Making Irish Cities More Liveable

Recently I was lucky enough to meet Jan Gehl as organiser of the inaugural Urban Forum lecture he delivered in Dublin. I discuss the applicability of his thoughts on cities and Dublin in this piece for The Journal.


We’ve Been Trumped?

‘The man lives in a pig sty. He lives in garbage. He’s a pig.’

– Donald Trump on a local objector to his Scottish golf course

I love everything about Local Hero. The story, the Knopfler soundtrack, the landscape, the people – everything. So I might be slightly biased towards a documentary portrayed as a real life Local Hero and which features clips from the classic.

Tonight at 22:35 RTE One are showing the 2011 documentary ‘You’ve Been Trumped‘, a David and Goliath story about Trump’s construction of a luxury golf course on an environmentally protected site in Aberdeenshire amidst local opposition.

The only pity is that it wasn’t shown the day he arrived in Shannon to a fawning welcome recently after he bought Doonbeg golf resort. ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ follows the local residents as they make their last stand in the face of security harassments, legal threats and the cutting off of their water and electricity.

The Donald (as Sean O’Rourke cringingly referred to him in a sycophantic interview at the time of his Shannon stopover) doesn’t like the documentary. If that’s not enough to make you like it, I don’t know what will.

More accessible and engaging in my view than the equally significant ‘The Pipe’ on the Shell to Sea campaign, things have moved on further since ‘You’ve Been Trumped’.

The Scottish Government supported the construction of the Aberdeenshire golf course despite objections but Trump halted work on a planned hotel, housing and a second course on the site when plans for an offshore windfarm close to the links course emerged and were upheld by the Scottish courts. Trump then announced that they would instead be focusing ‘all of our investment and energy’ on Doonbeg (lucky us). He had alleged in court that Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, had secretly interfered in the decision to approve the 11-turbine site and there had been clear bias in favour of the windfarm.

As captured in this Scotsman cartoon, the key lesson for Michael Noonan et al (and the Doonbeg community) is that Trump can turn.

P.S. For a good account of Trump’s US presidential election will he/won’t he ridiculousness read the BuzzFeed article he didn’t like.

The Donald



Why you should visit the Irish Jewish Museum

Today I visited the Irish Jewish Museum on Walworth Road, South Circular Road, Dublin. It is in some houses built by the Dublin Artisans’ Dwellings Company in Portobello in the late 1800s, many of which came to be occupied by Jewish families and the area became known as ‘Little Jerusalem’.

The museum itself was opened in 1985 by President of Israel Chaim Herzog, who was born in Ireland and grew up in the area. The ground floor of two houses forms the main exhibition area while the original synagogue for the community remains upstairs. The museum owns adjoining houses but these are not currently in use and are derelict.

Upstairs original synagogue

Upstairs original synagogue


It’s not like Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum which is unique, harrowing, immersive and experiential. It’s not like New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage which is vast and poignant. It is however a different take on Ireland, Irishness and our tolerence or otherwise and for that it must be visited.

The number of Jews in Ireland probably peaked in the mid 1900s at around 5,000 but has declined to the hundreds. Many left for the new state of Israel or went to the UK, US or further afield for economic advancement or for cultural or personal reasons as the Irish pool shrunk. Intermarriage also reduced the numbers. One of the reasons a substantial population never developed here in the first place seems to be English influence and their expulsion from there in 1290 until the middle of the 17th century. However, the Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal did lead to some immigration here.

While the museum shows that Ireland seems to have been a tolerant safe haven relative to many other places it didn’t always cover oursleves in glory. It’s sadly inevitable that there is a display case in the museum covering antisemitism. There was the Redemptorist fueled Limerick Pogrom. It saw the city’s Jewish population fall from 171 in 1901 to 122 in 1911 to just 30 by 1926. During World War II Oliver J. Flanagan TD advocated

‘routing the Jews out of the country’

and there was an official indifference to the plight of Jews in Europe during and immediately after the war. The museum displays 1938 correspondence between the Dail’s only Jewish TD Bob Briscoe and then Minister for Justice Ruttledge who took a hard line regarding two young Jewish refugees. Briscoe points out that the head of music in the Army was German and had not sought Irish citizenship and the Director of the National Museum was Austrian and had recently been honored by Hitler, contrasting this with the negative treatment given to the two refugees.

