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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Dublin’s Bourgeois Homes, Building the Victorian Suburbs, 1850-1901

Susan Galavan
Publisher
Taylor and Francis
Price
£36.95
ISBN
978-1138392670

REVIEW

There is a great swathe of Victorian housing girdling Dublin city and forming its inner suburbs. It is such an everyday part of city life that we tend to take it for granted, almost to the point of not seeing it. Susan Galavan’s book, now out in paperback, should help to focus attention on our Victorian heritage. But, as well as helping us appreciate these buildings, the book ‑ at least for this reader ‑ also prompts a question: What should we do with this swathe, what should we do with Victorian Dublin?

Galavan focuses on the larger Victorian houses of Rathgar, Ballsbridge and Dun Laoghaire, but her scholarship and insights apply throughout Victorian Dublin. Her book celebrates the progress which saw a departure from the tight “cliff like” Georgian buildings erected close to the street, and typical of places like Merrion Square, to the garden suburbs with their red brick interspersed with coloured layers, their bay windows and overtly ornamental features. We also learn of spacious Victorian interiors and their distinctive ornamental elements. In addition, Galavan treats the social, political, legal, speculative, building and craft background, including the role of the unskilled labourers who came from the Dublin tenements to dig foundations.

Victorian Dublin hasn’t been threatened in the way the city’s Georgian core was challenged in the decades following the 1960s but that may change. Of course, there have been many cases where Victorian buildings in the inner suburbs have been adapted in a ham-fisted way, and in more recent times, demolished to make way for apartment buildings, albeit with a pastiche Victorian facade. But the scale of Dublin’s Victorian housing is so extensive that it is possible to say that the Victorian inner suburbs are largely intact.

There are some points to bear in mind if we are to look forward to a debate ‑ which may not be too far away ‑ around the preservation of these buildings. Many are already protected by strict conservation laws. But it might be argued these laws do not entirely serve the social good.

One overarching consideration, supporting the principle of preservation, is that housing like this will never be built again and that this Victorian band is central to the city’s history and character. Many Victorian buildings are not protected and there is a danger that market-led interventions will, salami slice by salami slice, culminate in an act of significant cultural self-harming. So, how should we preserve these buildings while addressing the social good?

It is undeniable that the use of space in the gardens and in the layout of these houses is profligate by today’s standards of city building and that if the present growth in population and wealth of the city continues, the pressures on this ring of Victorian housing will grow. Leaving considerable areas of the city with disproportionately low-density occupation is not socially healthy and involves negative imbalances. We currently have a housing crisis and an office shortage in Dublin. The potential of what must be thousands of acres, adjacent to the city centre, in contributing to a solution should, and perhaps inevitably will be, considered.

One question is whether the city should encourage many of these buildings to remain as housing for the rich. At present many of the new, and not so new, rich buy these houses as they fall vacant and transform them into spectacular modern homes for their families. Houses of this sort sell in the one and a half million to three million plus range. They are clearly beyond the reach of most people. But while the rich will do what the rich must do, this process continues the phenomenon of social exclusion which originally triggered the flight of the rich from the centre of the city, where they once lived cheek by jowl with the poor, to the exclusive suburbs. There is nothing to gain and much to lose by allowing this pre-democratic tradition continue in a modern form.

One answer would be to look at ways in which the great space in and around these houses might be used in the interests of the common good, while respecting the architectural and cultural significance of the buildings. Given the pressures for accommodation that exist in Dublin, might it not be possible for the city planners to intervene? Their powers under planning legislation are very extensive. Owners of large and not so large period houses in the inner suburbs could be given considerable incentives to convert them into well designed and sustainable long term apartment accommodation or to sell them to developers who would commit to conversion under strict regulations which, among other things, would respect the architectural character of these magnificent houses.

If a debate around such ideas were to occur, Susan Galavan’s book would be of great interest and an important point of reference.