Saturday 16 December 2017

The good, the bad and the ugly of life in the heart of our city

Members of the public at the opening of the Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire
Members of the public at the opening of the Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire
Clerys protest
Nidge in Love/Hate

When my sons were in primary school, a couple from Donegal lived nearby with four children playing in a happy swarm of children in the playground.

One day they startled us by announcing that Dublin was too dangerous to bring up children in and they were returning to their native village. I am sure they lead happy lives in a small world typically, but not necessarily, dominated by the local GAA club and pub culture.

But I occasionally wonder about them when I read reports of a single car accident outside a village at 3am with teenagers killed or a stabbing over drugs on a small Main Street or the rates of teen suicide in certain remote counties.

Dublin also has these problems, and many others in terms of crime. In parts of Dublin you learn to look straight ahead and exude a calculated disinterest in the tragic reality of skeletal addicts living their lives on certain streets.

Yet at the same time Dublin has a wide array of possibilities to offer young people. Its vibrancy and range of things being made to happen by energetic youngsters outweighs any perceived dangers.

Clerys protest

Clerys protest

Dublin is a city with three different types of development. First, every new generation perpetually tears up the artistic blueprint and starts again.

New generations of musicians, writers and film-makers re-imagine Dublin, incorporating the changing reality of new populations, cultures new suburbs.

Right now we see this talent bubbling underground in young bands, such as the electro Meltybrains whose album Attention! Now That We Have Your Attention attests to their zany talent; in eclectic, interesting acts like Little Xs for Eyes or in Le Galaxie, another young Dublin electro-pop collective whose album, Le Club, highlights the talent pulsating through Dublin.

Secondly, we see change stem from dedicated, innovative town planners who continually redesign Dublin’s streetscapes in new ways, as planners have done since the Wide Streets Commission.

New plans for Parnell Square promise a civic space to be proud of. Such imaginative planning gives a sense of optimism that some people see Dublin as a living space for citizens rather than a locale where consumers can be steered through retail outlets.

Watching people happily sit in the Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire brings home what a great victory that one building has been for ordinary citizens.

Yet development occurs in a third way in Dublin, leaving many of us feeling that this is a city we’ll never truly own while speculators can operate not above the law – because they operate firmly within it – but while our laws allow them to take legal decisions that pay no heed to the character, heritage and living sense of Dublin.

Fashions change and no business has a divine right to go on forever.

Nidge in Love/Hate

Nidge in Love/Hate

Yet the manner in which honest, responsible Clerys employees were treated on what became their final day of employment sickened me to my core.

Unquestionably the new owners of this landmark premises were acting lawfully and, as part of a consortium, it can be argued that they had a duty to maximise potential profit and protect the investments of fellow shareholders. This is how venture or vulture or any other form of capitalism works.

As few of us will possess the sums that these consortium members staked, few of us can honestly know if we would have acted with more moral scruples. But as someone who loves this city – while recognising its numerous failings – I don’t know if I could live with myself if I dispatched nameless security men in black uniforms to stand watch over honest employees of a firm like Clerys as they left their place of work for the final time.

People felt robbed of their jobs, but was it necessary to rob them of their dignity?

Maybe I am naive and that is how business works. But as a Dubliner it shocked me more than gangland killings. Crime will always be with us, played out by the sort of unsavoury thugs portrayed in Love/Hate.

But while we were fascinated by the multi-faceted psychopathic character of Nidge, we knew that he was essentially a scumbag and we never lionised his ilk. But for a decade we lionised a clique of developers as if they were a sort of aristocracy .

Their disastrous mistakes temporarily cost us our financial sovereignty and forced many of us to endure severe hardship.

One illusion keeping us sane was the notion that, after it, we might have a different type of society promised by an incoming government. But the way Clerys was closed and its workers sacked made it clear that nothing had changed and, as citizens, we live in a city where we should take nothing for granted.

Occasionally people power wins, as in Drumcondra last week when, due to local protests, a sex shop decided not to open opposite a national school. I imagine that few of the protesters would have problems with it opening in Capel Street, where seven-year-olds would not pass it daily.

But a sex shop didn’t fit the character of this street corner where older Drumcondra residents feel welcomed by the kindly Turkish owner of Cafe Madeleine directly across the road – one of the numerous examples of how Dublin is continually enriched by influxes of outsiders who quickly become part of our lives.

But too often we live in a city where we have no say in how our streets change. I write this in an ancient Portuguese town with a Cafe Madeleine on every corner where pensioners chat and sip coffee.

Few such places exist in Dublin to give older people an unhurried sense of belonging. One was the cafe in Clerys where old friends felt comfortable meeting.

We need a city where any citizen involved in closing down a national institution – even if it made sound commercial logic – would feel a sense of civic shame.

They have left not just the Clerys’ workers poorer, but have left us all, as citizens of a

living city, poorer, for knowing just how little our opinions count when consortiums can make such decisions because we will never possess a government with the will to create a legislative framework to prevent such things happening.

Undoubtedly in time a shiny new emporium will be launched on the Clery’s site. It may well be wonderful.

I just know that I’ll never darken its door because I couldn’t step inside with imagining the decent workers there – my fellow citizens – and how they were treated. Sadly, this is the abiding image I will carry in my head forever.

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