Demolition of O’Rahilly home sparks debate

Image Credit: Wikimedia: William Murphy

Mike Stebens examines whether Ireland is actually proud of its history

Ireland is a country proud of its history, yet regularly seems to have trouble to preserve it. Last month’s prompt and controversial demolition of the O’Rahilly family home serves as the latest example. Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, better known under his pen name ‘The O’Rahilly’, was an Irish nationalist and Republican who participated in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, where he was shot down by British machine guns. Not only had the house in question served as the home of O’Rahilly and his family from 1910 to 1916, it had also served as the headquarter for planning the revolt and hosted many of its leaders such as James Connolly and Patrick Pearse. 

The National Trust for Ireland, An Taisce, argued the house was historically and socially significant and that it was “an attractive Edwardian villa-type design characteristic of the development of the inner suburbs in the late 19th and early 20th century”. Hence, according to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Edwardian building contributed to the preservation of the cultural identity of Ballsbridge. Multiple residents’ associations and heritage organisations had previously voiced their strong wish to keep the house standing. Despite this, An Bord Pleanàla decided to allow the O’Rahilly house to be torn down in order to be replaced with an apartment building and an ‘aparthotel’ complex.

Many politicians also have argued the case to conserve the historical site. The Dublin City Council had signalled that it was willing to put the house on the list of the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. Development company Derryroe Ltd., aware of the fact that in all probability the O’Rahilly house would be put under heritage protection, decided to act fast and proceed with the demolition. It seems the company has a good chance of getting away with this act of malevolence that angered many Dublin residents without having to fear major consequences.

During a discussion in the Dáil, Taoiseach Michael Martin called the destruction wrong, as well as ‘absolutely shocking and unacceptable’ and said that he was ‘of the view that such iconic historic buildings and locations should be preserved’. Many other parliamentarians showed themselves to be appalled also. Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan said that ‘the act of bulldozing was completely against the historical interests of the people of Dublin and Ireland’. Sinn Féin’s Mark Ward agreed and spoke of ‘an act of wanton vandalism on our revolutionary history’, which left him ‘shocked and saddened’. He declared that the house was ‘not significant in an architectural sense’, but ‘immensely important in an historical and cultural sense’. Both deputies stressed that it had only been a matter of time until the Dublin City Council would have put the building on the protected structures list. Ward condemned ‘the arrogance of the developer to completely ignore the democratic will of the people’ and denounced the ‘systemic greed of some developers today’. O’Callaghan demanded the government to clarify how it would ‘ensure that buildings such as this, which exist throughout the country, are protected because of their historical importance’. 

Peter Burke, Minister of State with responsibility for Local Government and Planning, referred to the Dublin City Council as the authority in charge which will start an investigation. Ward’s appeal for the Department to assist the council was rejected by Burke, who explained that ‘Ministers of State are specifically precluded from exercising any power or control in relation to any particular case with which a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála is or may be concerned’. He described it as ‘inappropriate’ for him ‘to make any comment on this matter as the law simply precludes me from doing so’. 

Deputy Ward expressed his fears that “if this developer goes unpunished and is not punished in the strongest possible terms, then it will give the green light for more of our historical and cultural heritage to be destroyed”. Deputy O’Callaghan also appealed to the Minister to look at the bigger issue. Ireland would have “to recognise the importance of our revolutionary period”. He urged local authorities to determine which buildings are of historical importance in order to be able preserve Irish revolutionary history.

These statements lead us to ask if developers are generally too powerful, and whether Ireland is giving up too much of its history and culture to corporate housing firms? Clearly, it can be difficult to make the argument for the preservation of historic buildings in a city like Dublin that finds itself in a severe housing crisis. However, it is doubtful whether luxury apartments and ‘aparthotels’ will do much to address the issue. And what is the price that has to be paid? In its recent state, the O’Rahilly building may not have been much more than a quirky, old house in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. It could however have been restored ,and even if it would probably have been impossible to turn into a tourist magnet, the site could have served as a small museum, recounting the life of O’Rahilly and his role in the Irish Revolution. 

Generally speaking, if an application for a development project is made in such a place, then it should become standard that the responsible planning authorities instruct several historians to make a historical assessment of its cultural value. With public history and cultural heritage studies gaining in popularity in recent years, there are certainly more than enough experts that can comment on the value of historic places. 

To end on a more positive note, members of Dublin City Council are currently demanding that the O’Rahilly house be rebuilt. Some are even asking for the development firm to pay the costs of the reconstruction.