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Dublin portal reminds us that our capital has an uneasy edge of wildness

The erection of the portal linking night-time inner city Dublin to daytime New York was a heroic act of denial

We didn’t need the magic of portals to start making a show of ourselves in front of New Yorkers. The public art project by Lithuanian artist Benediktas Gylys, providing a real-time two-way view of the streets of Dublin and New York, may be a wonder of futuristic technology. But it ended up back in an all too familiar history.

In September 1886, a tourist from Gotham who gave his address as the Gresham Hotel wrote to The Irish Times giving his impressions of Dublin’s city centre: “Will any person in a position to do so explain why it is not safe for a respectable man or woman to pass through the streets of this great city at a comparatively early hour of night without running the risk of being robbed or murdered?”

He described his experience of walking through what was then Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, down North Earl Street and on to Marlborough Street at 9.30pm: “I saw crowds of fellows lounging about.” Two of them tried to steal his watch.

He uttered a cry of despair: “I say it is impossible for the police of this city ... to cope with rowdyism.” The experience soured him on Ireland. Having given money to Irish causes in the past, he wrote, “I shall never again subscribe a dollar.”


The Portal: Are we overreacting to a bit of 'bad' behaviour?

Listen | 18:36

Dublin is, and always has been, a rough and rowdy town. The remarkable thing about the yobbery that forced the closure of the portal on North Earl Street is not that it happened. It’s that anyone could ever have thought it wouldn’t happen.

Is it appalling that people would stand in front of the portal and flash their naked bits at innocent passersby (including children) on the piazza in front of the Flatiron building? Is it disgusting that some creeps put up pornographic images on their phones and that others thought it amusing to taunt New Yorkers with pictures of the 9/11 atrocity? Appalling, disgusting – yes.

But surprising? Maybe to Gylys, the idealistic inventor of the portals project, who is trying to “counter polarising ideas and to communicate that the only way for us to continue our journey on this beautiful spaceship called Earth is together”. Maybe to people in Vilnius and Lublin who have enjoyed the same portals without having the experience ruined by local gurriers. But Dublin, as anyone who knows it could have told him, is not Lublin.

I did a rough analysis of the frequency of the use of the word “rowdy” in relation to Dublin in Irish newspapers. It is remarkably consistent over the decades since 1865, occurring generally around 20 times a year and peaking at 38 mentions in the Celtic Tiger years between 1995 and 2004. Despair at “the violent and daring rowdyism which makes Dublin thoroughfares unsafe during certain hours for respectable citizens” has been a staple of news analysis ever since there have been mass circulation newspapers.

There’s a nostalgic notion that Dublin city centre used to be more orderly.

In 1980, reporters from The Irish Times spent 24 hours in Store Street Garda station and logged the reports coming in. The first drunk prisoner was brought in at 8.05am. Then the steady stream of incidents in the inner city: handbags snatched throughout the day; cars stolen; a postman attacked in Summerhill and his mail bag robbed; more drunks coming in to be locked up; two boys aged eight and nine charged with stealing shoes from a shop; youths on a roof in Sherriff Street pelting two gardaí down below with rocks; five teenagers arrested after a fight in a pub; a drunken young woman arriving to say she broke a window in a nightclub in Merrion Row; a youth trying to smash a shop window in O’Connell Street; “Gardaí on foot patrol warned to watch a group of rowdy youths coming up Henry Street and another on O’Connell Street.” And so on.

I’m from Dublin. It’s my home city and I love it. But I don’t remember a time when the city did not have an uneasy edge of wildness. It is not, by the standards of big cities around the world, especially violent. But it is unruly.

Maybe these rough and rowdy ways are in the city’s DNA. The Vikings who founded it were not known for their genteel decorum. For the English settlers who later took control of it, Dublin was a frontier town. Maurice Craig, in his classic history of Dublin in its 18th-century golden age notes that these incomers “adopted the gangster mentality as a rule of life”: “men who would in happier circumstances have been English gentlemen drifted into the habit of surrounding themselves with roughs and plug uglies.” There were plenty of these to be had among the “floating urban riff-raff”. Protestant Dublin always had a large underbelly of desperately poor Catholics who lived in a city that emphatically did not belong to them.

The elegance of the Georgian squares was always mocked by the surrounding social squalor. The portal was sited within spitting distance of what was, only a few generations ago, the biggest and most notorious red-light district in Europe. It is on the edge of now demolished slums that, even by the standards of early 20th century cities, were internationally infamous.

Nor is it a coincidence that the last Magdalene laundry, closed only in 1996, was near to where the portal was erected. The methods of social control used to put manners on women were so brutal that they ultimately discredited the moral authorities that imposed them.

And the city has never really dealt with its legacy of intergenerational poverty. It abandoned the communities that depended for their livelihoods on the docks that evaporated as sources of work and meaning and were transformed into Docklands that have little relationship to those communities. It turned the other way when heroin filled the hole left by that loss.

This is not to say that most people living in the inner city are doing anything other than trying to lead dignified lives – or that poorer people have a monopoly on antisocial behaviour in the city. But there is and always has been an obvious link between social marginalisation, chaotic lives, aggressive resentment and the anarchy associated with addiction and substance abuse.

The erection of the portal linking (because of the five-hour time difference) night-time inner city Dublin to daytime New York was, in this light, a heroic act of denial. The idea (expressed by New York’s chief public realm officer Ya-Ting Liu) of “Two amazing global cities, connected in real-time and space” is cool and cosmopolitan. It implies the possibility, not just of a magical smoothing of time, but of a frictionless fusion of spaces. But while inner Dublin can indeed be cool and cosmopolitan, it is also a space defined by friction. It crackles with the static tension of social divisions and contradictions. The portal represents one side of the city – the vibrant, high-tech, prosperous, optimistic side. But it had to look out too on the other side – the angry, resentful, alienated and chaotic side.

Denial of this other Dublin is built into the way the city is run. It is policed much more lightly and invisibly than many cities that are much more orderly. Its authorities continually come up with grand schemes, like the plan to turn College Green into a pedestrian plaza, that say nothing about how such public spaces will be controlled. That all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds is the city’s governing assumption.

But looking away becomes impossible when someone else is looking at us. The obnoxious antics that led to the closure of the portal can be seen any night on the streets, the bus, the Luas. Yet they acquire a kind of invisibility: the city flows around them as if they are not there. It is only the outside gaze that turns them into an intolerable embarrassment.

If a tourist is beaten up by thugs in the city, it’s a national disgrace. If this happens to a local, it is not a story. One of the things the portal debacle tells us is that the imperative put forward in one of the songs in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage is still deeply felt: “Before those foreign-born bastards, dear/Be sure not to let yourself down.” Dublin City Council sponsored the portal to mark the city’s status as “the European Capital of Smart Tourism 2024″. We were supposed to look smart for would-be tourists – we have not yet arrived at point where we can look smart for ourselves.

The portal was the unwanted answer to an unspoken wish: to see ourselves as others see us. Through Gylys’s elegant eyehole we could watch New Yorkers watching the shiny happy people of a thriving, globalised, cutting-edge Dublin. But we ended up also watching them watch some very tarnished, unhappy denizens of a city that is on the edge in a whole other sense. Perhaps we could have a portal that links these two Dublins in real time.