The Poolbeg Chimneys: Emblem of an Uncertain City

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

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A Dublin We Can Use

On St. Patrick’s Day this year in the Irish Times, Trevor White of the Little Museum of Dublin caused some controversy and feather-ruffling with his question, “why do Irish people take so little pride in Dublin?”  He asked it in a spirit of St. Patrick’s Day soul-searching, a tradition more associated with pabulum than epiphany, but raised enough good ideas to set a few hackles rising. People defended their love of Dublin, argued about the difference between parochialism and provincialism, and fumed at the implication that we want a copycat city, a weak simulacrum of greater capitals.

A lot gets lost in a row like that.

As someone who runs a public discussion forum all about Dublin, I’m usually happy just to have people talking about the city. There’s a growing appetite for it, as you can see from the many community groups, debates, academic conferences, journalistic think-pieces, and art collectives exploring in their own way what the city means to them. But they’re not having those discussions unencumbered. There is competition for the identity of Dublin.

In all those debates about what kind of city Dublin could be – a techno-city, a better Berlin, a Creative Cultural City of Competitive Quarters – a step is being skipped. First, we have to agree that Dublin is actually a city, and decide for ourselves what that means. We’re an agglomeration of over half a million people, and we have numerous cathedrals (the old yardstick), so the basics are all there. But there is definite reason to argue that the fundamental characteristics of urban life, of urbanity, are only beginning to come to life in Dublin. For a long time, Irish people made no claim to the metropolitan in Ireland; that was what you went to London for. Dublin under the British was just another provincial city, and when we inherited it and tried to turn it into the capital city of a new Republic, we faltered. Dublin today is by all concrete standards a city, but still, there is no widely understood metropolitan or cosmopolitan heritage for us to draw on, no history of urbanity to teach us the rights and responsibilities of urban life. Urbanity is shallow here.

During the boom years, Dublin grew to look more like a contemporary western city – remember all the chrome and blue lights? And its emergence as a worldwide financial player brought people flocking here, so for the first time Dublin became multicultural, another key characteristic of today’s global cities. In the wake of the boom, the feelings of loss, disorientation, and anger which emerged sparked the beginning of a reflection process which opened up, for the first time in my lifetime, the possibility of a reorientation of priorities in civic culture in Ireland.

That’s what we’ve started, I hope. Trevor White’s piece, and the responses to it, are part of it.

There’s a lot more at stake here than a branding project. In the past decade, Dublin has developed all the characteristics of a global city, and little of the social infrastructure that ought to support it. Being urban means more than living in a flat rather than a field.  It means developing strategies for living with what is completely different to you – and even the possibility of coming to enjoy it. It means coping with chaos and recognising its value, and acknowledging the rights of all kinds of people to access the city and its services. It offers a brave chance for us to have something great in common – Dublin – and for that to mean something powerful, and something we can use.

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New Session: Does Dublin need a Real Mayor?

City Intersections Sessions 2014

Does Dublin need a Real Mayor?

Monday, 24th February at 7pm

Little Museum of Dublin, 15, St. Stephen’s Green

OKAY – a bit of background is required for this one.

Most people have only a vague idea about how their city is run. They know about elected councillors and TDS, they certainly know about “the council” - though they may not be clear on exactly what powers each group has or how to get them to help or make changes that may be required. In reality, Dublin’s civic power structure is something of a warren. I’ve been listening to people talk about it for three years now, and I’m still pretty unsure. And now, there’s a chance it all could change. Next month, city councillors from the four areas will vote on whether to allow a public plebiscite on the possibility of creating the office of a directly elected executive mayor.

This would mean major upheaval in the way the city is run. Under the proposal, the office of an executive mayor (i.e. person with power to execute orders, as opposed to the symbolic role the Lord Mayor currently holds) would control transport, housing, water, parks, and tourism for the city. Power to run those areas, in many cases now managed by national groups like the National Transport Authority or Failte Ireland, would come to the office of the mayor – along with their budgets. It is a radical change – at least in the context of Dublin’s governance. Some are very excited about the idea, believing it would unleash Dublin’s potential in many different ways, but others are concerned about a potential concentration of power away from locals.

This City Intersections session will give you a chance to hear a bit of background on mayoral cities, as well as hearing from people on both sides of the argument today. Then they’ll stop talking and you can have your say. What would Dublin be like with its own powerful mayor?  What kind of person would be good at the job – a political or non-political person? What changes would you like to see them make? Do you think we should have a vote? Come along on Monday 24th and join the discussion.

