T hirty years have now passed since Dublin’s so-called Millennium in 1988. In some ways, the effects of 1988 are still to be seen in the city – there was some meaningful civic engagement, with things like planted trees, new public spaces, and new monuments and art.
There was the famous commemorative milk bottle, which found its way onto every mantlepiece in the capital, but there was also a lot of debate over whether it was the Millennium of Dublin at all, with some begrudgingly christening the event “The Aluminium” on the basis that it was bad history.
More than any historic anniversary, Dublin’s celebrations owed more to the success of similar endeavours across the island. Corkonians may remember “Cork 800” in 1985, which remembered the 800th anniversary of the town charter, while 1984 witnessed “Galway 500”, marking the 500th anniversary of the granting of Galway’s town charter.
While these events marked uncontested historic anniversaries, questions were raised about just what Dublin was celebrating in 1988. It wasn’t the Millennium of Dublin’s foundation as a Viking settlement, which was much earlier (c. 841), and other suggested historical anniversaries, like claiming it to be the year the Norse submitted to an Irish high king, didn’t quite match up with what leading historians said.
When quizzed on this, a Dublin Corporation spokesperson Noel Carroll came out with something that was almost Flann O’Brien-esque, insisting that when it came to historians, “you can never get these people to agree anyway. After all, there are some who say St. Patrick never existed, but that doesn’t get rid of March 17th. And who picked December 25th as Christ’s birthday? Nobody was sure what the real day was, so they had to pick something.”
In retrospect, it is quite clear that Dublin’s Millennium owed much more to contemporary concerns than any Viking heritage. There was something positively shabby about the Dublin of the late 1980s, a city reeling from rising unemployment and a decade of poor planning. City Manager Frank Feely and others discussed the year in terms of what it could do for Dublin in the present; Senator David Norris hoped that “the 360-odd days of 1988 will be used to change attitudes, to go into the next decade with something of hope rather than pessimism”.
One of the big talking points of the year was O’Connell Street, and the sheer state of it. New trees were planted, but there was also the “Pillar Project”, a first serious attempt to talk about what we were going to do with the space vacated so suddenly by Admiral Horatio Nelson in 1966.
Fifteen different teams of architects and artists were brought together to propose a new central monument for O’Connell Street. In its own words, the Pillar Project was designed to “find a new symbol for Dublin, playing much the same role as the Eiffel Tower does for Paris or the Statue of Liberty for New York”.
What the public voted for was “The Millennium Arch”, not unlike the Arc de Triomphe. Unfortunately for the city, the Pillar Project was in no way legally binding, and it would be many more years before the uninspiring Spire of Light came to occupy the space it does now.
In some ways, it was a celebration of the heroes of the city. Jonathan Swift, the father of modern satire (what would he think of us today, in a world beyond it), was rightly honoured. The truly brilliant Macnas Theatre Company built a giant Gulliver from fibreglass, aluminium and plywood, and he was beached on Dollymount Strand before being floated up the River Liffey. Dublin became Lilliput in a moment of brilliance, and an RTÉ News reporter asked the children of Dublin just where they felt the giant had come from, with Heaven being the consensus.
The moment is remembered in a moment of dialogue from Frankie Gaffney’s novel Dublin Seven: “when we were bringing ye back from the Rotunda they had a big huge giant floating in the Liffey! Something to do with yer man Gullible’s Travels it was!”
Traces of the Millennium remain in the city today; the statue Molly Malone proved polarising from the beginning, with the best criticism of it coming from the independent socialist Councillor Tony Gregory, who maintained that the monument was on the wrong side of the Liffey and should have been put in a “place of historical relevance”.
The Irish Independent took issue with the monument on the basis that she appeared to have “more curves than a seventeenth century road through the Liberties”. Equally controversial was the Anna Livia fountain placed on O’Connell Street, which was quickly descended on by Fairy liquid bandits, who knocked great enjoyment out of watching suds spill over onto the street.
Today, Anna Livia (the work of sculptor Éamonn O’Doherty) sits in the small public park at Wolfe Tone Quay, near to the National Museum of Ireland. Smaller acts, like the planting of hundreds of new trees in the city centre, also changed the appearance of the city centre in a meaningful way.
From a design perspective, the Millennium will always be remembered for its beautiful, striking logo, taking the familiar three castles of Dublin and reinventing them in a very modern way. The red, yellow and blue reincarnation of something old and familiar found its way onto coins, milk bottles and all kind of commemorative tat. Its appeal has been enduring, with The Beatyard “borrowing” the logo for their 2014 festival.
While the milk bottles have little financial worth (apologies to any excited readers who contemplated a raid on the attic), they are of huge sentimental importance, as a reminder of a year of real civic pride in a city that badly needed it.