Can Mountjoy Square be turned into the jewel of Dublin’s inner northside that it should be?
NOWHERE IS the casual neglect of Dublin’s northside more evident than at Mountjoy Square. With its perfect proportions, it should be one of the jewels of the northside. Instead, the central space is a mess, occupied by (among other things), a parks depot from which the Liffey Boardwalk is serviced.
The depot’s walls are scarred by graffiti, the park railings haven’t been painted for decades and one side of the square is used as a coach park – with official approval. It is impossible to imagine Merrion Square or Fitzwilliam Square being treated in such cavalier fashion. It’s obvious why – they’re on the southside.
But neither of the two southside squares is much inhabited – unlike, say, the squares of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. Mountjoy is, however. According to lobby group the Mountjoy Square Society, there are at least 1,000 people living on the square, in original houses or purpose-built flats.
History has not been kind to Mountjoy Square. Like the rest of Dublin’s northside Georgian core, it fell into decline after the Duke of Leinster built a new townhouse in Kildare Street, with its garden front facing what would become Merrion Square. The northside eventually became a set of tenements, suitable for Seán O’Casey’s trilogy.
The Shadow of a Gunman is unsurprisingly set on the square, as O’Casey once lived there. Arthur Guinness died in a house on the square in 1803, according to the Mountjoy Square Society. “Perhaps most notably, Mountjoy Square hosted meetings of the First and Second Dáil in 1919-1921,” it notes proudly.
“Mountjoy Square has an extraordinary history and, when it was built, was considered to be one of the finest residential squares in Europe,” says its secretary, Karin O’Flanagan, a resident since 1978. Dublin City Council needs “to create a space both for visitors and the local community which will breathe new life and pride into the square”.
By the early 1980s, when I first wrote about Mountjoy Square, only 43 of 67 houses built two centuries earlier had survived, despite the valiant efforts of Mariga Guinness, Uinseann MacEoin and others. No 50, the house Mariga bought to preserve, was later pulled down.
Since then, with the aid of urban renewal tax incentives, at least a semblance of the missing houses has been recreated. However, the new Georgian facades are not very convincing, and behind them lie shoebox flats with tall rooms that are evocative of Victorian prison cells, produced by Zoe Developments.
Nonetheless, anyone passing through Mountjoy Square now would at least get the impression that it’s intact. Previously, chunks of the south and west sides lay in ruins. The late Prof FX Martin used to avoid the square when bringing visitors into the city from Dublin airport; he didn’t want them to think it had been bombed. Now, it’s up for designation as an architectural conservation area (ACA). This would be “hugely valuable ”, says Garrett Fennell, the society’s chairman. Dublin City Council, he says, are key stakeholders, “given that they own and (mis)manage the park in the centre of the square. They also control the traffic/parking regime and deal with planning, and in particular enforcement and housing standards issues.
“They are utterly frustrating our efforts to take tangible steps in other areas of improving the square. In a mixture of indifference and inertia, they tolerate the use of the square as a commuter coach park. We were told recently that they have no plans to move the coaches from the square, despite earlier indications that they would be moved.”
It was a joke to think Dublin was being considered as a World Heritage Site for its Georgian core “when the city council allows one of its premier Georgian squares – and its only real residential Georgian square – to be used as a coach park”.
Fennell, a son of late Fine Gael TD Nuala Fennell, says if the council doesn’t start taking its responsibilities for the northside Georgian core seriously, the society will call on Unesco to “disallow the bid” for World Heritage Site designation. “It is a complete joke to think that Dublin is being pushed for [this status] while the city council itself is guilty of wanton neglect of that Georgian heritage.”
The society has said that, unless the council commits itself to improvements, it should cede control of the park to the Office of Public Works, which maintains St Stephen’s Green to a very high standard.
At a meeting with society members last February with 13 council officials, chief planning officer Dick Gleeson said that, despite much investment in the inner city during the boom years, “the north Georgian core had been obdurate in its resistance to a strategic uplift”, according to the minutes.
Heritage officer Charles Duggan saw ACA designation as potentially “an important step in Georgian parts of Dublin achieving World Heritage Site status”, while Charlie Lowe of the Parks Department agreed the location of its depot in the square was “not optimal” – although it would be “difficult to relocate”.
As for removing the coach park, the society was later informed by Tim O’Sullivan, executive manager of the roads and traffic department, that this had been rejected by members of the north inner city area committee in March on the basis that there should be “an examination of options on a citywide basis” for storing private coaches.
The National Transportation Authority had “indicated a willingness to consider funding coach parking facilities”, and there would be a “policy review”. When this was done, “we will be developing specific proposals for new coach parking facilities, which should allow for the removal or reduction of coach parking in the more sensitive areas of Dublin”.
There is some hope. Under Gleeson, an inter-departmental group has been set up to tackle the challenge of “repositioning the north Georgian core . . . in the life of the inner city”. And this is to involve a “strategic top-down and an inventive bottom-up approach”, with an input from residents.
The “down-at-heel” north Georgian core, so much at odds with Dublin’s aspirations to be a “creative, smart knowledge city”, may finally be rescued. But the challenge “is so great that it will require many layers of intervention, requiring the creative collaboration of all stakeholders, city council departments and relevant city institutions”.
Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of the Irish Times