is a real sense of a community seeking to engage directly in political debate.

I am not suggesting that these experiences are shared by most residents. But at least in Rathmines no individual is out of place. It has many of the attributes of a traditional town mixed with the cosmopolitanism of the city. Because so much is within easy reach, many people walk or cycle when going about their daily business and this inevitably leads to a stronger sense of community.

There are many clubs and societies in Rathmines, including a musical society, a writers’ group, a local history group and many others. There are vibrant, active retirement groups and a Rathmines Older People’s Network. The Rathmines Pembroke Community Partnership offers a range of services to the less-advantaged in the community, and there are a number of active community groups including the Gateway Mental Health Project.

The Rathmines Initiative is a community group which seeks to improve the quality of life of the diverse community by working with statutory, voluntary and commercial bodies and public representatives. It was founded in 1998 in response to a strong sense that the core of Rathmines was in decline on many fronts. The initiative published a plan for the Lower and Upper Rathmines Roads and adjacent side-streets, which was subsequently adopted in the Dublin City Council Development Plan. The idea of redeveloping the swimming pool with a public square at the heart of Rathmines was first described in this plan. As well as commissioning the Dublin Civic Trust to prepare an architectural inventory of Rathmines, the initiative actively monitors planning developments in the area. Traffic, air quality, tree planting and signage have yet to be tackled.

I get the sense our work has only just begun.

Michael Kelly is chairperson of the Rathmines Initiative

Niall MacMonagle

Long before Ireland called itself multi-cultural, Rathmines could. And it still can. Our next-door neighbours are from Australia; I know Brazilians, Algerians; I hear Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, Egyptian . . . every day. For me, this dynamic pocket of Dublin proves it’s a real city.

I’ve lived here since 1986, in a house built in the 1850s, and I love it. Every summer, without fail, loyal, smiling Japanese fans come and look at and photograph our house, where Lafcadio Hearn lived as a little boy. Walter Osborne, Grace Gifford and Conor Cruise O’Brien were born in Rathmines. Con Markiewicz and James Joyce lived in Rathmines. Yeats lectured in the Town Hall. Aine Lawlor gets up here at an unearthly hour, and a poised, unflappable Anne Doyle high-heels her way in the afternoons to the taxi that carries her to the RTÉ newsroom.

It’s still flatland, but since the 1980s more houses have been family-owned. And yet through that boom, it never lost the run of itself. Abercrombie & Fitch have no business here.

Ranelagh and Rathgar are posher, but I prefer grittier, grottier Rathmines. And we have a library, book shops, a leisure centre, a clock tower, a copper dome, a bike shop, Dunnes, Tesco, Lidl and Aldi, but real shops too, such as The Hopsack and Alan Hanna’s; a bakery, cinemas where they screen Live from the Met, bus stops with digitised timetables, a Garda station. From here, we can lift up our eyes to the hills and, best of all, there are five charity shops. Every service you need is within walking distance. The Abbey is 25 minutes away and I can cycle into town in 10.

But better still, we have great neighbours, and out back the ash tree my three-year-old daughter and I planted is now as high as the house. We have a potato patch, a lawn full of weeds, and a single but thriving rhubarb plant. Rus in urbis.

Niall MacMonagle teaches English in Wesley College, Dublin

Sarah Harte

I’ve lived on Leinster Road for 17 years. Given the rise and fall of our country’s fortunes during that time, life in our neighbourhood hasn’t changed all that much. Rathmines was one of the last out-posts of Dublin 6 to hold out against gentrification – no Morton’s deli or farmers’ markets offering organic rocket for us; no, we have Dunnes, Aldi and Lidl. The Blackberry Market flea market is gone, but Slattery’s pub is still there, like some GAA stronghold of a boozer in the heart of a country town. And, as my husband says, there are so many chippers per square mile that if you take a stroll of an evening, instead of the scent of roses, it’s the aroma of the deep fat fryer that hangs heavily on the air.

On a sunny summer’s day, if you walk down Leinster Road you will see old devils – still living in bedsits – sitting on the steps out the front, listening to radios. You might come across the woman who wears a tea cosy on her head; she likes to stop strangers and chat. Then there are the two junkies who seem to be carrying on the most beautiful, if tragic, love affair. Of course, young professional families moved in during the boom, so many of the bedsits were converted back into family homes. Yet the melting pot that is Rathmines has largely held out against the phenomenon of electric gates, and when it disgorges its population, St Louis national school is like the United Nations. In this way Rathmines reminds me of London’s Archway, just as Ranelagh, with its “bon chic bon gens” set – conjures up images of Hampstead.

Rathmines is a love it or hate it kind of place. I have family who think it grim, and who hoped that it was a staging post for us, but I love the hurdy gurdy sense of it, the colourful saris juxtaposed with the shiny O’Neill shorts and grimy, slightly seedy streets. I think it has a weird gentility, too, an acceptance of people in all their forms. As a mother raising a son, I like the idea of him growing up in a democratic sort of place rather than some rich ghetto, even if I have been roundly mocked for this affectation. In short, I love Rathmines.

Sarah Harte’s book, The Better Half, is published by Penguin Ireland.

Irish Times


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