Beginning in the early 1970s, every summer social geographer Kevin Corrigan Kearns visited Ireland for research purposes, spending considerable amounts of time in Dublin. In 1983 he published a book Georgian Dublin: Ireland’s Imperilled Architectural Heritage in which he wrote that with each trip to the city, ‘I could not help but witness the insidious forces which seemed to conspire against the vulnerable Georgian streetscapes. Every year there was grim new testimony to neglect, decay and destruction. Once-intact Georgian vistas of unsurpassed beauty were savaged by demolition and unsympathetic architectural infill. Inexplicably, there existed no effective opposition to this wilful and wanton assault on Dublin’s unique urban core. Indeed, I sensed that Dubliners somehow accepting this alarming degenerative process as a sort of natural occurrence – ostensibly, all in the name of progress and prosperity. Were Dubliners insensitive to this loss or merely impotent to exert any control over the destiny of their elegant city? Was there no philosophy of stewardship on the part of officialdom and citizenry to preserve this imperilled treasure for future generations?… While much destruction has incontestably resulted from deliberate unabashed rape of the cityscape, a wealth of Georgiana has conspicuously been despoiled and lost from simple benign neglect on the part of owners and occupiers, both public and private. The fragile state of Georgian Dublin today cannot be attributed to the actions of any single group. A myriad of forces has for generations militated against the welfare and survival of the Georgian city.’
Although he had suggested a ‘myriad of forces’ was responsible for the havoc wreaked on Ireland’s historic capital during the 1870s and ‘80s, Kevin Corrigan Kearns had no doubt who were the principal villains: ‘It would not be an exaggeration to state that the redevelopment of Dublin has essentially been left to the whims and dictates of private developers and speculators. For the past twenty years, amid an unconstrained environment for development, they have been allowed to use the inner city, in the words of one irate writer to the Irish Times, as a “gambling ground for their own ambitions of wealth and power”. During this free-wheeling period of urban growth, the government assumed a modest role in redevelopment. Indeed, while the Civil Service and other public bodies taken up almost three-quarters of Dublin’s total office space, the vast bulk of this accommodation is rented from private development companies.
By the late ‘sixties, the appellation “developer” had become synonymous with “despoiler” in the public psyche. The tide of destruction that scarred the central city evoked accusations of “rape”, “pillage” and “prostitution” of the urban environment. The developers’ appetite for reconstruction and profit seemed rapacious as they increasingly cast hungry eyes towards the Georgian terraces. Motivated by hard economics which demanded maximum floor space for minimal investment, no Georgian house, regardless of its historic or artistic merit, was sacrosanct.’
Kevin Corrigan Kearns was by no means the only person watching the destruction of Dublin’s historic core with dismay; artist and author Peter Pearson was likewise appalled by what was taking place in his native city. Rather than observe, he began to intervene by rescuing items from buildings that were being demo
lished or cleared out, and gradually built up a huge collection of architectural salvage. Today that collection acts as a record of decades’ long barbarianism. Pearson’s accumulated items include everything from fragments of 18th century plasterwork to 19th century decorative iron railings, from carved Portland stone capitals to ornamental door knockers. Among the features they share is that all came from properties in the capital, and all were deemed expendable and of no value: nobody operating in an official capacity thought it worthwhile to preserve a record of what was being torn down. Instead, this work was left to a passionate individual who recognised what neither the state nor Dublin County Council did: that the rampant and ill-conceived razing of the city centre would lead to a collective loss of memory unless something was saved. Without Pearson’s diligent enterprise, it would all have disappeared, a handful of old black and white photographs being the only souvenir.
Today it is less likely that buildings constructed in earlier centuries will be knocked down – although this can still occur, not least because of an inadequate listing of properties that merit protection (such as those which are currently at risk on the corner of Nassau and Kildare Streets. Dating from c.1820, astonishingly they are unlisted by Dublin City Council, thereby allowing the owner to apply for their demolition and replacement with an office development). And even buildings which are listed for preservation frequently suffer from unauthorised work on the site, as anyone who has ventured onto Capel Street and its neighbours in recent years can testify: large skips are heaped with the remains of gutted interiors. Across the capital, developers continue to be permitted set the pace for what is and isn’t built or preserved. Both central and local authorities continue to adopt a largely laissez-faire, hands-off approach to what is kept within the historic core. There is no national collection of the kind created over several decades by Peter Pearson. To see what he saved is both wonderful and tragic. Anyone involved in planning and urban development should be under an obligation to spend ample time looking through what was rescued in order that the same mistakes are not repeated. Otherwise the record of losses will continue to grow.
Dublin Fragments: The Pearson Collection is on show in the Irish Georgian Society, City Assembly House, 58 South William Street, Dublin 2 until March 22nd, and includes a selling exhibition of paintings and collages of the city by Peter Pearson.