Any questions or suggestions to


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Beta Projects report

In November, I teamed up with Shane from DCC and his Beta Projects to run a session which would offer people the chance to participate in making changes to the way their city works. Even on a small scale, I think it’s a brilliant opportunity and an amazing initiative. I’m waiting for Shane to get back from leave to write up a proper report on going ahead – it’ll probably be the New Year before anything concrete happens – but I wanted to make a quick record of the event so people know what happened.

Just briefly, a beta project is a way of testing a solution to a problem in Dublin city. It is not suitable for all kinds of problems – this is a small-scale project that doesn’t try to save the world in big gulps, but looks at making aspects of life in Dublin better for people, and it lets them be involved. A beta project is supposed to be temporary, and clearly marked as a test. It will be easy to adjust or reverse or shut down if it doesn’t work, and won’t cost too much of anyone’s time or money to implement. There’s a small budget for it (the most a project has cost so far is about 1,000 euro) and people can’t be asked to dedicate their lives to it.

At the session, we introduced the project, and Shane explained how a beta would work. And then we gave people a chance to come up with their own beta projects by asking them three questions, thinking small and local and personal. So:

WHAT is the problem or opportunity you see?

WHY is it a problem for you personally? [what is the heart of the matter, what is your motivation]

HOW might this issue be addressed? [any ideas for solutions, things working elsewhere, potential trial ideas]

Here are some of the things people came up with:

2013-11-26 21.36.18Here’s one. A public bench outside this guy’s house attracts noisy people who keep him awake at night. Potential solutions? A rather cruel one involving timed water spouts around the bench. Or special lighting that signalled a residential area asleep?

2013-11-26 21.33.31

This one was mine (lots of the others have email info on them and I don’t want to put them up without permission). I was living in a flat with no access, like most people in flats, to an outdoor washing line. I miss the ritual of hanging out washing, and I don’t like having wet clothes drying indoors all the time. My idea for a solution was a shared lines trial between a few neighbours.

After people explained their ideas and potential solutions, we decided to vote on which ones we should discuss further and carry forward. Of the ideas, many of which coalesced interestingly, we jointly came up with three core issues: safe walking at night, secure bike parking, and getting to know your neighbours better. 2013-11-26 21.33.50The pink post-its name the issue, and the yellow ones (which descend in long lines) start to document the ideas we came up with for addressing them. It turns out that one idea – the bikes one – is in train for a beta project early next year. If Shane manages to solve bike theft in Dublin, they’ll make him mayor.

The next step will be to bring the interested parties back together to start working on ideas for a beta to test out some solutions to these issues, and if you weren’t able to come along on the evening but are interested in Beta Projects or any of the three core projects above, feel free to contact me (info at cityintersections dot ie) or Shane (betaprojects at dublincity dot ie) and we’ll get the ball rolling properly in the new year.

Turning talk into action: we’ve made a start!

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City Intersections does Christmas!

How to capture the spirit of Christmas in Dublin? What happens to Dublin, and to Dubliners, when the temperature plummets and the festive season comes upon us? What makes a Dublin winter so special?

This Saturday, as part of the Christmas on the Square festivities, City Intersections will host a special salon, engaging with these questions and more. Taking place in the beautiful residence of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland at 8, Merrion Square, we are inviting Dubliners to take a break from their Saturday Christmas shopping and join us for some short talks and discussion on the magic of the season.

The salon, curated by Madeleine Lyes of City Intersections, will feature a short performance by Michael Judd of an excerpt from Micheál MacLiammóir’s The Importance of Being Oscar; Newstalk’s Dil Wickremasinghe; CEO of the Dublin Civic Trust, Geraldine Walsh; Nigel Monaghan of the Natural History Museum; and Orla Fitzmaurice of GoBramble. This is a special session for the City Intersections group, a project working to understand what it means to be urban in Dublin. Following in the footsteps of Speranza, the mother of Oscar Wilde, we’ll continue the tradition of the Merrion Square Salon as we consider the spirit of Christmas in the capital.

3pm, Saturday November 30th in No. 8, Merrion Square. Free entry; all welcome.

Xmas on Square

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City Intersections / Dublin City Beta Projects collaboration

For the November session of City Intersections (slightly later than usual, on Nov 26th), we’re coming together with Dublin City Beta Projects to develop a special working session. New territory!

