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Modern Dublin: Urban Change and the Irish Past, 1957-1973 by Erika Hanna (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 18. Number 1, Spring/Earrach 2014
pp. 136-140 | 10.1353/nhr.2014.0011

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Erika Hanna claims that one of her primary desires in researching and writing Modern Dublin was to "know more about the city, and understand its relationship both to the national story and to my own sense of identity." She more than accomplishes the first goal. Does she learn more about her own sense of identity? One suspects so; the text is not a memoir, but, by including a diverse selection of Dubliners' voices, Hanna causes the "identity" of each citizen, including herself, to become inextricably linked to the city and its history. Her introduction does an exceptional job of providing historical and cultural background to Dublin, while also including descriptions of the city by Raymond McGrath and photographs of streets and buildings that give the reader a sense of place, and of the changing urban landscape—notions that are hard to convey with simple facts alone.

Throughout Modern Dublin, Hanna effectively charts the initial support in the 1950s for modern architecture in Dublin, which was mainly the result of global trends and a reflection of an improving economy. However, this exuberance eventually gave way to outrage in the 1960s, when modern architecture was more often viewed as a destruction of the extant city and the displacement of its urban poor—themselves the product of rising unemployment and housing shortages. In each chapter, Hanna digs deeper into questions posed in the introduction regarding postcolonial architecture: such questions as, whose history is being preserved, to what purpose, and to whose benefit? The palimpsest of Dublin comes alive as Hanna examines the political, economic, and material changes in the city during the tenure of the Fianna Fáil government from 1957 to 1973.

The first chapter focuses on the relationship between modern Dublin and its eighteenth-century history, represented by its trademark Georgian structures. The 1950s view of eighteenth-century architecture at first seems to be that it spoke of ancient decrepitude, and stood as a painful reminder of colonial British rule. The perception and the debate change dramatically in the 1960s. To demonstrate the significance of that transformation, Hanna supplies historical context from the eighteenth-century when Dublin's population doubled and many of its well-known public structures were designed and built, such as the Custom House, Four Courts on the quays, and St. Patrick's Hall. In particular, in terms of later disputes, Hanna examines the Gardiner and Fitzwilliam Estates, which give a sense of architectural aesthetics while also presenting Gardiner's housing ventures (and those of his descendants), including Henrietta Square and Sackville, later O'Connell, Street. As Dublin's landscape shifted after the eighteenth century and many wealthy Anglo-Irish moved out of the city, these formerly elegant Georgian townhouses were subdivided into tenements, which later became "some of the worst slums in Europe."

What follows in Hanna's opening chapter is a series of detailed architectural plans dating from 1922 to the early 1960s, all of which failed to be implemented for a variety of reasons—some quite legitimate. From Patrick Abercrombie's 1939 plan for Dublin's cityscape, inspired by Haussman's Paris and the Gaelic Revival, to the American Charles Abrams's plan to combat urban poverty, to Nathaniel Litchfield's vision, in which Dublin became an endless series shopping centers and parking lots, none of these city plans bore fruit . . . or should we say, held bricks. Hanna then illustrates how the modern architectural aesthetic being advanced ("clean lines, brightly-lit precincts, and the use of concrete and steel") quickly turned political as the urban population increased. Ministers for Local Government Neil Blaney, and later Kevin Boland, were both heavily influenced by nationalism; the maps and diagrams drawn up to deal with poverty, unemployment, housing shortages, and traffic management became bogged down in a contentious dialogue about Dublin's "heritage of colonialism." Of equal or greater importance during this period was the growing trend toward the commercialization of urban space that allowed Dublin Corporation to purchase and redevelop housing areas.

In the second chapter, Hanna highlights the realities of 1950s Dublin by first quoting different writers' depictions of the city: Oliver St John Gogarty reveals a city of "plaster palaces and neon lights," while Frank...

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