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Welcome to summer in Dublin, with dereliction, degradation and dirt on the streets

The state of Dublin: Olivia Kelly follows in Bloom’s sticky footsteps around the capital

In the week that The Irish Times columnist Una Mullally dubbed Dublin “a dirty, smelly, sticky old town once again”, the City Council seemed punch drunk from the trouncing it was taking from all quarters over the state of the city’s streets. But it came out swinging, defending its work on keeping the town centre clean.

The council’s waste management division provides a “robust” street-cleaning service, John Flanagan, its head of environment, said at a Monday night meeting. More than 500 staff are dedicated to cleaning the streets and emptying bins. Street-washing is undertaken five nights a week, excluding Friday and Saturday, with the recent addition of two further street-washing crews to the daytime shift.

Private contractors are providing supplementary cleaning seven days a week in high-footfall areas. Priority pedestrianised streets such as Grafton Street, O’Connell Street and Henry Street are being “deep-cleaned with a buffer machine”. The council plans to add a further three vehicles and washing crews over the coming weeks. Additional staff would also be rostered to street cleaning in the coming days, Flanagan said.

It seemed like an impressive comeback. The gloves were off, and the council was doing battle with dirt.


But upon leaving the city council meeting shortly after 9.30pm and heading directly across the river to Capel Street, which saw cars removed last year and is now the longest traffic-free street in the city, the picture was not one of triumph over litter, but rather grim defeat.

Uncollected refuse sacks, ripped apart by seagulls, their sloppy contents – which seemed to be a mix of food and bathroom waste – disgorged along the length of the street. Moments later, two bin lorries from different waste companies arrived, but neither stopped to collect the torn bags matching their livery.

The street, the council’s flagship pedestrian scheme, was a manky mess, a poor face for the city to present at any time, but all the more so just days before Bloomsday, when Dublin falls under the international cultural spotlight in its celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

However, a return visit to the street less than 12 hours later found it litter-free. The council, true to its word, had rallied. The ripped bags and their unsavoury contents were gone, and although not quite pristine (the golden asphalt surface laid just a year ago has not weathered well and is blackened and sticky) it was certainly presentable to visitors.

However, this is more than can be said for its side streets.

Capel Street features in Ulysses with several references to its library, and Leopold Bloom’s thoughts turning “Mutoscope pictures in Capel street: for men only”. But the real action in this part of town takes place on one of its side streets, Little Britain Street, in Barney Kiernan’s pub, where most of the Cyclops episode is set. If Bloom wanted to see something dirty today, it’s where he should look.

The pub where Bloom encounters the Citizen is gone, but the 18th-century building remains, boarded-up and for sale for more than three years. It, as empty buildings do, presents a sorry facade, but this is nothing compared with the squalor of the street itself.

Just steps away from Capel Street, the footpath opposite the old pub on Little Britain Street confronts the pedestrian with an obstacle course of broken glass and faeces. Tissue paper is also dotted around. A clutch of paper coffee cups appear, oddly, to have been gathered at a gully. It is a contrast to Capel Street, but reflective of the neglect of the wider markets area.

This warren of small streets to the west of Capel Street offers huge potential for regeneration, with their old street pattern largely intact and a number of impressive historic but unloved buildings, most notably the Victorian fruit and vegetable market but also the underused Georgian Green Street courthouse.

The neglect of this area continues in pockets right down to the river, with casual litter but also substantial fly-tipping, even in the pretty little residential streets around Arran Street East and Ormond Square.

Emerging out to the river side, at Ormond Quay, and again the place seems to have had a recent scrub-up. Here the Sirens episode played out in what was the Ormond Hotel. The hotel Joyce featured is gone since 1906, replaced by another hotel which lasted for almost 100 years before closing in 2005. It too has been demolished and what is visible now is a boarded-up site, with no signs of live development on the next hotel, which secured planning permission six years ago. While the area immediately surrounding it is relatively litter-free, the long-vacant site covered by hoarding – though far from unusual in the city - is an ugly sight.

O’Connell Street is regularly criticised for its dereliction, dirt and degradation. The council has recently put in effort here; bins are regularly emptied and the paths swept, but it faces something of a losing battle against the citizenry

Travelling on towards O’Connell Bridge, the quays are being kept relatively rubbish-free. O’Connell Street itself is a more tricky prospect to manage. It appears in several passages in the book, most notably as the route of the funeral procession in Hades, and many would say no more appropriate moniker could be given to the city’s main thoroughfare. It may not quite be hell, but this part of Dublin could definitely not be heaven.

O’Connell Street Upper, the northern end of the street furthest from the river, has always been the most problematic. Here is another plot covered by hoardings –and the site beside the closed-down Carlton Cinema, which has been vacant land since 1979, puts the Ormond Hotel in the ha’penny place. Bloom was unimpressed with this end of the street, referring to it as “dead” and “dull”.

O’Connell Street is regularly criticised for its dereliction, dirt and degradation. The council has recently put in effort here; bins are regularly emptied and the paths swept, but it faces something of a losing battle against the citizenry. As soon as litter is swept up, it is thrown down again. Lingering a few minutes back at the Liffey end, a woman unwraps an ice pop for her child and lets the wrapper fall to the ground. It’s not an accident, just a casual release of the hand. There’s a bin about 5 metres away.

Continuing down the river to Butt Bridge, where the cabman’s shelter is in Ulysses, the council appears to be putting up no fight at all. The full length of the eastern side of the bridge is strewn with litter. On several visits over several days the pile seems untouched, but curiously never gets any bigger.

Just north from the river around the back of the Custom House on Beresford Place, Bloom encountered the street cleaning device of his day: “a horse, dragging a sweeper” that is “brushing a long swathe of mire up”, to which the horse adds some deposits of its own. Today this area is free of horse manure, which is not a given in the modern city.

Moving on up Gardiner Street and taking a couple of right- and left-hand turns leads into what in Joyce’s day was one of the worst slums in Europe, the Monto, or as Joyce calls it in the Circe episode, “Nighttown”.

This was Dublin’s red-light district as well as being home to one of the most concentrated populations of the city’s poor. Today it would be almost unrecognisable to Joyce. The streets have been renamed – Montgomery Street, from where the Monto got its name, is now Foley Street; Mabbot Street, which became Corporation Street, is now James Joyce Street. The tenements made way for council flats and latterly private apartment blocks and offices.

However, similar to the markets area, it is still a place that struggles. Its out-of-the-way backlands nature perhaps results in it being less cared for, with again a higher level of faeces on the footpaths than other places in the inner city, and bins overflowing.

That is not to suggest conditions are comparable to the start of the 20th century – people aren’t living in condemned squalid tenements – or at least not to the extent they were in 1904 – but it does regularly top the lists of the worst litter black spots in the State.

Moving further north to Dorset Street, and just around the corner from where Bloom’s house was located on Eccles Street (the building was demolished in 1967 and eventually replaced by the Mater Private Hospital), fly-tipping is rife. A man appears from a flat above shops and nonchalantly deposits a black sack on the path, right outside his door, before returning upstairs. There is no livery or sticker indicating he is a customer of any waste company.

Returning to the river and crossing to the southside of the city shows a marked improvement. Walking up Westland Row there is a bit of litter around the station, but as Sweny’s chemist shop begins to appear at the top of the road at Lincoln Place it looks spick and span. On closer inspection, bar the odd cigarette butt, it is almost as fresh as the “coolwrappered” soap Bloom buys before going around the corner to the spectacular Turkish baths, sadly no longer there.

Heading on up Nassau Street and then turning left into the side streets, conditions are markedly different to the little lanes on the north side of the city. Here there is very little to offend the eye. Even Frederick Walk, the laneway that leads to Dawson Street, is at least visually clean, although it reeks of urine, as it often does no matter the time of year.

Crossing Dawson Street to Duke Street leads to Davy Byrne’s, the pub where Bloom stopped for lunch, having a Gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of wine. It’s just after 1pm and the place is bustling in the sunshine with outdoor diners. Two tourists have been served Gorgonzola sandwiches, paired with stout rather than wine, that they will perhaps still enjoy with a “relish of disgust”.

Located just steps from Grafton Street and at the pedestrianised end of Duke Street, these tables are some of the most sought-after lunchtime spots. It is incredibly busy but the area around them is pretty tidy. Similar to Capel Street, the golden surface has suffered and looks grubby, with white gummy smears, but there isn’t much evidence of litter. Stepping out on to Grafton Street, it’s a broadly similar picture – grimy, sticky paving, but no evidence of rubbish on the ground and the bins have been recently emptied.

This is not to portray the southside of the city as some sort idyll. The streets to the other side of Grafton Street, particularly at weekend nights, but pretty much at all times during the good weather, become raucous and inevitably decorated with the pungent after-effects of drink. These areas were in a particularly sorry state during the pandemic, but on several visits this week they were in decent condition, though there remained a certain sharpness to the air, even during the daytime, that was more than “faintly scented”. To some, the aroma of drains and their contents, and the sticky ground underfoot is redolent of summer and the short time that Dublin seems somewhat European.

Bloom, who refers to the “drouth” the city has been experiencing and is a fan of the visceral and pungent, would probably not be offended by the state of his town today. This could be put forward as a selling point to any tourist who might turn up their nose at a “tang” in the air.

The citizen (with a small c) of the modern city, may also forgive what the city council describes as “challenging” summer conditions. However, he or she will also expect that a budget of almost €56 million for waste management should sustain the council’s current summer efforts, and have the city shining year-round.