Dublin is dying: culture and activism in a changing city

Image Credit: Gregory DALLEAU

With cultural hotspots closing for business across Dublin, Caroline Kelly examines some of the treasures Dublin is set to lose, and profiles some of those who are fighting back.

Dublin has come under fire recently due to news of the impending closure of several cultural destinations. This pattern sadly cannot be said to be new in Ireland, the last 20 years has arguably witnessed Dublin culture slowly being eroded, however this has resulted in much activism attempting to protect these public spaces.

The center is not holding. Dublin is a city of bankruptcy notices, abandoned flats above city streets, rampant homelessness, going-out-of-business sales, cranes fracturing the sky like bad omens and hotel franchises growing exponentially. Walking through the streets of Dublin nowadays feels less like a trip down memory lane and more like moving spaces on a Monopoly board. 

This is nothing new. Over the years, a long series of established theatres, exhibition spaces, performance venues, independent bookstores and historical pubs have closed to make way for hotels, offices and high-end housing. In 2021, Dublin saw the announcement of the closure of landmarks such as Chapters Bookstore, Cobblestone Pub, Trinity College’s Science Gallery and countless others. 

“Walking through the streets of Dublin nowadays feels less like a trip down memory lane and more like moving spaces on a Monopoly board”

In October, hundreds gathered in Smithfield and marched to O’Connell Bridge over plans to build a hotel around The Cobblestone Pub, a family-run, historical and cultural landmark. Marron Estates Ltd has applied to Dublin City Council for a nine-storey hotel at 77-80 North King Street, which includes the Cobblestone. While the popular traditional music pub is a protected structure and would be retained as part of the proposed development, an outdoor area and back-room venue would be demolished. Almost 100 objections have been lodged with the council over the development plans while an online petition, Save the Cobblestone, has more than 33,000 signatures. The ‘Save The Cobblestone’ procession was spearheaded by ‘Dublin is Dying’, an activist group which, according to their Instagram, “advocates for the reversal of the decision to destroy parts of the Cobblestone pub to build a hotel.” 

At the heart of the matter is Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, a committee organiser with ‘Dublin Is Dying’, which helped organise Saturday’s march. In an interview with the Irish Times, Ceannabháin says rapid hotel development across Dublin is “sucking the life out of the city”. “What’s really being sold to tourists now is a shell of Irish culture. We obviously welcome tourists but if there’s hotels being built on their behalf while the people who live here are finding it difficult to live, that’s a major problem. We welcome everyone that wants to visit but one shouldn’t be at the expense of the other.” 

DCC’s Deputy Chief Executive, Richard Shakespeare, oversees the planning department. He says the council is guided by the principles of its development plan – a new draft plan is due to go on public display next month. According to ‘The Dublin City Development plan 2016-2022’, the core agenda for Dublin city centre is to develop varied uses of space. Tourism and hospitality industries are vital to Dublin’s economic leaders and city councilors as they help to “animate” an area. However, the need for tourism clashes with the need to preserve culture in this sense. As such, plans aimed at improving Irish tourism coincide with the closure of the very landmarks which attract tourists. 

Recently, news broke that the Science Gallery at Trinity College was going to close. First opened in 2008, the gallery is described on its website as a “living experiment” that “ignites creativity and discovery where science and art collide” and fosters community and cultural enrichment. The news was met with fierce opposition from private citizens and lawmakers alike. However, hope for the future of the gallery is not yet lost. In a tweet last month, Trinity provost Linda Doyle recounted “a really productive call with @SimonHarrisTD and [they] both agreed to sit down together next week, with other departments and stakeholders, to discuss the future of [the gallery]”, which is set to close in February 2022. Despite the hopeful message, the gallery is still set to close until a deal is struck between Trinity College, the Department of Higher Education and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. 

Also in October came the news that one of the largest bookshops in the country, Chapters on Parnell Street, will close its doors in early 2022 after nearly 40 years in business. Owner William Kinsella told The Hard Shoulder it was a very difficult decision: "Since the pandemic—if you go back earlier to when the first crash happened - we never had a year where we didn't grow our turnover.” Last weekend, The University Observer spoke with Chapters’ customers as they queued outside the shop, and met with Katie McKenna who has been a customer since childhood.

“It’s the first business closure since Go Burritos in Kilkenny where I cried on the street. I won’t be able to afford buying books brick-and-mortar anymore. I’ll have to purchase them online now”

“I started collecting graphic novels when I was ten. Not only could I not afford them, but the selection of graphic novels in Kilkenny, where I’m from, was only found online. Whenever I happened to be in Dublin, I’d go to Chapters Bookstore, whose selection and prices are unmatched,” said McKenna. 

She shared her regret of seeing Chapters close its doors for good. “It’s the first business closure since Go Burritos in Kilkenny where I cried on the street. I won’t be able to afford buying books brick-and-mortar anymore. I’ll have to purchase them online now, which just perpetuates this vicious cycle of commercialism. Nowadays, people in power know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” 

The upset at Chapters’ closure is not only felt by the public, but also government officials. Minister of Finance Paschal Donohoe published an article in The Currency News lamenting the recent announcement that Chapters Bookstore will close its doors next year. To preserve Dublin’s cultural heritage, Donohoe entrusts the public to save landmarks: “We all have to play our role. If you value bookshops, if you value cultural landmarks then the best way of ensuring their existence is to support them and use them. But that may not be enough on its own. As we make further progress in emerging from the pandemic, city planners and the government are going to have to engage in what is the future for our city centres.” 

Every incident has its own unique set of circumstances, but people are connecting the dots and creating alliances. At last month’s demonstration with ‘Dublin is Dying’, speakers did not solely focus on talking about the Cobblestone. They came from the Community Action Tenants’ Union and the Save Moore Street campaign.

Looking forward, the question isn’t whether Dublin is losing its character, but rather whether the alliances of activists fighting back can halt or reverse the city’s current course.