A new cul­tural quar­ter is planned for Par­nell Square in Dublin, with an im­pres­sive Cen­tral Li­brary along with head­quar­ters for Poetry Ire­land and the Ir­ish Her­itage Trust

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Par­nell Square in Dublin gets a cul­tural makeover

A cen­tre­piece at the new Poetry Ire­land HQ will in­clude the Sea­mus Heaney Work­ing Li­brary, com­pris­ing Heaney’s own col­lec­tions of poetry. These are the books he re­ferred to when work­ing on his own com­po­si­tions and trans­la­tions, as well as vol­umes from his stu­dent days

From the Man­sion House to City Hall, Le­in­ster House to Charlemont House, you can see the shifts of am­bi­tion and power in the shape of Dublin city. While, to­day, it is city plan­ners and the de­vel­op­ers of shop­ping cen­tres that seem to hold most sway over where the ma­jor civic and pub­lic cen­tres sit, back in the Ge­or­gian era, Dublin was de­fined by the so­cial and fi­nan­cial as­pi­ra­tions of its var­i­ous landown­ers. With that in mind, you could al­most look at Ge­or­gian Dublin as an ar­chi­tec­tural Game of Thrones.

First it was all about the route from Dublin Cas­tle to Col­lege Green. Then, when Lord Moun­tjoy (also known as Luke Gar­diner) cre­ated Sackville Mall, the pre­cur­sor to O’Con­nell Street, every­one be­gan to look north. En­ter James Fitzger­ald, the Earl of Kildare . . . He be­lieved, in his en­ti­tled man­ner, that fash­ion would fol­low in what­ever di­rec­tion he led. He was right too. His Le­in­ster House was a suf­fi­cient mag­net and the south­side be­came the place to be once more. Now there are moves afoot to re­bal­ance things, with a new cul­tural quar­ter planned for Par­nell Square.

Cul­tural quar­ters have a che­quered his­tory in Dublin, but al­though parts of it may have ap­peared ne­glected over the years, Par­nell Square also has a head start, with the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane hav­ing presided over the top of the square in Charlemont House, since 1933. Add to this the Dublin Writ­ers Mu­seum, the Gate The­atre, the Gar­den of Re­mem­brance and Hillsboro Fine Art, plus the Luas ex­ten­sion mak­ing ac­cess even eas­ier, and the real ques­tion should per­haps be why hasn’t some­thing hap­pened there sooner?

In fact, “some­thing” had al­ready hap­pened and, back in its hey­day, Par­nell Square was one of Dublin’s hot spots. When Bartholome­w Mosse founded the Ro­tunda Hos­pi­tal, in 1745, his dream was to make child­birth safer for women of all classes. His first wife, and son, had died after com­pli­ca­tions in labour, and he was a man on a mis­sion. To help fund the hos­pi­tal, he com­mis­sioned con­cert halls and a plea­sure gar­dens on the site.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing re­ver­sal, as to­day, cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions are de­pen­dent on sub­si­dies, but ev­i­dently, back then, clas­si­cal mu­sic con­certs and per­for­mances could be money spinners to sup­port health­care. Ge­or­gian Plea­sure Gar­dens were also, ap­par­ently, quite the thing. Lanterns cast en­tic­ing light over paths after dark, and vis­i­tors could book booths for sup­per, or wan­der about to lis­ten to mu­sic played on var­i­ous stages. In the closely mon­i­tored mo­ral world of the era, Plea­sure Gar­dens were some­thing ei­ther to be feared or ea­gerly em­braced.

To­day, all that re­mains of the green space is the Me­mo­rial Gar­dens. The as­sem­bly rooms are still there, how­ever, which the Ro­tunda leases to the Gate The­atre and MCD, who run the Am­bas­sador. Plea­sure Gar­dens aside, there are am­bi­tious plans to de­velop the area as a lit­er­ary hub, with a ma­jor new Cen­tral Li­brary, de­signed by Grafton Ar­chi­tects with project part­ners Shaf­frey As­so­ciates, plus a new head­quar­ters for Poetry Ire­land and the Ir­ish Her­itage Trust, de­signed by Mc­Cul­lough Mul­vin at 11 Par­nell Square.

