I thought the people clustered at the gate leading in to the Secret Garden at Dalkey Book Festival were volunteers and ticket-takers, but they were from the Dun Laoghaire Ratepayers Association and they were handing out copies of their newsletter. SAVE OUR TOWN AND HARBOUR, says the banner. The newsletter is a mix of information and anger about various council policies and decisions. Parking is a major issue for Dun Laoghaire, but it has to be said that the newsletter’s photograph of a warden issuing a ticket clearly shows the car in question encroaching into a disabled parking spot. Discuss.
Well. The Festival Marquee is a lovely space and it was a balmy evening. Ann Marie Hourihane was a relaxed and confident moderator. She began by asking for a show of hands from people who remembered Findlater’s, Murray’s Record Shop, Murdoch’s. There were a lot of Dun Laoghaire natives in that tent (myself included). The mood could have turned ugly – a lot of people are angry (and dare I say hurt?) about what’s happening in the town – but the tone of the panel kept us interested and forward-looking, except whenever the new library building was mentioned. At one point Bruce Katz said that after a few years we’d get used to it and we should just get over it and move on. There were cries of Never! and Demolish It! from the crowd.
The panel members were: Bruce Katz, a world expert on urban regeneration; Peter Pearson, artist and architectural and local historian; Derek Bennett, proprietor of Harry’s Café and Eamon Morrissey, actor and former assistant stage manager at the Gas Company Theatre.
BK had spent the afternoon in Dun Laoghaire and he had plenty of good things to say about it. He said that when cities ‘go south’ in the US, they really go down. Dun Laoghaire isn’t even close to that condition yet and it has a lot of things going for it. In general terms, the three main things to look out for in keeping a city or town vibrant are: Location, Legacy and Leadership. He said all he could see in Dun Laoghaire was potential, the important thing was to grow with authenticity, to be the best twenty-first century version of ourselves that we can be. He quoted Dolly Parton: figure out who you are and do it on purpose.
PP talked about the Victorian legacy of Dun Laoghaire and how it has always been in the shadow of the capital. Much of the old town has been demolished but there are still things to treasure; EM remembered the years of the Gas Company Theatre with affection; DB sobered us all up with bleak figures. Footfall in the town continues to drop. Only that day he had to bring in another 20% pay cut for his staff. This is the reality. Meanwhile, the council seem incapable of understanding the relationship between footfall, sales and parking.
There are positives. Dun Laoghaire has many strengths, notably its location, the sea and the DART. PP said look at Bilbao, it was rejuvenated by building a fantastic art gallery, why can we not do something similar with the Carlisle Pier? Someone observed that there’s little for young people to do, and that most of the schools have closed. Someone else pointed out that the arrival of Nando’s and Starbucks to Marine Road is tempting teenagers back into the town. We need more for young people. We need the presence of strong brands.
It was generally agreed that Dun Laoghaire is strong in terms of location and legacy, the issue is leadership. There was talk of the Dun Laoghaire Business Improvement District (http://www.dunlaoghairebid.ie/ ) which has been set up to address some of the challenges facing the town. Recently elected councillor Patricia Stewart stood up and said DLBID are eager to hear from everyone, anyone can get in touch with them, we should give them a chance.
There was talk of the need to be positive, countered by talk of the need to recognise and acknowledge mistakes. There was talk of the future of the Shopping Centre and rumours that the landlord is letting it run down so that it can be developed. The closure of 110 shops on the main street was deplored.
Dun Laoghaire is now seen as a two tier town: the front is being transformed and upgraded while the main street is being abandoned. Patricia Stewart explained that this is because the area that’s being developed on the Front is on public land, while premises on George’s Street are privately owned.
How interesting. It turns out that one of the reasons that Dun Laoghaire is suffering is the oldest Irish cliché of all – absentee landlords.
DB met the new county manager and had a very productive and enlightening meeting with her to prepare for the panel. However the County Council declined to send a representative to this event. AMH asked if there is any kind of communication/liaison person at the Council, because she had made several unsuccessful attempts to make contact with them in a bid for information.
The relative success of the villages to the immediate north and south of Dun Laoghaire: Monkstown, Glasthule, and even Dalkey was raised. Someone made the brilliant suggestion that we should all get together and forge an alliance to encourage people to come our way and spend some time here.
One of the most interesting things that Bruce Katz said is that in America they have a forgiveness culture rather than a permission culture. What he means is: they get together and make the changes they want and look for approval later. A lot of the talk and the excellent, intelligent contributions from the floor show that people feel a passionate attachment to Dun Laoghaire. There’s no shortage of talent or ideas here. All we have to do is harness them.
Bruce Katz is the author of The Metropolitan Revolution: how cities are fixing our broken politics and fractured economy. He is a panellist for “10 Global Trends That Will Change Your Life” (tonight at 20:00 in the Town Hall)
Peter Pearson’s most recent book is Of Sea And Stone: a painter’s view. He speaks tonight at 19:30 in The Heritage Centre
Check out the DBF website first as many events are now sold out: