Cultural loss for economic gain in Ireland’s growing cities

In this piece, Róisín Dunlea examines the effects that urban growth and development is having on the cultural identity of Irish cities.


In 2018, Cork City Council used a quote from poet Thomas McCarthy as part of its campaign to promote and celebrate business development in the centre: “[a] city rising is a beautiful thing”. Development was relatively well received at the time, when residents were happy to see an influx of multinational corporations building and opening office spaces Leeside, thereby providing employment for thousands of locals at a time when the effects of the financial crash a few years prior continued to cast their shadow. In the current context, however, it seems that attitudes towards the changing skylines of Irish cities have soured.


The Sextant pub, built in 1877 at Albert Quay in Cork and listed in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, was demolished in 2020 to make space for a residential building. Putting aside what one can only imagine the extortionate cost of living in such a building would likely be, the blind optimists among us could argue that at least a pub which had shut down a year before its demolition would be used for accommodation purposes during the worst housing crisis modern Ireland has ever seen; despite the loss of a historic and formerly successful venue, perhaps such a change would be for the greater good. As of October 2021, plans to build a residential building on the demolition site have been abolished, and developers have announced vague intentions to construct yet more office space there instead. It seems this particular cultural sacrifice was in vain.


More recently, there has been uproar regarding plans for the modification of two sites of cultural significance in Dublin to make way for the development of new hotels: the famous Merchant’s Arch, leading from Ha’penny Bridge to Temple Bar; and the Cobblestone, a popular traditional music venue dating back as early as 1850. It seems that the announcement of these plans was the last straw for supporters of culture and the arts after what has already been a fraught 18 months for all things creative. At the time of writing, a petition to ‘Save the Cobblestone’ has garnered over 30,000 signatures.


As has come to be expected in these situations, developers and city councils alike continue to defend projects of this variety by highlighting the benefits that increased hotel capacity in the capital would have for the tourism sector and for the economy in general. This attitude raises many questions: what will attract these all-important tourists to our country if Irish culture continues to be undervalued and diminished? Secondly, a query that has been raised countless times on social media in recent weeks, who should take priority when these decisions are made? The residents and citizens who live here, work here, and value the historical significance of their surroundings, or tourists who visit for a long weekend in March?


With that being said, it would be unreasonable and unfair to suggest that tourism should be left completely out of the equation. The sector suffered 150,000 job losses in 2020 and is still only beginning the path to recovery. No one is suggesting that every archway and every bar in Ireland should be considered precious enough to be preserved at the expense of income and jobs for thousands of people. The issue taken by most critics of such plans is that the construction of hotels and offices seems to gradually be taking priority in the eyes of developers and governmental bodies alike while ordinary citizens struggle to find suitable housing, and the preservation of culture is put on the back burner. 


A reconsideration of priorities seems to be in order. This problem certainly appears to be very Dublin-centric at the moment, but it would be naïve of us Corkonians to believe that our city will be the exception to the trend of hotel domination. Way back in 1913, W.B. Yeats proclaimed that “romantic Ireland’s dead and gone”. If we don’t tread carefully now, we might run the risk of dancing on her grave.