A cen­tre­piece at the new Poetry Ire­land HQ will in­clude the Sea­mus Heaney Work­ing Li­brary, com­pris­ing Heaney’s own col­lec­tions of poetry. These are the books he re­ferred to when work­ing on his own com­po­si­tions and trans­la­tions, as well as vol­umes from his stu­dent days. Ac­cord­ing to Heaney’s daugh­ter, Cather­ine, who is di­rec­tor of the Sea­mus Heaney Es­tate, “the idea of do­nat­ing them re­ally came from my mother, but we agreed with her, me, and my brothers, Mick and Chris. It seemed ex­actly the right place. He would be re­ally grat­i­fied, she says.

“I’ll be ex­cited to see how they’re used,” she con­tin­ues. “You get a sense of who Dad read. He had such a keen in­ter­est in other po­ets, and also younger po­ets. Each writer is dif­fer­ent, but Dad went on writ­ing jags. For a lot of po­ets it works that way, things would come in a burst, but all those books were kept in a study in our house in Sandy­mount, and down in Wick­low in the cot­tage in Glan­more. That’s where he did his writ­ing.”

Poetry Ire­land di­rec­tor Mau­reen Ken­nelly picks up the story. “The dis­cus­sions date back as far as 2009, but the cli­mate wasn’t par­tic­u­larly good then,” she says rue­fully. “We had ten­dered for an­other build­ing in Tem­ple Bar, but when we saw this one, we re­alised what a gem it was. That, and the chance to be part of the lit­er­ary hub on Par­nell Square. With the Ir­ish Writ­ers Cen­tre there too, there’s a nice con­flu­ence. The tim­ing is good, with the Luas Cross City open­ing up the whole area. The Olivier Cor­net Gallery, O’Reilly The­atre, Fisham­ble and Chil­dren’s Books Ire­land are all on the doorstep, so it’s time for it to re­gain its for­mer glory.”

Niall Mc­Cul­lough of Mc­Cul­lough Mul­vin, who had al­ready delved into the his­tory of the area, in his fas­ci­nat­ing book Dublin an Ur­ban

His­tory (Anne Street Press, 2007), is pas­sion­ate about the project. “No 11 was built by the Earls of Or­mond in the 17th cen­tury,” he says. “It was their town­house, the top place in town, look­ing out over the park, with a sedan chair taxi rank at the cor­ner.” He de­scribes how later the build­ing was bought by the County Coun­cil, and Vic­to­rian rooms added, which, to him are part of the build­ing’s charm. “I love mixed things that evolve over time,” he says.

“A lot of this project is about re­pair, rather than dra­matic ex­ten­sions,” he con­tin­ues. “The ground floor and first floor are re­ally about open­ing the house up as pub­lic space again. They were party rooms. Ge­or­gian houses al­ways had three pub­lic rooms, so that you could cir­cu­late, and es­cape from a bore.” The plans also in­clude a new cafe area and a re-land­scap­ing of the gar­dens at the back.

The cafe will be part of the Poetry Ire­land plan to cel­e­brate poetry as some­thing cen­tral to our lives, for while politi­cians and pub­lic fig­ures fre­quently trum­pet the suc­cesses of our po­ets on the in­ter­na­tional stage, how many peo­ple ac­tu­ally em­brace it on a daily ba­sis? Maybe we’re scarred by rote learn­ing, or fright­ened off by the per­ceived te­dium of forms that, at the end of the day, quite sim­ply weren’t for us.

“I think it’s more like ho­moeo­pathic doses,” says poet Paula Mee­han. “Peo­ple of­ten reach for poetry at thresh­old ex­pe­ri­ences: like birth, fall­ing in love, death; when they’re try­ing to make lan­guage fit the in­ten­sity of those ex­pe­ri­ences. Poetry has to be there when peo­ple need it, and that in­volves hav­ing com­mu­ni­ties of po­ets. When the tsunami is com­ing to­wards you, you mightn’t hav­ing the space to make elab­o­rate odes and po­ems,” she notes, un­der­lin­ing the rea­son to cher­ish our po­ets, even when we may not be reach­ing, daily, for their work.