Dublin City Beta Projects is an initiative that has come out of the City Council (most particularly the modest Shane, who will co-host the session). It is designed as a mechanism for Dublin to discuss issues & opportunities for the city, offer solutions, then prototype them ‘on the street’ for measurement & debate – so, they take the kinds of ideas that come up at a City Intersections session (“why don’t we have more X?” “Wouldn’t it be great if Dublin had X?”) and actually put them into practice. They work small – that’s the idea of the prototype, you’re just trying something out. Around the world in different cities, there’s a recognition that huge projects can be huge disasters when they’re not well planned (… two Luas lines that don’t meet in the middle…), and that there’s value in trying something small to see if it works first, then scaling up the successes.

SO, for the session, we’re going to try out some ideas. Your ideas. Shane helps to explain things:

Call outs for suggestions to make Dublin a better place tend to attract the super-duper, mega-solutions – changing transport systems, pedestrianising entire areas of cities, changing the quays, and so on. People immediately jump to the MACRO.

We want you to think MICRO for a minute. If you could change one small thing about where you live or work, what would it be and why? For example perhaps you’d like a tree outside your house because where you used to live you could hear blackbirds singing in the evening, or perhaps noise from people sitting on a bench near your house wakes you every night, or perhaps you would simply like to know who is that brown-haired woman who lives in the house opposite as you’ve nodded to her on the way to work for the past 3 years. Think about your personal experience of the city and how to make it better. 

Most importantly, we want to know WHY your suggestions are important to you, how they might change how you feel about living in Dublin.

Anything spark in your mind when you think about your life in the city? Your neighbourhood, your street, your commute, your leisure time? Have you seen something great in another city? What small thing would be a tiny step towards change in Dublin? How could your personal experience of city life here be improved? Have a think! Then come along next Tuesday and share it. Shane will explain a bit more about Beta Projects, and we’ll talk about making change in Dublin. We’ll look at everyone’s ideas and THEN we’ll see if we can find something to actually set in motion in the city!

Need inspiration? Find out more about Beta Projects here:

Or mail me with any questions:

I’ll have a poster with location details ready in the next couple of days. Tuesday, 26th of November at 7pm!

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October Session!

Next Tuesday’s City Intersections session comes as part of the 2013 Beatyard Festival (, and will be hosted at the Twisted Pepper.


We’re going to be talking about the idea of the Sheltering City – the idea that cities offer certain protections to some groups and not to others. The speakers kicking things off will talk about the challenges some groups face in being represented, celebrated, or protected in Irish urban life, and we’ll go from there. It’s free entry, and all are welcome – no need to sign up. One thing to note – we’re starting a bit earlier than usual at 6pm.


Louisa Santoro of Stepping Stone, on all the things we don’t know about homelessness in Dublin

Shawna Scott of Sex Siopa, on setting up a design focused sex shop in Ireland

Douglas Carson of Carson & Crushell Architects, on the campaign for a park on Cork Street

 Session 14 poster

Hope to see you there!


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City Intersections at Granby Park next week

Our autumn schedule begins next Tuesday 10th with a session in UpStart’s Granby Park – our first outdoor City Intersections! The park itself is the inspiration for the theme of the session: “Small Revolutions.” We’ll be asking what it takes to make change in a city, particularly a city like Dublin, and how to decide what kind of change a city might need. We’ll have speakers who want to challenge stasis in Dublin, to make us aware of our history and our current potential. You should come along and argue with them.

As we’re being hosted at Granby Park, our formula will have to change a little – it’ll be the first sober session (!) though there will be plenty of tea & coffee available, and we’ll be running from 6:30pm to 8:30pm – note the slightly earlier kick-off time to accommodate the park’s timetable. If you’d like to come along, there’s a link below – the event is free, as ever, but we need a guest list this time (it’s very exclusive).

 City Intersections

Small Revolutions

Tuesday, September 10th @ 18:30

Granby Park, Dominick Street Lower

More info here:


Eilis Murphy ( on making interventions in Dublin’s private-public spaces

Unfinished Business ( who believe that 1913 was only the beginning

Donal Fallon ( on Dublin’s revolutionary past & potential

To come along, please sign up here:

Info and queries:


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The City Sensorium – How it happened

It was one of the hottest nights of the summer when we all came together for the experiment – the City Sensorium [background here]. The basement of the Twisted Pepper – painted all black for gigs, its air conditioning straining to cope – was a strangely appropriate choice of venue. The Sensorium idea was about the mingling of lots of different sensual impressions of Dublin, and the humid underground room seemed to get the process going before anyone said a word. We were mingling, alright. A human-city soup.