In 1948 the Department of Justice explained that:

‘It has always been the policy of the Minister for Justice to restrict the admission of Jewish aliens, for the reason that any substantial increase in our Jewish population might give rise to an anti-Semitic problem’

That seems like a classic Irish solution to an Irish problem – rather than doing the right thing or looking deeper and wondering why people might be racist (and maybe sweeping statements like that do Irish people an injustice) we just keep them out and keep us ‘pure’.

I’m not normally a de Valera fan but he overruled the Department of Justice in 1948 and 150 refugee Jewish children were brought to Ireland. Earlier, in 1946, 100 Jewish children from Poland were brought to Clonyn Castle in Westmeath  before rejoining their families or starting new lives in England, America or Israel. In 1952 Dev again had to overrule the Department of Justice to admit five Orthodox families who were fleeing the Communists. In 1966, the Dublin Jewish community arranged the planting and dedication of the Éamon de Valera Forest in Israel in recognition of his support for Ireland’s Jews.

Access to the Irish Jewish Museum is controlled, you are let in through a closed reinforced door and they check you out before they let you in and there is of course CCTV. It’s more low key than the airport style security at Jewish museums I’ve visited in New York and Berlin but the recent Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting shows these precautions are necessary. Imagine if you worked in a dusty museum but you had to consider your own personal safety when you went to work just because of religion?

photo 1 (2)

Irish antisemitic material displayed at the museum

photo 2 (1)

Irish antisemitic material displayed at the museum

Alan Shatter experienced antisemitism, there are still incidents of antisemitic graffiti around Ireland and at the last local elections there was an antisemitic canvasser using words like ‘jewess’ and condemning Shatter for his religion. That’s why a place like the Irish Jewish Museum is vital and why some of the comments against its proposed expansion stick in my craw.

Residents have some legitimate concerns about design, scale, traffic etc. but after the decision by An Bord Pleanala signs are still up around the area, something I found quite aggressive. The Board’s Inspector’s report documents some local objections that make me uncomfortable such as

‘The existing facility is of an historic nature associated with a community that no longer exists and its expansion to a museum of international standards is not warranted’

I think there is a story worth marking, otherwise what’s the point of museums? Are they just to tell the stories of the winners and the big guys?

The proposed museum will utilise the adjoining houses it owns and will demolish them, retaining the street facade with a modern, fit for purpose, museum behind.

Visit the museum as it is for the content and make up your own mind on the appropriateness of an expanded museum in an area which houses cafes and offices in addition to residential uses and is well served by public transport.

For me, I left convinced that keeping the museum at the heart of its historic community contributes to the understanding of how Dublin’s Jewish community lived and how it has contributed to the wider city’s and country’s culture and economy as well as  celebrating heterogeneity while also carrying warnings from the past.


Ireland’s New Village: Coill Dubh, Kildare

Bord na Móna (whose partial merger with semi-state forestry company Coillte was announced recently) own over 80,000 hectares so have a huge role in our landscape. One of their (declining) marks is the brown expanses of peat extraction. Another is whole new communities.

In the early 1940s Bord na Móna (then called the Turf Development Board) advertised in local newspapers all over the country for workers to come to the midlands to harvest the bogs.

This led to a migration of thousands of people who lived in 14 specially built camps throughout the county which housed between 300 and 500 men. There was precedent – in the 1920s a camp housed hundreds during the construction of Ardnacrusha power plant.

The camps lasted to the end of the 1950s and were replaced by some new housing schemes designed by Frank Gibney (98 houses were built outside Rochfortbridge for example) and at least one totally new village, Coill Dubh, County Kildare which contained 160 houses, a school and shops. Other facilities such as a church, etc. were not originally planned for but arrived later.

Planner and architect Fergal Mac Cabe is excellent on the significance of these settlements and Gibney’s importance to Irish planning and urban design. Of Coill Dubh Mac Cabe notes:

The tower of the school lines up with the vista through one of the arched buildings. The skilful way the open space flows through this scheme, now expanding, now contracting, maintains constant interest and the large central space, with its axis and strong feature buildings give a high sense or urbanity and identity.



The Life and Death of an Irish Company Town

A recent article on the decline of Rochester, NY, a small city built on the back of the Eastman Kodak company got me thinking of an Irish ‘company town’.

Before the widely celebrated Port Sunlight and Bournville, there was Portlaw Co. Waterford. In the 1820s a model industrial village was developed there to house workers at the cotton factory that had been established by Quaker industrialist David Malcomson on the banks of the River Clodiagh in 1825. In the 1850s and 1860s, under Joseph Malcomson, the village was redesigned using formal planning principles. Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, is another example of a Quaker led industrial village.

Portlaw’s design of five wide streets with uniform house frontages radiated from a central open space known as The Square, which formed the commercial centre of the village. A popular myth is that Malcolmson on sitting down to plan the village laid his hands upon the table, and decided to build in the shape of a hand. Workers’ accommodation comprised 50 two-storey houses, and more than 250 single-storey houses on a uniform pattern.

It even had its own architectural innovation, the ‘Portlaw roof’, a gently curving type developed to be both efficient and cost effective.

The Malcomson venture at Portlaw prospered until the consequences of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) pushed the firm into liquidation in 1876, closing the mills and prompting mass emigration from the area. The Mayfield Spinning Company operated on site until 1904, and after a prolonged period of inactivity, the Irish Tanners Company was established in 1935, closing in 1985. This prompted a period of further decline and putting the mill/tannery, in a ruinous state.

Portlaw more than matches the level of achievement of the world-renowned model villages found in England, Scotland and North America; something acknowledged in Heritage Council conservation plan for the village and the Waterford county development plan which map out a path to making the most of this landmark.

Portlaw today from an Irish Examiner article on walks in the area.


Sustainable Development or Sustaining Development?

How many of you have heard of a document called ‘Our Sustainable Future’?

Launched in June 2012 it is Ireland’s framework for sustainable development. Given that it’s something that seems so overarching it should pretty much be at the heart of public policy and decision making.

But it’s not.

It is the successor to 1997’s ‘Sustainable Development – A Strategy for Ireland’ which raised, in particular, some interesting questions about the desirability of car dependency and one off housing but despite the warnings it was an issue subsequently ignored. In 2004 then Green Party TD Eamon Ryan observed ‘The definition of sustainable development here is sustained development’. In the period following 1997 Ireland became one of the most car-dependent countries in the world.

‘Our Sustainable Future’ is a curious document. For one it opens ‘Sustainable development is about ourselves’. That seems to stand in contrast to the most widely quoted definition from the Brundtland Commission, i.e. that sustainable development is ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

There are other pearls of wisdom in there, my favourite line is:

‘While the vision may seem ambitious, even daunting, it is achievable. We need to accomplish this because we must.’

It refers to fiscal and financial sustainability a lot.  It doesn’t question the compatibility of the current ‘business as usual’ economic model with social or environmental sustainability. Bizarrely it suggests ‘rapid economic growth’ and motorway networks represent recent progress towards sustainable development!

There are some reasonable things. It sets out key principles – including social, generational, gender equity and good decisionmaking. However an ‘innovative, competitive’ economy is still first. It talks about good decision making, participation and bottom up consultative processes but it also suggests that you talk to these people because they’re far from the labour market and you are only doing it to bring them closer to it.

There are a number of specific actions and 2.7 delves into an area of particular interest to me, sustainable communities. According to the report

‘Sustainable communities are places where people want to live and work, are environmentally sustainable and contribute to a high quality of life for residents. They are safe and inclusive, well-planned, built and run, and offer equality of opportunity and good services for all.’

Ultimately however it focuses on housing issues in the last twenty years such as ghost estates, negative equity etc. without really speaking of persistently marginalised communities.

The actions under this heading generally revolve around implementing policies and guidelines already in place like the Government’s architecture guidelines and the National Spatial Strategy. The document also identifies gaps in achieving its aims – sadly a lack of understanding of sustainable development isn’t listed as one of them.

It’s not to say this is simple. Sustainable development is a very slippery concept. I have a Masters that includes it in the title, work in a system where it is the key aim and am doing a PhD looking at it and my view of what it is and isn’t is still evolving.  It has been described as a contested concept (Jacobs, 1995; O’Riordan and Voisey, 1998) and an oxymoron (Njiro, 2002). It has been called ‘the latest development catchphrase’ (Lele, 1991).