“To rit­u­alise lan­guage is so in­her­ently hu­man, whether it’s in prayers or hunt­ing spells or song. Also po­ets keep track of the dream­ing of the hu­man species. . . That doesn’t mean we can all be fa­mous and rich, but there has to be a crit­i­cal mass.” That crit­i­cal mass is now ex­pand­ing to em­brace the new com­mu­ni­ties and

groups mak­ing their home in Ire­land, and the new cen­tre will in­clude a re­source space. “It’s a very rich time,” says Mee­han.

Some works from Ire­land’s po­ets will be em­bed­ded in the walls of the cen­tre it­self, and Ken­nelly and her team have been en­joy­ing seek­ing out po­ems that al­lude to ar­chi­tec­ture. Fol­low­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, she sends on some of the words they have found, in­clud­ing Derek Ma­hon’s “Even now there are places where a thought might grow,” and Vona Groarke’s “rooms that lis­ten nicely to each other”, con­clud­ing with Heaney’s own “I rhyme / To see my­self, to set the dark­ness echo­ing”.

“We’re acutely aware of the need to push the art form out there,” says Ken­nelly. “Peo­ple still have a bar­rier. And we earnestly be­lieve that once you open it up to peo­ple and make it real in their lives, you’re un­lock­ing some­thing.”


The Par­nell Square Cul­tural Quar­ter project re­places the cur­rent li­brary at the Ilac Cen­tre with a new Cen­tral Li­brary on the site of the for­mer Coláiste Mhuire, on the north side of Par­nell Square. It will in­clude a mu­sic hub, a de­sign space, an in­ter­cul­tural space, an ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre, cafe, and ex­hi­bi­tion ar­eas. Go­ing to plan­ning this sum­mer, the es­ti­mated com­ple­tion date is 2022.

The project is fi­nanced by the Par­nell Square Foun­da­tion, and im­ple­mented by its wholly owned de­vel­op­ment com­pany PSQ De­vel­op­ments Lim­ited. The foun­da­tion in­cludes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Dublin City Coun­cil and Kennedy Wil­son, an in­ter­na­tional real es­tate in­vest­ment and ser­vices com­pany based in Bev­erly Hills, with of­fices in coun­tries around the world, in­clud­ing the UK, Ire­land, Spain and Ja­pan (kennedy­wil­

Seed fund­ing of ¤4.8 mil­lion has been com­mit­ted by Kennedy Wil­son to bring the project to plan­ning, with ¤2.1 mil­lion ex­pended to date. To­tal project costs are cur­rently es­ti­mated at just over ¤100 mil­lion, and a min­i­mum of 51 per cent of the project is to be funded via phi­lan­thropy.

The Poetry Ire­land Cen­tre with The Ir­ish Her­itage Trust has al­ready re­ceived plan­ning per­mis­sion for No 11 Par­nell Square. Al­most ¤1 mil­lion has been raised against a to­tal tar­get of ¤5 mil­lion. Ac­cord­ing to Poetry Ire­land di­rec­tor Mau­reen Ken­nelly, “we’d like to be open­ing the doors of the com­pleted cen­tre in late 2019 or Spring 2020”. The Dublin UN­ESCO City of Lit­er­a­ture des­ig­na­tion is a great help in fundrais­ing, says Ken­nelly. “In­ter­na­tion­ally it’s a re­ally good call­ing card for us.”

The Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane will em­bark on a ma­jor re­fur­bish­ment of the orig­i­nal gal­leries in Charlemont House later this year. Ac­cord­ing to di­rec­tor Bar­bara Daw­son, the 2016 wing will re­main open, with ex­hi­bi­tions by artists in­clud­ing Amanda Dun­smore, Ni­amh McCann, Doire­ann O’Mal­ley and Rachel Ma­clean.

An ar­chi­tec­tural draw­ing of the new Sea­mus Heaney Work­ing Li­brary, to be housed in­side Poetry Ire­land’s new HQ. Above right: an artist im­pres­sion of a night view of the fin­ished street

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