Amid the stress and worry of the world we now find ourselves living in, the change of pace over the past few months has offered many of us time to think more deeply about our immediate surroundings. Whether small reflections on the pleasure gained from hearing birdsong more clearly, or noticing the small progressive changes of the natural landscape, some space has been offered for contemplation of our daily lives. Bigger questions too, about how we live and work in urban centres have also started to emerge, with cities across Europe, from Milan to Vilnius to Dublin, re-evaluating how public spaces can be adapted for post-pandemic urban life.
Over the centuries, Dublin city has evolved through successive bouts of urban planning and change; from the laying out and building of new streets and squares, the widening and altering of these, and through new housing schemes and other public infrastructure. By the early twentieth century, there was a recognised need to seriously reconsider the future shaping of the city, particularly in relation to housing. The first real impetus for change came in 1911 when Patrick Geddes (a Scottish sociologist and urban planner) gave a lecture at the Royal Dublin Society and displayed a ‘City and Town Planning Exhibition’ at the Uí Breasail Exhibition, Ballsbridge and at the Ulster Hall, Belfast. In April 1914, an international Town Planning Competition for Dublin was announced and later in the summer, the Dublin Civic Exhibition presented new ideas of urban and civic improvement to Dubliners, alongside concerts, sports, cinema shows organised by the Pathé Film Company, and a firework display. The outbreak of the First World War however, severely disrupted the planning movement, and by the time the winning plan was announced in August 1916, much of the north city centre had already been vastly changed by the destruction of the Easter Rising.
In 1922, the Civics Institute of Ireland published the winning plan by Patrick Abercrombie, Sydney Kelly and Arthur Kelly, in Dublin of the Future: The New Town Plan (University Press of Liverpool and Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., London). In their foreward to the volume, F.P. Griffith, William A. McConnell, and J. Vincent Brady (members of the Housing and Town Planning Section of the Institute) noted that since the 1914 competition ‘a new epoch had begun’ and the plan within offered a
‘..well-reasoned scheme, outlining an economic system of scientific, artistic and hygienic municipal reconstruction and development, providing specifically for the conservation of citizen life and natural resources, and the total abolition of slum conditions.’
These sentiments, of a new beginning in the city’s history and the eradication of poor housing conditions, was visually embodied in one of the volume’s most striking features: a frontispiece by Harry Clarke (1889 – 1931).
By 1922, Clarke was a well-established artist in print and glass with notable commissions including illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1916, George G. Harrap & Co., London; Brentano’s, New York) and Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919, George G. Harrap & Co., London; Brentano’s, New York), as well as windows for churches around Ireland. Smaller windows made for domestic settings, such as The Song of the Mad Prince show how Clarke used the same distinctive artistic style in both mediums. The Last Hour of the Night depicts a grotesque and spectral figure stalking the city. To the left, flames engulf civic buildings damaged during the revolutionary period – the G.P.O, Custom House and the Four Courts. Opposite, the creature’s hand rests against a crumbling tenement house, as if to push it over and erase it from the streetscape. Held in place by wooden joists, people still crowd at the windows, sit on the front steps, and play in the street before it. The long, undulating lines of the figure’s garment draw together the flames of the destroyed landmarks with the tenement house and street, tying together the events of the revolutionary period with the hope of a better future for the city’s citizens. The illustration suggests that even in a crumbling state, the home and street is a centre for life; it is a space for shelter, sociability, and leisure, a bedrock for society.
Influential on later town plans for the city, and pre-emptive in its envisioning of new suburbs in Crumlin and Cabra, for example, many of the plans outlined in Dublin of the Future never came to pass. Available to read in full through the UCD Digital Library, this early twentieth century plan for Ireland’s capital city might provide some food for thought as we look at, think about, and discuss a new Dublin of the future.
- This post was researched and written by Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections, UCD Special Collections.
 ‘Foreward’, Dublin of the Future (University Press of Liverpool and Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., London), v.