Perhaps the most glaring example of all this in Irish policy (apart from sustainable development frameworks that you can ignore in the first place) is the Planning and Development Act, 2000 which is an Act to provide for ‘proper planning and sustainable development’.  The Act updated Irish planning legislation and has an emphasis on ‘sustainable’ development, with the adjective qualifying development throughout.

For then Minister for the Environment Noel Dempsey sustainable development was ‘woven into the fabric of the Bill’. Despite this focus on sustainable development, the term was deliberately not defined as in the Minister’s view

‘it is such a dynamic and all-embracing concept, and one which will evolve over time, that any legal definition would tend to restrict and stifle it. Weaving it in to the fabric of the Bill, as we have done, gives effect to the concept in a holistic and comprehensive way’.

That doesn’t seem to work. Correcting that is not an action included in ‘Our Sustainable Future’ that maybe should be.



Put Not Your Trust in Princes

With the revelations regarding Tuam and elsewhere (and in particular the experiences of mothers and the children they lost on recent Livelines of all places) one obvious thing is how so much of the cruelty was an open secret, swept under the carpet in a compliant, deferential, society. While the scale or whole picture might not have been obvious at the time it seems to have been clear that there was a lot going on under the surface that people either ignored or worse, approved of.

Everyone has a touchstone text or two (used in the broad, Leaving Cert sense, it might be a poem, song, essay, book or film). Learning about the time of the mother and baby ‘homes’ has reminded me that one of mine is a 1957 article ‘Ireland…and where does she stand?’ authored by American academic John V. Kelleher for the journal Foreign Affairs.

Rather than a ‘Quiet Man’ Kelleher was an Irish American without a rose tinted view of the aul sod.

Kelleher nailed the reasons for Ireland’s poverty and backwardness at the time, so obvious to those looking in, and one cannot help but ask how much has changed. He saw clientelism, an obsession with who-you-know, the power of the connected Catholic hierarchy, weak local government, suspicion and an obsession with the farm vote at the expense of urbanity as  rife. Another key issue was a prevalence of paternalism, not compassion, amongst the political class.

On the emigration problem we still have not properly acknowledged, never mind stemmed, he wrote:

Instead of vocal discontent there is silent emigration; and in what emigration leaves behind there is apathy below and smugness above… Emigration is a comment, silent but explicit, on every Irish condition.

I find it hard to disagree with Kelleher’s contention that emigration then, as well as now, is not just economic – many see the self inflicted issues the country has, can’t see a way out of it and know that even in boom times the fundamentals might not change.

He cited a US report on the weakness of Irish exports which identified another trait we try to play down that goes back to the isle of saints and scholars myth: smugness.

There is a persistent illusion concerning the superior quality of the Irish product. This, of course, is not shared by people of experience, but it permeates the general atmosphere nonetheless

It didn’t have to be thus then and it doesn’t now. Like Kelleher said:

Ireland has no right to be sick. If we compare its resources with those of other small Western European countries, and its population with what those have to support, one can hardly avoid deciding that Irish ills are largely psychosomatic.

All this reminds me of one line my mind often returns to: Captain James Kelly’s epitaph taken from Psalm 146.  We have never gotten to the bottom (maybe deliberately) of the events in 1969  that saw him disgraced. Kelly was certainly controversial and for example I don’t agree his support of the politics of Kevin Boland’s Aontacht Éireann. What I can’t quarrel with is the hard lessons he learned and something that ‘whistle blowers’ like Kelleher had recognised about Ireland over a decade earlier. Too much deference to myths, legends or leaders who in the end will hang you out to dry – or worse.

Put not your trust in princes.

PS: For me another keystone text (sticking with the biblical theme) is ‘Sins of the Father’ by Conor McCabe which forensically sets out the political economic and social decisions (some misguided, some borne of ideology or a messiah complex) which undermine the idea of a sustainable republic (small r, in the purest sense of the word). If national myths are you thing Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition is fascinating too. 

Put not your trust in princes - Captain James Kelly's grave at Glasnevin (quite close to Dev's)

Put not your trust in princes – Captain James Kelly’s grave