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The City that Time forgot to build
(Originally published, July 10th, 2000, The Irish Times)
Some time ago, writing about the curse of the mobile phone, I speculated about the notion of cities we might have had before they were invented. My point was that we could not have imagined what city life would be like, because we would have assumed that the proximity of people to one another would itself result in intimacy and community.
I recalled the experience of standing on a hot summer's day in a field at the centre of my father's farm near Loughglynn, Co Roscommon, reflecting on how odd it seemed that at that moment, people were rushing and bustling on Baggot Street in Dublin, whereas here in the country, I was surrounded by silence, the nearest house or road half a mile away, the only sounds those of birds and the wind, occasionally broken by the thud of a sledge on a fencing post in the distance. There was nobody to talk to or watch.
If you were to ask me at that moment, to imagine a place in which humanity moved fluidly in a common space — i.e a city — I would have drawn a picture of human communication, co-operation and intimacy. My point was that I would have been wrong, because no place on earth is as lonely as the modern city.
But now I discover that at that moment in Aughaderry, Loughlynn, I was standing close to the epicentre of what is proposed as Ireland's first man-made city. The President, Mrs McAleese, the Minister for the Environment, Mr Dempsey, and the Bishop of Achonry, Dr Tom Flynn, have welcomed the proposal by a consortium including businessmen and engineers from Galway to build a new city on the border between Roscommon and Mayo.
The city would cover some 30 square miles, and have an initial population of 100,000, rising to 250,000 in 20 years. We are promised ‘new spatial detached housing’, ‘an infrastructural suburbia’, ‘wide boulevards and avenues’ and underground car-parks. While anxious not to say anything to endanger the family vested interest, and making a mental note to see about a rezoning application, my first cognitive response is: Have these people gone stone raving mad? Is a few days of watery sunshine enough to vapourise the grey matter of half the State, including the First Citizen herself?
What is proposed, it appears, is the construction on the bogs of Mayo and Roscommon of a combination of Lucan, Tallaght, north Clondalkin and Ballymun. Let us consider the merits and histories of these places. Lucan, the most attractive, has lots of spatial detached housing but, other than the numbers on the doors, offers no way of ensuring that residents can end up at night in the same house they left in the morning. Lucan's blandness and complete lack of features, redeeming or otherwise, stands as a testament to the Irish aptitude for pre-planned conurbation.
Lucan is as good as it gets. North Clondalkin, a monument to crypto-socialist fantasising, was rooted in American B-movie notions of an industrialised metropolis with overalled workers kissing their wives as they left of a morning for the smelting works; it ended up as an urban jungle with fewer facilities than the average desert.
Ballymun was the product of an official desire to present Ireland as ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’. It was built on a greenfield site which, just a few years previously, had been part of the north Dublin countryside, with herds of cattle grazing between a filigreed web of rivers and streams. By the end of the 1970s, the area was a vast suburban sprawl, lined with regimented blocks of low-density housing, with occasional US-style shopping centres and odd green spaces to break the monotony.
This was the modern world, a world which brought with it drugs and violence and fear and desolation, wild horses on the green spaces and a smell of piss on the stairways to the towers which, as though in an attempt to turn the whole thing into a bad play, were named after the 1916 leaders. For everyone who lived in its vicinity, the most important thing in the world became emphasising that you were not from Ballymun.
If these glittering ideas did not succeed in Dublin, they have absolutely zero chance in the west, and a good thing too. Independence of mind remains central to the collective culture of the west, where both people and landscape would be metaphysically revolted by the notion of compulsory urbanisation.
In her essay Buried Memories, June Considine wrote that shortly after her family moved into the Finglas area in the early 1950s, as part of the first wave of urbanisation in that area, one of the underground rivers burst up through the living room of a neighbour's house. Nature, as though seeing what was coming, made its protest in the best way it could.
In the future, perhaps, we will wake one morning to hear that the McAleese Plaza has been swallowed up by a hungry Mayo bog, or that the Noel Dempsey Memorial Asylum in the remote suburb of Ballaghaderreen has had to close down due to subsidence.
There is much in the prospectus for the new city that is interesting and far-sighted, not least because it repeats most of the arguments sensible people have been advancing about the decline of the west since Adam was a boy, but the proposal is relevant as metaphor only. The theoretical point of such a project would be to counteract the centrifugal pull of the east coast in our society and economy. The way to do this, however, is not to create an alternative pole to vie with Dublin in a jungle market, but to evolve policies based on a clear analysis of what is wrong in the functioning of this society, and incorporating measures designed to put such defects to rights.
This would amount precisely to the measures which people campaigning for the development of the west have been demanding since the beginning of time: positive discrimination in favour of under-populated areas across a range of policy areas, including employment, taxation, industrial development and home ownership.
Another city is the last thing we need.