The relatives of 1916 leaders and supporters won a significant battle on March 18th in the High Court to save Moore Street and the 1916 GPO Battlefield Site when Judge Max Barrett ruled that the National Monument covered far more of the Moore Street terrace and the adjoining lanes and buildings than the four buildings designated as such by the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.
That was a great victory, but it needs to be consolidated. The path is open for the Minister to appeal that judgement to the Supreme Court. Given that a very rational and fine judgement on the Lissadell right-of-way case by High Court Judge Bryan McMahon was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, presided over by Chief Justice Susan Denham who had a previous professional relationship with Lissadell owner Constance Cassidy but failed to recuse herself, it would be a mistake to place too much faith in that court particularly when it comes to property rights versus the public good.
And so, the campaign to save Moore Street and the Battlefield Site will need to continue. But it also needs to be expanded to imagine a very different use for the entire Carlton site on which the developer wants to put yet another shopping mall, as if we didn’t already have a surplus of those, and as if that was the most appropriate use of such an important site.
The Carlton site has stood derelict since 1999, a 17-year blot on the capitol’s premier street which has no doubt led to the degradation of most of the northern end of both sides of that street. It includes the Art Deco fascade of the Carlton Cinema. Fifteen years ago the idea was mooted that the Abbey Theatre should be relocated to the Carlton Cinema but was rejected. That proposal needs to be revisited. What better way to revitalise that part of O’Connell Street than to have the Abbey with a newly built theatre and that existing Art Deco street frontage. There is space enough to accommodate a new Peacock Theatre and all of the facilities that the National Theatre should have.
But there is more space on the entire site to accommodate other imaginative uses, ones that would tie in with a properly preserved and rehabilitated 1916 Revolution Quarter on Moore Street and the GPO Battlefield site which would no doubt draw large numbers of both tourists and those who live here, and that would also fit with the relocated National Theatre.
Why not a national dance centre encompassing not only traditional dance but also contemporary forms and even classical ballet which has never been properly encouraged here? Why not a national music centre, again not limited solely to traditional forms but including explorations into its effect on music in places the Irish emigrated to, and into fusions within world music? Why not a Gaelic language centre that might also explore the effect of that native language on the English we speak and write today, Hiberno-English, a unique form of English that writers have used to produce so much work of literary merit over the past century? Why not a poets’ corner, a space for poets to meet and commune with one another, and to perform or read for the public?
Once we stop thinking of that site as a commercial site but one which would be used for the public good – for education, inquiry, leisure and pleasure, and exploration of national heritage and culture – then the possibilities are many.
If we were to really open our imaginations, and to think of Ireland’s place in the world today and into the future, then other possible uses for some of that site’s space open up to us.
Given our history of involvement with Enlightenment republicanism since the eighteenth century, why not a global centre for the study and promotion of the democratic republic as the ideal model of governance? That would tie into the GPO and the Battlefield Site. But then we would have to construct such a republic for ourselves first. We could do that if we had the will. We certainly have the template and will this year commemorate those who passed it on to us. It is up to us.
One more idea, and it too stems from a failure on our part, in this case our supposed neutrality. But it also stems from recent history and the negotiations to find some way to end conflict on this island and to find an accommodation between two communities, unionist and nationalist, and two States, Irish and British, whatever the imperfections in that project that some may point to.
We have never properly defined our neutrality, and that has allowed recent governments to facilitate the US through their use of Shannon Airport in waging wars on peoples with whom we Irish have no argument. But we do have a reputation around the world, particularly among non-aligned nations – most of them former colonies as we are, a reputation built not only on our defence force’s record as peace-keepers in many conflict zones and on our usually principled record at the UN but also our perceived position as anti-imperialist and opposed to colonialism.
We need to properly define our neutrality in the place that matters – a new constitution fit for a republic. We need to enhance that by committing to the pursuit of peaceful resolution of conflict, also in the constitution. Having done that, we might then set up a centre for that purpose, and locate it on that important site in O’Connell Street. Apart from the good that we could do in building peace, and we certainly have people with experience in conflict resolution and facilitation available, we would establish our own position as refusing co-option into war but being in active in the pursuit of peace, our best guarantee of sustainable national independence in a conflict-ridden world in which those services are badly needed.
Others may have different ideas of the uses that the Carlton site could be used for, but the important consideration is the turning of a commercial site into a civic site on our main thoroughfare and putting that civic space to work for the public good.
Re-imagining the Carlton site in this way, and presenting the arguments for so doing, and campaigning in favour of that approach, would provide the campaign to save Moore Street and the GPO Battlefield Site with an important defensive mechanism – that it is not just the historic quarter that should be saved for the public good, but the entire site for the same reason. The entire project needs to be revisited not just by planning authorities but by government, and possibly by the EU.
That could buy much-needed time in the event that the High Court decision is overturned or materially altered in a way that would compromise Moore Street and the GPO Battlefield Site.
But given the importance of developing the Carlton site in the best way for the city and for the people, we should consider that approach anyway, and let commercial development take place elsewhere.