Liveability Is … A Curate’s Egg

In the third in his series on urban liveability, David Nichols finds a Dublin in uncharacteristically gloomy mood.

The ancient Greeks used to build cities to be confusing: the idea was that enemy invaders had to be met by surprising twists and turns which would pose no problem to locals fleeing and/or plotting ambush. Dublinites of 2011 have no particular control over the wackiness of their prehistoric city, shaped by waterways natural and unnatural, topography and the whims of their ancient forebears. But due to some current whims, they make very certain that their streets are their own: unsignposted and with few directions given. It might be that there is a Dublinite belief that to not know one’s way around is itself a little wicked, or that if one needs to ask how to get somewhere one has no particular business trying to go there. (Or maybe they think everyone has a GPS - not if they ordered one with their Thrifty hire car, they don’t.)

Dubliners in the post-Celtic Tiger world are perhaps tossing up whether to go back to their crappy old ways of the 80s, where at least no-one had expectations or aspirations. Once again, coffee serves as a useful example: they have coffee machines in their cafes but they’ll chuck together a cup of instant if they think you won’t notice. The central city is full of people milling about (European tourists mainly), whom the locals entertain and disturb in turn by demonstrating a dysfunctionality of epic proportions. For instance, I pass a man with a mobile phone to his ear, yelling incomprehensibly to his girlfriend, who stands a mere half a block away, bent double and yelling, ‘I! Can’t! Hear! You!’.

I’m not telling you anything new here, but it nonetheless bears bearing in mind: the Irish are distinctly and undoubtedly in enormous trouble, and things are unlikely to improve very soon. It would be nice to say their philosophical outlook and resilience will pull them through. But many of them have tasted prosperity and even come to accept it as the norm. And, as if specifically intended to rub it in, everywhere around is evidence of Euro-crumbling: the demise of the empire that only recently was an Ireland that had never had it so good. It doesn’t help that, even before the crash, polls indicated Dublinites were unhappier than people in the rest of Ireland.

A real estate ad sells a fading dream in the Dublin suburb of Clongriffin; image courtesy of the author.

A real estate ad sells a fading dream in the Dublin suburb of Clongriffin; image courtesy of the author.

Emblematic of Dublin’s afflictions is the suburb of Clongriffin. In close proximity to pre-boom suburbia, Colgriffen consists of icon buildings and rows of apartment blocks above retail space, separated by long stretches of fencing, behind which lie vacant sites. The retail space is almost completely empty, its capacious windows covered in advertising suggesting here might one day be a take-away or grocer no yuppie can do without. In one section of housing between Colgriffen and Balgriffin – detached two storey houses all the same – a street may feature two dozen homes with manicured front hedges, the plastic still on the windows, and maybe a single one of them occupied.

At the end of some streets, houses are left half-built, the concrete and other construction materials strewn or stacked around the block (as if the builders had been spirited away, although the more likely story is that they got a call telling them don’t come come back to work). Clongriffin has a glorious new station; on one side, apartment blocks tower, and the other side looks like a bomb hit it.

Dublin’s liveability, then, is a curate’s egg - which is to say, unpalatable. As it happens, I don’t like eggs anyway.