From the postcard-picturesque to the imposing authoritarian, Garda stations across Ireland are a wide and varied range of buildings that flit in and out of the public consciousness, writes GEMMA TIPTON
WHEN WAS THE last time you were in a Garda station? Barring events ranging from the unpleasant, to the utterly awful, most of us only visit five or six times in a lifetime.
We go on simple errands, such as picking up forms, or getting a passport photo signed. The passport photo visit is an interesting one: unless you are, to use the phrase, “known to the gardaí”, your rare interaction with our forces of law and order is to ask them to lie for you, which they are generally happy to do, as they sign the section declaring “I have known this person for x number of years . . . ” even though they have never come across you in their lives before.
Those of us who visit Garda stations more frequently, although not necessarily voluntarily, have an understandably different view of the places. They may or may not attest to the factual accuracy of The Bill , but it is unlikely whether any of us ever reflect on the rich slice of architectural heritage these buildings represent.
Garda stations don’t simply show us architectural history, they also respond to and demonstrate the changing social and anti-social climate of Ireland, and a look at our stations turns up some fascinating finds. When the Garda was established as a completely new police force, at the time of the foundation of the State in 1922, a great many buildings were “inherited” from the disbanded RIC. These had been designed by the former Board of Works; others, such as banks and libraries, were taken over and adapted to the purpose.
The former RIC stock that is still in use as Garda stations today includes a range of types. There are postcard-picturesque places, like the one in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. This is in contrast to the imposing authoritarian buildings, such as in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, where the station is included in the courthouse complex, and is designed to emphasise the structures of authority. In Greystones, Co Wicklow, the Garda station was, and still is, incorporated into the Coastguard building. It still looks impressive today, even though some of its length has been given over to private housing.
My favourites among these types, despite the original intent of their architects, are the rather magnificent “castle-style” barracks, designed to impress and intimidate the locals in the mid-19th century, following the Fenian rising. Many were destroyed in the 1920s, but those that do remain include Ballyduff Garda station in Waterford, and the station at Bennetsbridge in Kilkenny, which is essentially a large square country house with enormous turrets flanking the façade. The word “barracks” dates from the time the forces lived in them, but if you want to stay in one of these atmospheric buildings, without first committing a crime, the castellated station at Naas is now the Naas Court Hotel.
Another former British-administration station, though this time built for the Dublin Metropolitan Police (urban counterparts to the RIC), is Pearse Street Garda station. This appears grey and even somewhat soulless from a distance, but go up close to the arched doorways, and you’ll see little policemen’s heads, some with moustaches, and wearing different styles of helmets adorning the façades¨ (below right).
Of the “Bridewells”, the detention centres that take their name from the hostel for homeless boys and “ladies of the night” opened at St Bride’s Well in London in the 17th century, a great number were sacked and destroyed in Ireland, though the one in Dublin still functions as a Garda station.
But for another slice of history, go to Kevin Street in Dublin: Ireland’s first metropolitan station, when it opened in the early 19th century. Parts of the building date back to 1186, when it was the Palace of St Sepulchre’s, the Archbishop’s House. There are plans for a new build Divisional Headquarters on the corner site beside the original station, and discussions about finding a cultural use for the historic structure are ongoing.
Into the present; as times change, crimes and communities change too. The hatches, hated by the public, but perhaps necessary for the protection of those within, are disappearing and being replaced by more open reception areas, supported by CCTV and security doors. Confidential interview rooms are appearing, as are community rooms, and once-forbidding aspects are tempered with glass and public art.
At the irishtown station in Dublin 4, the artwork, by Elke Western, is a long panel of coloured glass letting in jewelled shafts of light. The building won an Opus Award last year: the judges called it “a beacon of hope of what Garda stations could be”. Behind the scenes at Irishtown, it is more like The Bill than I might have imagined. There is no moveable furniture in the foyer, where all is smooth stone surfaces, with a counter at wheelchair height. There is the regulation notice board, with posters for rabies and Crimestoppers, but going beyond this, one soon realises that Garda stations are rather like icebergs – in that the public areas are just a very small part of what actually goes on.
THERE ARE OFFICES, interview rooms, community rooms, rooms where radios are charged up, drying rooms for wet uniforms, changing rooms, rest rooms, interview rooms (where one of the quartet of chairs – the one intended for the inter-
viewee – is bolted to the floor), and a small gym. There is a cabinet of memorabilia, which includes a booklet with a simple diagram demonstrating how best to put down a horse. This dates from the days when that was one of the functions of the force, and shows an arrow to a point on the horse’s forehead, marked “A”.
There is also an evidence and lost property room containing such items as golf clubs, box files, and a bag where the handwritten text describes the contents as a particular make of runners, and that they are evidence in a murder case.
And then there are the cells. These are reached by a separate door at the back, and are all smooth surfaces and coldly practical. Each cell is for a single occupant, and oddly enough, the juvenile detention cells are larger than those for adults. All have a built-in platform for sleeping, with a plastic mattress, a toilet, and a hatch in the door. I don’t know whether stories of detainees escaping through the slim hatches are apocryphal, but I’m sure many of the true stories these spaces have witnessed would be enough to give anyone pause.
The stations we have today are built by the Office of Public Works (OPW), which takes on what’s called a “brief of requirements” from the Garda, and which works off that to try to come up with buildings that fulfil the complex role of symbolising security, community engagement, State authority, civic pride, civic reassurance and, where appropriate, deterrence.
NOT ALL STATIONS are new builds; conscious of Ireland’s stock of Garda stations as a sort of living museum, mirroring our changing society, some are refurbishments, such as that planned for Clonark in Co Roscommon. The original drawings for Clonark, dating from the 1940s, show latrines out the back, and notes pointing out the designated spaces for “chickens belonging to Sergeant” and “Sergeant’s vegetable patch”.
Like all architecture, our Garda stations reflect who is in charge, who we are and, more interestingly, who we think we are. The Opus judges, giving the award to Irishtown, noted that “Garda stations are buildings that flicker in and out of public consciousness”. This is true, and while I don’t think architecture can change society on its own, I do believe good and sensitive building can help society to make change. You don’t have to wait for a passport photograph or an unpleasant incident to take a look at your local Garda station: go along and see what it has to say for itself, and also what it has say about the Ireland we’re making for ourselves.
Ballyduff, Co Waterford : a gothic fantasy of a Garda station.
Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath : complete with arched windows and fanlights, half would have once been station, and half accommodation.
Kenmare, Co Kerry: recently refurbished, and very, very pretty.
Kilkenny City and Harcourt Terrace, Dublin : built in the 1940s and showing that neo-Georgian wasn’t just a 1980s craze.
Knocknagree, North Cork: mightn’t look like much at first glance, but it’s what’s known as “Domestic Revival”, a typical 1930s style of architecture.