I can remember, as a child, thinking the Poolbeg chimneys were ugly. Along with the power station at their base, I thought they looked dirty and strangely outsized. I was a romantic kid, and could see no romance in their incongruous industrial shape.
Since the debate about their future took hold this month, though, the Poolbeg chimneys have been re-assessed by the people of Dublin, suddenly becoming enshrined as crucial symbols of the city that we cannot afford to lose. A search through Dublin-focused websites, newspapers, blogs, twitters and tumblrs over the past few weeks will result in hundreds of prettily framed images of the chimneys – disappearing in the fog, catching the dawn light, stark against the evening gloom. The outcry at their potential destruction was almost always an aesthetic one – don’t tear them down, we like them now! When they were threatened, we found that we didn’t want to lose them, that they meant something to us, though we weren’t sure what, or why.
While the chimneys have been granted a stay of execution by local councillors, their future remains uncertain. And so it’s worth asking why we were fighting – or at least creating angry hashtags – to save them. What we choose to fight for can tell us a lot about ourselves.
For one thing, it shows that Dubliners are thinking about their city in a new way. The chimneys were suddenly being touted as a “symbol” of the city. To have a symbol that represents the city, first you have to be able to think of the city as an entity, a place deserving signification. There’s a new kind of self-consciousness in how Dubliners relate to their city that has been developing in the past few years – people are more aware of Dublin as a place with an identity, one which can be damaged or enriched. Historically, that step into awareness has been very important. Sixty years ago in New York, a discussion about the demolition of a landmark – the original Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, a lofty beaux-arts building – marked the beginning of an urban protest which turned into a much larger movement. The loss of a symbol of New York history led to fierce battles for preservation which politicised a generation of city dwellers who would fight for a better, fairer city. Symbols are powerful when they have enough meaning behind them.
That’s not what’s happening with Poolbeg. In Dublin, the only group sure what to do with the chimneys were the artists and graphic designers who liked the iconic shape of the towers against the low skyline and realised there’d be a market for it. Sure enough, now you can buy t-shirts, tea-towels and posters depicting the chimneys, a speedy commodification of a landmark the rest of us have yet to figure out what to do with.
People have struggled to attach any wider meaning to the chimneys beyond their aesthetic appeal. Messages of support for their preservation have focused on their beauty, their longevity, and their background presence in our lives. We want to keep them, but only because they’ve always been there. There were a few people who wanted the chimneys kept as a reminder of the city’s industrial heritage, though this idea didn’t seem to take hold more widely. To celebrate an industrial heritage, you’d need a better idea of what replaced it, and that we have yet to resolve. There’s no popular understanding of Dublin as a post-industrial city – we can only get so excited about the new version of Dublin being sold to us, all Google headquarters and café culture. We haven’t really found a good story for twenty-first century Dublin, and so debates about what we need to preserve and privilege easily founder.
In the end, it’s simple: the Poolbeg chimneys will stay standing as long as popular support for their preservation is strong enough to counteract the financial pressure to bring them down. Without any real passion behind the protests (and no obvious financial incentive), the chimneys are likely to come down in the next couple of years. We’ll probably instagram that, too. Ultimately, it’s not the chimneys themselves that are the perfect symbols of contemporary Dublin. The debate about their future is what really tells us about the city today – a city growing in awareness, uncertain of its values, easily swayed.
Madeleine Lyes – info at cityintersections dot ie