In Defense of the Winter Lights

Image Credit: Mario Mendez on Unsplash

We can and should have more nice things on the streets of Dublin, writes Ciarán Howley

For lovers of the Silly Season, the annual Dublin Winter Lights is a festive holiday staple and 2022 was no exception. From mid-November and leading up to Christmas, sixteen locations around the city were bedazzled with lights aplenty. These included Smithfield Square, the GPO, the Spire, the Seán O’Casey Bridge and the brand new installation, the Liffey Viking Boat. Dublin Zoo also had its own lights show, inspiring plenty of memes about it being a great spot for a first date - me and who in 2023?

Being out on the streets as the lights begin to come on is always so memorable, giving the city some well-needed vitality and good cheer. Last Christmas it was more needed than ever, perhaps being one of the most sombre in recent memory. 2022 saw many households stretched thin due to rising living costs, and this was definitely reflected in the social media campaigns asking us to remember the many for whom the holidays are a difficult time, for one reason or another.

While Dublin’s appearance during the day is ramshackle and grey, the lights offered some solace during the coldest and harshest time of the year. It’s arguably one of the few things Dublin City Council manages to get right. You’d have to be a true Grinch to be giving out about the lights. And when one popular account on social media did, they were met with a torrent of rage. 

At a time when life in Dublin can be dejecting and financially crippling, the Christmas lights were a nice moment that sort of said: hey, it’s not all bad. 

It’s clear that it was never really about the lights. The Winter Lights have been ongoing for some time now, some may even remember when Michael Bublé performed outside Brown Thomas Grafton Street in 2011 to officiate Grafton Street’s big winter light-up. Sorry, that’s a core memory for me. 

If fourteen locations across the city can be transformed into glowing Winter wonderlands, just imagine if we began to think more long-term

What might be frustrating about the lights is that when there is a concerted effort Dublin can actually be nice. We all know the city isn’t at its best right now. From a dire lack of cultural spaces to a severe housing and rental crisis with no end in sight, it’s difficult to enjoy the city and many Dubliners have become resentful. Perhaps seeing people enjoy those lights, in what’s become a playground destination for wealthy tourists, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

What it’s really about is how we use space in Dublin. If fourteen locations across the city can be transformed into glowing Winter wonderlands, just imagine if we began to think more long-term. One brilliant example was during Culture Night last year, when the vacant structure that once housed the Fruit and Veg Market off Capel St hosted a rave. 

Now, it’s not all about parties, but there are dozens of disused buildings and areas that could be transformed into public spaces, if there was a real motivation to do so.  Community centres, allotments, playgrounds, theatres - Dublin needs more than hotels and bars if the culture that attracts tourists in the first place is to survive. 

You can hardly be surprised that hotels are struggling to rake in the dough right now - if even tourists are giving Dublin the shirk, then surely it’s time to think again about how we want this city to look for the people who don’t want to emigrate. And while the grass may not be greener in fellow capitals like London, Berlin or Paris, from where young people are standing, the lights are an awful lot brighter.