RIP Dublin? The growing cultural decline and what we can do to stop it

RIP Dublin? The growing cultural decline and what we can do to stop it

Monday's announcement that the much-loved Bernard Shaw in Dublin would close its doors in October after 13 years triggered a massive backlash and for good reason. It's feeling more and more like the capital is slipping out of the hands of its citizens and into the clutches of developers who are determined to devour every last bit.

"Dublin is changing", Bodytonic's statement read. "We can all see and feel it but we are going nowhere & we won't go down without a fight. We'll start something else, somewhere else [plans are afoot], and keep fighting the good fight. There are so many young creative, clever, smart people in Dublin & Ireland at the moment - there's lots to be optimistic about - but they need the spaces to meet each other, make plans, and make them happen!"

The Tivoli, Hangar, Screen Cinema, The Long Stone, just some of the many iconic venues who have closed their doors in recent years, and for what? Yet another hotel for tourists who will soon likely lose interest in our increasingly homogenised city. What's worse is that these venues aren't closing because of a lack of success rather than to further line the pockets of the rich while community and culture suffer the consequence.

"The Bernard Shaw is way more than a pub", says Sharon Greene, co-founder of the Dublin Flea Market. "It's a cultural space. There's markets, different events, experimental DJs. It's the space to experiment and test ideas, for self-expression."

Greene's monthly flea market at Newmarket Square, which she ran since 2008, also fell victim to developers while the hugely popular Christmas Flea Market at the Point Square which she also curated can no longer continue there. The market currently resides at the Digital Hub but as it's an outdoor venue they will need to close for the winter.

"The flea market grew out of The Bernard Shaw", Greene tells us. "The Toejam Car Boot Sale was there about 12 or 13 years ago. I had a stall there and the flea market idea came from that."

Therein lies the significance in venues like The Bernard Shaw, the ideas and inspirations that can grow in a space like that. Without these places of experimentation, we may soon find ourselves completely bereft of any sense of originality and ingenuity.

Blindboy also shared his views on the issue with, saying, "What's happening is systematic. The disappearance of venues is part of the wider Dublin property issue. Dublin is being eaten up by vulture funds and dodgy kleptocracy money. Landlords run rampant and unregulated. Venues for craic are closing, but not being replaced with an equivalent craic den. Instead, hotels and office space go up.

"Authentic cultural spaces are disappearing. Dublin is Canary Wharf now, it's an empty pair of wet jocks where the world wrings its dodgy money through."

You only need to walk around the city to see it. Today FM's Kelly-Anne Byrne, who found herself commuting from Glasgow to Dublin for a while due to high rents, says, "Just to give you an idea, last week I walked from Grafton St to O'Connell St to Mary St to pick up some things for Electric Picnic, basically the route of the city which I hadn't taken for quite a while. I was absolutely appalled at what I spotted along the way, nothing but Carrolls, Euro Stores, Starbucks, Boojum, 'whiskey-tasting' venues and an abundance of either new hotels or hotels in the process of being built. It saddened me greatly to see the individuality of Dublin being completely erased. If this continues we are in danger of losing the very thing that attracts tourists to Ireland i.e our 'Irishness'."

But we all know the real sign of individuality in Dublin is a pub with mismatched furniture and three old boardgames. Just like all the other pubs with mismatched chairs and three old board games.

"We have to be aware of the fact that if we don't maintain and protect what's authentic and interesting about the city, why on earth would anybody want to come?", says Dr Niamh NicGhabhann,  Assistant Dean for Research in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at UL.

"When we think about the development of culture in the city we're not just thinking about the theatres, galleries and the museums but also about flexible spaces that people can meet."