In my mind, before the event, I thought of the Sensorium idea as a kind of Tower of Babel – a layering through multiple voices and experiences which would somehow produce a kind of structured snapshot of Dublin life in that moment, on that night. Rather than being steered by any one authoritative voice, we’d flit from one to another and see what came out of the process. In the abstract, I don’t think I was prepared for how much fun it would be.

The problem with trying to write a report on this session is that it seems to stamp one interpretation (mine) on an event which wasn’t designed to have one. Next time we do this, which we will, I’ll ask people to comment themselves and the report can be from different perspectives. For now, though, I don’t want to lose a record of the night, so here’s my impression of the event. [note: some speakers did not want to be mentioned online, so this report is partial]

We began with Dara Downey, who talked about her regular walk from Trinity College, up Dame Street, past Christchurch and along to the Thomas Street dole office. Dara, an academic, knew how to talk to an audience, and so her piece was like storytelling, her impressions interspersed with theories familiar to her from her work. For Dara, Dublin seemed half-concrete, half-theory, a city spooling around her, inspiring thought. She was followed by Michelle Browne, who spoke about the changes she has felt in her relationship with Dublin since she became a mother, blending together the psychological changes she felt – going from a feeling of freedom and ownership to something more complicated to navigate – with examples of the changes in her lived reality of the concrete city, as illustrated by a video she made, excerpted below:

Sean Rushe, a visual artist, described a Dublin coloured by decades of engagement, disappointment, and opportunity, the political landscape of the changing city (from 70s protest movements to the Celtic Tiger) interwoven with his own life story, his own hopes and loves. In a story I’m very sorry not to have properly recorded, he illustrated perfectly (to his own cost) the interconnectedness of Dublin’s small city, when a promising new acquaintance was revealed to be much less of a stranger than he’d hoped…

Moira Sweeney talked about adjusting to life in Dublin 8, her description of the Tenters area later giving rise to debate about the origin of the name (no consensus). Moira’s talk was that of someone enjoying an adventure, someone who had mastered the art of place-making and was eager to try her hand at it anew. How do you settle in a city? Learn a bit about its history, talk to its natives, and find yourself a view to treasure.

Paul Shorten’s contribution around the idea of ‘serendipity’ gave insight into the life of someone fully engaged in Dublin’s urban development. An architect and tour guide, Paul’s story showed what a life consciously tied to a city could be. Tracking his personal relationships through his professional knowledge of the city and the journeys he undertakes for his job, he illustrated the connections that can arise when you allow the chaotic pattern of city life to become your own.

Roberta Bellini is a geologist – a first for City Intersections! – who explained something no one realised needed an explanation until she gave it: why the south bank of the city rises so steeply away from the river up the hill to Christchurch. Prompted by the labour of cycling the hill, Roberta investigated and found that the rock beneath is made of a much harder material which has not eroded like the land around it, creating a ‘bluff.’ When you traipse up the hill from the Liffey, you’re stamping on obstinate stone, a reminder that cityscape is also landscape, and a city has mountains of its own.

Roberta Bellini (photo:Sean Rushe
Roberta Bellini (photo:Sean Rushe)

Laragh Pittman, who showed the beautiful image below among many others as she spoke, gave perhaps the perfect example of layering prompted by the Sensorium challenge. Her talk was a list, an enumeration of the groups who have colonised Dublin in big and small ways through history, who have used it and found a home here, and left their traces for us to find. The visual prompts and the enunciated list powerfully demonstrated that Dublin has echoes, making ripples that we move through today.

Layers by Laragh Pittman
Layers by Laragh Pittman

Last, Carmen Garcia spoke about her relationship with the Liffey, a new Dubliner with what she called a ‘hobby-horse’ for what the river could become. For Carmen, the neglect of the river is a loss for the senses, a loss of potential for a new kind of sensual richness in urban life. She lobbied for a promenade that would allow the smell of the sea to permeate the city, to remind us that we’re a port town, border with the water that cuts through our heart.

(photo: Sean Rushe)
(photo: Sean Rushe)

In between the talks, open conversation rambled – much less directional than at a usual session, where we have an issue or an idea to debate. Here, people responded to the panoply of sensations and impressions, and conversation became an overlapping effort to contribute to the Babel we were building. I don’t know that we figured anything out, I don’t know that it was practical, but it perhaps opened something up, it allowed new thought and sparked new feeling (or the first expression of older ones) and fundamentally addressed a need. We’ll do it again soon.

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