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Is it time we give up on Dublin's O'Connell Street?

Instead of wading into the sea to demand the oncoming tide go back, we might stop a minute and wonder why O’Connell Street is going through a seeming relentless process of regression, writes Aaron Mckenna.

Aaron McKenna

CITY COUNCILS LOVE to go on like they’re running a Soviet planned economy at times. So this week we got more plans for O’Connell Street, our most famous avenue in the capital.

There will be no sex shops, no fast food joints and nothing that will detract from the historic caliber of the street, the comrade commissars have decreed. O’Connell Street will be the Kurfurstendamm of Dublin, dammit.

Never mind that O’Connell Street in reality is a glorified bus colony, ends no further north than the spire for most folks and is among the best spots for watching drug users in the city.

Historically and culturally the street is perhaps without parallel, but its modern incarnation is this strange mix between cultured shopping district and slightly intimidating dystopia.

5/5/2013 Getting Ready for New LUAS Extensions Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Instead of wading into the sea to demand the oncoming tide go back, we might stop a minute and wonder why O’Connell Street is going through a seeming relentless process of regression.

A pass through

The street is at the centre of and serves as the crossroads between a number of important shopping districts. It is a vital public transport link in the city, and also somewhere a lot of people pass through on their way to Connolly Station. But that seems to be what O’Connell Street is: Somewhere you pass through.

It has a footfall of over 100,000 people per day, but the proof is in the eating: Cleary’s didn’t close down because of evil capitalists and their machinations, it closed down because not enough people out of that 100,000 stopped, walked in and bought stuff every day.

Ireland Dublin O'Connell Street Source: Associated Press

Tourists frequent the street in great numbers. They’ve got the spire and the GPO among other delights, and they create a good passing trade for bars and fast food restaurants in the area. What they don’t do is stick around, and generally the densest footfall extends no further north than the Spire unless you’re looking to catch a bus.

The beating heart of Dublin is not actually O’Connell Street. It’s more diffused. It makes my northsider heart bleed to say it, but I would say that the heart of Dublin now sits in between Aungier-Camden Street to Stephens Green.

Ireland Dublin O'Connell Street O'Connell Street 1961 Source: Associated Press

You’ve got a shopping centre and Grafton Street, and more bars, cafes and restaurants than you can shake Niall Harbison at. Look in and around that box and you will find tourists and locals mingling in great numbers every night of the week.

Vibrant areas

The city is also growing a slightly different district down in the docklands, from Google to the Samuel Beckett Bridge and in the soon to be redeveloped other side from the new Central Bank (are we allowed to refer to it as “Anglo’s former intended HQ” anymore, or is that bad luck?) to the point.

The area is becoming more vibrant because it’s where a large cohort of similar people, in age and careers, are living and working.

DUBLIN : cMAY 1916 Dublin 1916 Source: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

These spots are going through the opposite process to that of O’Connell Street.

Again, why is this so? Why is O’Connell Street and its environs not attracting the fancy restaurants in tight clusters and the shoppers in droves?

For one, you just have to accept at a certain moment that the fulcrum of a city might have shifted.

In the bigger area south of the river there are more suitable spaces to let for the eclectic bars and restaurants that have sprung up. As one goes other follow, and places like South William Street have become bustling cafe culture spots precisely because one successful venue led to another and another having on-street seating and a sense of hustle and bustle.

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And by the way, there are sex shops and even a lap dancing club intermingled with the eateries and Parisian style chattering masses. It seems the failure of the commissars to prevent same has not held back the development of a good spot.

Landmarks - O'Connell Street - Dublin Source: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

Secondly, O’Connell Street is just in close proximity to a lot of undesirables. It is the street in Dublin, with a few of the ones around it also vying for the award, where you are guaranteed a drug user some 50 metres up the road.

At 8am and 8pm I’ve seen men and women tearing strips off one another without much concern from gardaí. In fairness to the men and women of our police service, I’m not sure I’d want to wade into it day after day to break up every little tiff between people who’ll be back tomorrow.

Sex shops and fast food 

O’Connell Street will not be rejuvenated by council edicts. It will be rejuvenated when it and its environs become more than a place you pass through. Sex shops and fast food joints won’t kill it, and forcing another shop into Cleary’s building won’t save it either. Maybe you just can’t force an area to be better than it is via central planning.

Nobody in Wood Quay put the best cluster of restaurants in one area of town. Of course, that area could wilt and the centre of the city shift a bit towards O’Connell Street again in future, if it was prepared and had nicer spots to sit rather than to pass through.

We could do with sweeping the street and its surroundings of the people who would make you think twice about pausing to gaze in a shop window or have a coffee on the street. Of course, that’s easier said than done given that these people have to live and access the services they need from somewhere.

What I wouldn’t recommend is some government planned attempt to force the issue with edicts and walls of money. Government is very bad at picking winners in most things. Maybe the heart of the city has moved, and maybe we need to stop fretting so much about it.

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