The end of the Bernard Shaw, and what it says about Dublin

Over the last couple of years, whenever I found myself abroad in the kind of loose, versatile, mixed-use combination of bar/gig venue/event space/expansive outdoor smoking area that seems to bring out the best of cities and people when done well, I found myself thinking something familiar — This kind of thing could never exist in Dublin.

While no story worth telling could be as simple as that, the idea held water as a symbol for what was happening to Dublin, as adored cultural institutions came tumbling down to make way for a wave of identikit hotels and offices, and the cultural assets of residents and communities were progressively stripped away, the news coming first as a drizzle, more recently a monsoon. No city that cared as little as Dublin for the artistic and cultural aspects of its own existence could ever sanction a space like this to exist, I thought. Until today, the Bernard Shaw on South Richmond Street stood up as a stark and noble exception.

Anybody looking closely could have known the Bernard Shaw was in trouble. Watching and listening for the past half-decade as central Dublin resumed its mid-2000s role as a jungle gym for the holders of footloose capital, the sense crept in that a venue which seemed to care for things other than only the accumulation of profit and the resultant homogenisation of urban life would find it increasingly hard to survive. So it has proved.

In May 2018, during a fundraiser day for the Repeal campaign which had the outdoor section of the premises packed from the early afternoon, I remember sitting on the Big Blue Bus and thinking the place was done for. Looking out at the vast vacant lot behind the venue, earmarked for redevelopment, you couldn’t shake the image of outside forces bearing down on what was a free, vivacious site of cultural expression. With that site now dominated by cranes and Amazon slated to take up office space in the completed development, the observation has been borne out by the gradual but certain transformation of the surrounding area.

Conditions placed on the site by An Bórd Pleanála to reduce outdoor noise on the site put the place itself in the firing line. Despite ABP’s inspector acknowledging the vitality of the site and suggesting time be allowed for noise mitigation be introduced, the Bórd itself refused a planning application to continue operating the outside area outright, as it went against the “emerging pattern of development” in the area. As part of that pattern, businesses to the north of the Shaw on same block have closed to make way for a nine-storey office block with café and retail space put up by Clancourt Property. Across the road, another office development, taken up by Iconic Offices, has appeared. Down the road, a vulture fund are in the process of evicting dozens of tenants from a development so as to give themselves the opportunity to redevelop the apartments and charge new tenants at ‘market rents’.

It was clear that the Bernard Shaw, even after attempts by owners Bodytonic to purchase the premises outright, wasn’t long for an area targeted so aggressively for profound material change.

Zooming out to consider the city overall, the closure after 13 years forms part of a, by now, well-known pattern. In the past year, major club venues in Hangar/Andrews Lane Theatre and District 8/Tivoli have shut, along with beloved pubs, a raft of rehearsal spaces, and venues for theatre and art on both sides of the Liffey. That’s before we speak about the red squirrel mural on Tara Street. While a well-argued point at this stage, the fact that so many of these closures made way for hotels and unaffordable student accommodation, in the middle of major crises in both housing and the arts, has given us one layer of cruel irony on top of the other.

What has been happening, as commercial property interests deem Dublin’s market to be thriving, and a new generation of institutional investors embed themselves ever further into its economic, social, and cultural fabric, has felt like a city losing control of its own identity and its own future. When the final hotel goes up and every pub or venue worth existing in has been replaced by student accommodation, there will be plenty of time to lament the fact that ‘Dublin’ is now in the past-tense. Before that stage though, action would be preferable. Dubliners have a right to the city, and it’s a right that needs vindication.

The story of what has happened to Dublin’s cultural space in the past decade is unavoidably tied to the story of the recession. As the boom de-boomed itself and the property market collapsed, rents fell and venues sprung up in places where it wouldn’t have been feasible before. Once it became obvious that the boom was indeed back, developers and owners sniffed the possibility that higher yields could accrue on their holdings as hotels, offices, and short-term accommodation rather than as venues, bars, and mere elements of a city’s cultural lifeblood. Thus went Hangar and the Long Stone (the fact that the Workman’s Club was one of Press Up Entertainment’s first properties in the city makes me fear for its future, now that the trend of flipping venues for profit is in order). Once the next crash happens, many of the new arrivals will go belly-up again, reducing demand for space and potentially opening the door for a new raft of venues and innovative contributions to what Dublin ‘is’.

This relationship is insane. Culture can not be a by-product of economic collapse, and its existence can not be predicated on nobody having enough money to destroy it.

Dublin City Council needs to prioritise and promote the existence of cultural space, not merely through platitudes and symbolic votes, but through awkward, uncomfortable action to frustrate the interests of mindless capital.

Planning law must be reformed to reorient the Irish State’s idea of what a city should be, away from a sanitised conference and tourist destination with no regard for residents’ actual lives, and towards something that truly values the place that art and sociability should hold in a society populated by humans. An Bórd Pleanála has better things to be doing than shutting down smoking areas and tearing down murals.

While we’re at it, licensing law must be reformed to Give Us The Night.

Ireland at large needs to invest in arts and culture in a much greater way, and refocussed to reach further than the walls of the Aosdána AGM.

A lengthy list of other things need to happen, most of which likely are beyond my mental capacity to even think up. Not least, the housing crisis which has driven David Kitt and a generation of artists from Dublin needs to be addressed if the city is to survive as an attractive proposition to anyone.

Most of all, everyone involved in the place needs to appreciate and act on the fact that the city has a value outside of what can be charged for, a past beyond what can be marketed, a present besides what commercial interests dictate for it, and hopefully, a future different to the one they envisage.



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