Two years ago, Dublin City Council announced plans for a new so-called Cultural Quarter based around Parnell Square. Here are some extracts from the website www.parnellsquare.ie. subsequently set up by the local authority:readers must make of them what they will:
‘A new City Library will be built beside the existing world-class Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and will offer a range of creative, participative and educational experiences, united by a trinity of themes, Learn, Create and Participate. A civic plaza will connect the new City Library and cultural facilities, creating a new public space that those who live, work and visit Dublin can use, engage with and enjoy in the heart of the city… Conversations identified a desire for a vibrant and modern Square, bustling with quirky, family-friendly spaces full of informal and spontaneous creative activity, with a sense of the inside spilling outside to the public realm being seen as the key to the success of the development. It should be a place which reflects modern Irish identity, along with the heritage of the area. There were many ideas and suggestions for use of cultural space in the new library complex and integrated buildings…
The Quarter will inspire and excite, welcome and include, with a new City library as the hub and anchor building. To make this work requires structures that encourage and mandate unity. This process of building relationships and collaborative models of service will challenge all parties to engage, united by a sense of common purpose to make life better in Dublin. Public service and public spaces will be key drivers of all developments. A dynamic tableau of changing creative presences and experiences will animate the spaces which will be supported by agencies, associations or other service providers either on site or remotely…
The vision for Parnell Square Cultural Quarter is for transformation of the physical fabric of the Square, and for transformation for the people of Dublin through access to ideas, information, and imagination. The objective is to achieve a quality cultural offer coupled with an equality of access and provision that reflects the locality and the city. Opportunities to learn, create and participate will be the overarching themes which will unite the Quarter.’
Parnell Square, the oldest such development in Dublin, is essentially the creation of two men, Bartholemew Mosse and Luke Gardiner. The former, a public-minded doctor, in 1748 leased a four-acre site, described at the time as ‘a piece of waste ground, with a pool in the hollow, and a few cabins on the slopes’. Here he established the world’s first purpose-built lying-in hospital intended to serve the poor of the city and to ensure fewer mothers and babies died during childbirth. Its location lay at the top of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, begun the following year by Gardiner who in the early 1750s went on to establish Cavendish Row to the immediate east of Dr Mosse’s plot. Further developments to the north and west of the hospital led to the emergence of what at the time was known as Rutland Square. The most distinctive feature of the square was that its centre did not contain the usual park for use of residents, but public gardens created by Dr Mosse as a means of raising funds for his medical establishment. They were the equivalent of London’s Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens, laid out with lawns and pleasure pavilions where entertainments, theatrical performances and concerts were offered to paying patrons. Funds raised from these events helped to underwrite the hospital to the immediate south, designed by Richard Castle. To the east were added the Rotunda Assembly Rooms designed in 1764 by John Ensor (it was as a result of this building that the hospital became know as the Rotunda). To the north of Ensor’s adjunct the New Assembly Rooms containing a tea room, supper room (now the Gate Theatre) and ballroom were built from 1784 onwards. So successful and fashionable was Dr Mosse’s enterprise that the sites surrounding his gardens became highly desirable as residences for the affluent, initially along Cavendish Row but soon throughout the district. The single most significant property was that built by the Earl of Charlemont at the centre of the square’s north side. Designed by Sir William Chambers in 1763, its stone facade and forecourt provides a fitting response to the garden front of the hospital lying on lower ground to the south. Hard though it is to conceive now, for almost two centuries the two buildings were separated by trees and lawns.
As elsewhere this part of the capital, Parnell Square’s decline began in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union when, without the need to attend parliament, many of the country’s landowners gave up their Dublin residences. Houses formerly in private hands switched to institutional use: in the 1870s for example, Charlemont House was bought by the government for use as the General Register and Census Offices for Ireland and is now the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. While most of the buildings around the square itself survived reasonably well, those on surrounding streets more clearly displayed the consequences of the area’s diminished fortunes, being turned into tenements with multiple occupation. As for the gardens themselves, amazingly they remained reasonably intact until the middle of the last century: one of a pair of 18th century Tuscan temples built as sedan-chair rest houses only went in 1942. As Christine Casey has written, a leap of imagination is required to envisage Parnell Square as it once looked, not least because ‘the central area is now a jumble of car parks, isolated grassy patchees and C20 appendages to the Rotunda Hospital.’ The loss of the 18th century hospital’s prospect is due to that institution which from 1895 onwards began to add new buildings with inevitable consequences. The first of these is a three- (today four-) storey block to the west designed by Frederick George Hicks as a nurse’s residence. Its red brick and yellow terracotta exterior, very much in the popular taste of the period, is fundamentally unsympathetic to Castle’s classical stone-clad hospital, unlike Albert Murray’s westerly extension of 1905, which while making the Rotunda’s facade lopsided, at least acknowledges its architectural history. Further developments to the north from 1940 onwards continued to remove evidence of the Georgian pleasure gardens, including the Garden of Remembrance, designed by Dáithí Hanly and installed in 1966 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Meanwhile many buildings around the square and those on neighbouring streets continued that slide into decreptitude begun in the 19th century.
As can be seen in today’s photographs, Parnell Square today is a mess, lacking coherence or even often adequate maintenance. The condition of surrounding streets is little better, on occasion much worse. Earlier this year, Senator David Norris spoke out about the state of the area, noting that it had been allowed to slip into ever greater degradation with derelict historic buildings, a build-up of household rubbish and inappropriate infill developments on the site of former Georgian houses. Dereliction, he commented, had become “endemic” in the north Georgian core of the city and Dublin City Council appeared to be doing nothing to stop it: ‘The city authorities here are absolutely lamentable.’ In particular, Senator Norris observed that while the council held a list of endangered buildings, it seemed slow to take any meaningful action against such properties’ owners: ‘It’s intolerable that so many buildings are left like this for years.’ As if to emphasise his point, a few weeks ago large sections of the rear wall of 30 North Frederick Street, an 18th century building just a minute’s walk from Parnell Square, collapsed. A ‘protected structure’, the building has been on the city council’s derelict sites register for years yet the authority had done nothing to ensure its survival, despite being regularly warned of the inevitable outcome by concerned organisations like the Civic Trust. Several other houses on the street look in little better condition, as is also the case on the parallel street, Granby Row to the north west of the square. Multiple door bells here indicate buildings in a poor state of repair have been divided into flats; one wonders whether the council inspects these to ensure they conform to legislation on occupancy. On the other hand it is difficult to demand high standards from private owners when public agencies set such a poor example. The instance of the former Coláiste Mhuire best illustrates this point. This terrace of houses to the immediate west of Charlemont House was occupied by a school until 2003 when it passed into the possession of the Office of Public Works, which allowed the buildings to lie idle for a decade. They were then acquired by the city authorities and are, eventually, destined to become the new central library. Meanwhile, they continue to sit empty and in poor condition. No wonder other owners of property feel without compunction to look after their own houses. No doubt grand plans are – slowly – being prepared for Parnell Square but in the meantime the council could demonstrate evidence of good intent, and lead by example, through initiating work on the houses’ roofs, fenestration and so forth. Such work will need to be undertaken regardless of the structures’ eventual use. And the authority would then be in a better position to exercise its legislative powers and insist on an improvement in the condition of other buildings in the vicinity. A new Cultural Quarter sounds all very fine, but what’s really needed is a new culture, one that could and should be inaugurated by Dublin City Council.