Dr. Keir Milburn, author of 'Generation Left' and lecturer in Political Economy at Leicester, concurs, "Dublin is being stripped of its music venues, cultural spaces and let’s be honest, of its soul, because the city, as with most other cities, is organised around the interests of the large property owners and developers. The interest of ordinary residents come second. This model sees cities as a site for the extraction of rents. The only way to stop that is to redress the imbalance of power. That would allow a very different model of development to emerge. For instance, why couldn’t we have a planning policy focused on facilitating the creation of collective joy? Music venues would suddenly become valued again."

Prioritising joy over profit seems a far-flung notion in Dublin these days, but what can we do to stop this deterioration?

Sunil Sharpe, spokesperson for Give Us The Night, a group campaigning for positive changes to nightlife in Ireland, said, "We need to put a mechanism in place that will support and protect special spaces like The Bernard Shaw. Flimsy planning laws and an unimaginative vision for Dublin are allowing developers to come in and have their way with the city, and alter it beyond repair. We must urgently call time on all of these hotel and student accommodation developments; it's too much now plus there's a very strong chance that many of these hotels will struggle as they reach saturation point.

"As ever, we encourage everybody to speak to your local representatives and express your concern on the rapidly shrinking amount of venues and community-led spaces in operation. Dublin, by international standards, is a small capital city. The whole city centre can't be just a game for developers who have no love for the area and who are changing it beyond recognition."

Blindboy advised: "People can get involved in housing action groups, such as Dublin Central Housing Action. Demand a night mayor who can protect cultural spaces. London has seen this happen, so has San Francisco. Cultural spaces, whether it be for nightlife or whatever, need to be valued as part of a wider mental health conversation too. They provide us with a sense of meaning, community and identity, these are all valuable facets of being a healthy person. The loss of The Bernard Shaw isn't about bricks and mortar, people feel like they are losing a part of themselves."

The Bernard Shaw will close its doors for good on October 31st .

Ruth McGowan, festival director of Dublin Fringe Festival, says: "We need to champion the kind of city we want to live in by voting with our feet. We need to support the excellent independent, community and artistic projects that already exist by showing up for them and when we can, spending our money with them. But that isn't enough - we need to get strategic about how to stop the erosion of our creative spaces before the city has lost all of the culture, and all of the trailblazers that make it special."

At the moment, artists and creatives are not only being driven out with high rents but are also finding the cultural spaces they inhabit under attack.

Dr Niamh NicGhabhann adds, "We are constantly using creativity in Ireland as our calling card but we have to get behind initiatives that are going to put pressure on government and planning. We have heritage protective legislation - we can do it, we know how to do it.

"The idea of what should be protected is not necessarily set in stone, it's always evolving."

Sharon Greene shares this view, "There needs to be some type of protection that is offered to cultural spaces. It's not just about looking after our cultural institutions it's about looking after gathering spaces.

"We have made great changes in this country by getting behind issues. Maybe it's time to come together and march for culture."

We also asked the Department of Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht to comment on this piece. A representative said: "Decisions on individual planning applications are a matter for Dublin City Council in the first instance, or for An Bórd Pleanála on appeal, and it would not be appropriate for the Minister to intervene in the planning process.  The adoption of the Development Plan for Dublin City, including the integration of the planning and sustainable development of the area with the social, community and cultural requirements of the area and its population, is a reserved function of the local authority under the Planning Acts.

"Nonetheless, the Department has been working with key partners to develop supports to facilitate the development of after-hours cultural events. The Department will shortly establish pilot projects to support night-time culture in partnership with a number of local authorities, and will establish a national forum comprising relevant public bodies to consider matters arising from the operation of the pilot local groups which could require a national policy or legislative response.  The Department will also engage with local authorities and arts groups with regard to a mapping exercise of existing venues and civic spaces which may be suitable for night-time cultural events to identify both gaps and opportunities."

We reached out to Dublin City Council through the Dublin City Arts Office but no comment was made.

If you don't want our culture to be repackaged and sold back to us as a cheap plastic knock off, then the closing of The Bernard Shaw should serve as a wake-up call. Our culture and the communities we build around it are what's at stake. It's time to fight back.