A Walking Tour of Dublin: From St. Stephen’s Green to the Cobblestone

I was asked recently to design and give a walking tour on spatial (in)justice in Dublin, as part of the Landscape, Law and Spatial Justice International Symposium 2022. It is a new(ish) walk for me. Normally I would cover the IFSC or areas north of the Liffey so it’s been interesting to develop a walk that speaks to the theme of the symposium, as well as my own research interests, while basing it on a pathway that starts at St. Stephen’s Green and ends at the Cobblestone in Smithfield. Anyway, this is what I’ve come up with, and this post is really to help me remember the details (you can’t really read from a script on a walking tour it’s all memory I’m afraid!) and also for me to work out, through writing, the points I want to make. That’s the thing about writing: it’s as much about finding out what you think about things as explaining those thoughts to someone else.

1. St. Stephen’s Green

Given the times we are living in, it seems appropriate to start the tour with Aercap house, the international headquarters of Aercap – the “World’s largest owner of commercial aircraft” with “$75 billion of assets including approximately 2,000 aircraft, over 900 engines and over 300 helicopters, and an order book of more than 400 of the most fuel efficient, new technology aircraft in the world.”

Aercap has been in the news recently due to the war in Ukraine. The company had 135 aircraft and 14 engines on lease to Russian airlines at the time of the Russian invasion in February 2022. It was able to repossess 22 aircraft and three engines but has now lodged insurance claims totalling $3.5 billion due to the seizure of the remaining aircraft and engines by the Russian authorities.

Aside from being topical, the building also serves to highlight one of the more ‘interesting’ aspects of Ireland’s GDP – the part that Paul Krugman labelled ‘leprechaun economics’ in a tweet on 12 July 2016.

The hue and cry after Krugman’s intervention led to the CSO inventing a modified form of GDP it called GNI*. The calculation is not recognised outside of Ireland where GDP is still used to measure the Irish economy, but it does highlight the distorted effect companies like AerCap have on Ireland’s headline ‘growth’ figures – especially when those figures were used by successive government to ‘prove’ that austerity works. It didn’t, and doesn’t, the growth is a phantom, an accounting trick for tax avoidance.

The presence of Aercap and property investors Kennedy Wilson allows me to delve more deeply into this story, this aspect of the Irish state and the social and class relations that surround these operations.

It also sets up the overall theme of the walk – which is, how did we end up with these social and class relationships, along with the idea of tax avoidance as a core industrial strategy, and how are these ideas and frameworks able to reproduce themselves despite the social dis-cohesion they wrought upon society. These are teased out more in stops three to six, with stops one to three setting up the relationships and ideology.

2. Cuffe Lane / mercer house / cuffe st flats

In the Dublin Civic Survey Report published in 1945, the city architect Horace T. O’Rourke wrote:

The impartial investigator of the Dublin housing problem must be forced to the conclusion that had the municipal area extended periodically in accordance with natural expansion, especially southwards, the expenditure [of town planning] would have been more equitably distributed, and the difficulty of finding suitable sites lessened.

Dublin Civic Survey Report, p.67

The quote is interesting as it alludes to one of the structural issues that faced Dublin at the time – namely the tax flight to the suburbs. This had been commented upon as early as the 1880s by Charles Cameron in relation to the hygiene of the city: the hollowing-out of the tax base by the practice of potential rate-payers living outside the city boundaries but commuting by tram to work in the city each day.

Which brings us to the corner of Cuffe Lane and Cuffe St and the three examples of public and social/affordable housing in the area.

Google Maps July 2021

Mercer House consists of two blocks built over an eight-year period from 1926 to 1934. They were commissioned by Dublin Corporation and designed by its team of architects, with the first phase (1926-1930) led by Horace T. O’Rourke. The second phase (1932-24) was built under the supervision of the first dedicated city architect, Herbert Simms, who retained much of the original character and materials which were derived from the Arts and Crafts architectural tradition. (The walk will pass by one of Simms’ projects later on – Chancery Place flats beside the Four Courts – which broke with that tradition in favour of new ideas coming out of Amsterdam at the time.)

Despite their outward elegance, Mercer House flats are currently in a significant state of disrepair and are in desperate need of upgrading.

Cuffe Lane cottages (although two-storey buildings, the houses were referred to as ‘cottages’ to distinguish them from flats at the time) offer an insight into the private operators who were building what we refer to today as ‘social and affordable housing’.

They were constructed by The Association for the Housing of the Very Poor and Industrial Workers Ltd, a private for-profit company that was set up in the late 1890s. On 8 May 1930 it held a meeting at Trinity Chambers, Dame Street with the Reverend David H. Hall presiding. It announced a profit of £1,861 and a dividend of 3% ‘free of tax, for the year ended December 21, 1920’. The company also said that,

‘In addition to the houses already erected thirteen more cottages would soon be erected in Cuffe Lane as a result of the kind assistance given by Messrs Jacob and the helpful attitude of the Commissioners in the way of sites. The Corporation was willing to give sites elsewhere also.’

The land it seems was given either for free or at a reduced rate by the Corporation, and Jacobs made a donation towards construction. It appears from the sale of one of the houses in 1991 that they were used by workers in Jacobs. The 1991 ad says that it was built by Jacobs, but this isn’t the case. They certainty invested in the houses, and probably allocated them to their workers, but it is also likely that the Association collected rent and paid out dividends on the back of it.

The point of this stop on the walking tour is to highlight the ‘social housing’ model at play in Dublin from the 1880s onwards where housing was built and rented for profit and a reutrn of 3% for investors. The Dublin Artizans Dwellings company paid out 5% dividend.

Housing Reits in Ireland today currently pay out an average of 3.75% on investment.

Cuffe Street flats were built in 1963 and designed by the team led by Dublin city architect Niall Montgomery. As with Mercer House they are in need of significant investment.

3. Jacob’s Site, bishop st/aungier st

The purpose of the Jacob’s stop is not only with the houses on Cuffe Lane. It also offers an opportunity to bring up the capitalist/comprador nature of the Irish state. Jacob’s was one of the most militant employers during the 1913 Lockout and in the 1920s the company threatened to pull out of Ireland if tariffs were imposed in any fashion.

The stop allows me to set the scene for the core theoretical framework I have for understanding the Irish state and the way it has treated the housing issue since 2008. It helps to set up the talk at the next stop.

4. Ship St / Dublin Castle

It is at this stage that the tour starts to move into the ideology of the Irish state – how it thinks, how it makes sense of the world and its place within it.

5. Mary’s Abbey

Crossing over the river we encounter the original site of the Bank of Ireland, which opened up on 25 June 1783 at a now vacant site on Mary’s Abbey. This stop allows me to talk about the role of finance within Irish capitalism – in particular, comprador finance and its current manifestation in the IFSC.

The presence of The Complex art studio and venue allows me to introduce the last part of the walk, which is to bring it down to municipal level and how the city itself is a city of capital flows facilitated by the City Council executive and administration – a point that will be fleshed out at the final stop at Smithfield.

6. smithfield

Here my part of the walk ends – at the corner of Smithfield Square. I’ll be using the story of Haymarket House and its owners, the Linders Group, to explore the way that space is used in Dublin today, tying together the various strands raised on the walk, before handing over to Prof. Amy Strecker for the story of the campaign to save the Cobblestone.

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