On Monday evening at around 9pm, David O’Shea turns off Abbey Street Lower and into a dirty laneway.
There is litter on the ground of the Harbour Court lane and the air smells of urine. Blue graffiti on the wall reads, “Tune in, turn on, drop out”.
O’Shea, a tall man with light brown hair, is carrying a Dunnes Stores bag. He bought a new shirt, he says. He is headed to Eden Quay to catch a bus home.
Sure, he thinks this cut-through is smelly and dirty. “Yah, it’s a disgrace,” he says, shaking his head and staring up the laneway.
But it’s a direct route to his stop, so he walks through it regularly, he says.
Last week, Dublin City Council kicked off the process to close Harbour Court as a through route, at the request of local businesses.
“It is regularly used for intravenous drug use and is littered with needles and other drug paraphernalia,” says a council report. “Also it has become a location for illegal dumping.”
At a meeting of the Central Area Committee last Tuesday, councillors agreed also to extinguish the public right-of-way in three other lanes in their area too – but for different reasons: to enable new housing complexes and expand a playground.
They were most exercised about Harbour Court, saying the closure of the walking route is necessary, but also arguably a sign of a poorly managed city centre and an absence of policing.
“That shouldn’t be the policy,” said independent Councillor Cieran Perry. “Unfortunately, that is the reality of living in Dublin.”
Five years ago, Dublin City Council said it was working on a plan to enliven five of the laneways in the city centre as a pilot for how to make these arteries safe and inviting for people to walk down.
The council has not yet acted on it though.
Last Thursday evening at around 6pm, two men entered Harbour Court lane from Eden Quay, heading through to Abbey Street.
Two young women crouched down behind bins around the corner where the lane forks towards Marlborough Street. The women prepared a pipe.
The pedestrians walking through didn’t appear to notice.
A few minutes later, a man walked out of the Harbour Court laneway onto Marlborough Street, having stopped in to go to the toilet.
People using the laneway to go to the toilet or ducking in to take drugs will simply move to another place if it is closed, said O’Shea, the shopper headed home with the Dunnes Stores bag, on Monday evening.
So, he doesn’t see the point in closing it, he says. “They’re just pushing the problem around.”
He doesn’t mind people smoking cannabis, he says, but he thinks people who inject drugs in public places should be arrested.
He doesn’t think it’s particularly dangerous to walk down Harbour Court, he says. “Look, it’s no worse than the rest of the city. Sure the whole place is a complete state.”
There are piles of rubbish on O’Connell Street too, he says. On Monday evening, seagulls were ripping open bags to feast on leftover chicken.
At the meeting of the Central Area Committee on Tuesday 11 July, Karl Mitchell, director of services with Dublin City Council, said that all of the businesses that back onto Harbour Court want it closed off.
Those include several pubs or venues, like the Laughter Lounge and the Grand Central Hotel.
“We did speak to the businesses about moving into the lane, or opening up into the lane,” said Mitchell. “That got nowhere. None of them are interested in doing that.”
Several councillors said they wouldn’t feel safe using the route. “There is anti-social day and night. I certainly wouldn’t walk through it,” said independent Councillor Christy Burke.
Said Green Party Councillor Janet Horner: “I would never walk that way even though it is a convenient car-free route from Abbey Street through to the quays because of the level of anti-social behaviour there.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan said: “It’s an absolute crying shame that we are forced to close off permeability because of anti-social behaviour.”
Labour Councillor Joe Costello said he was against the proposal to close the lane. There is open drug use throughout the city, he said, pointing to the boardwalk along the quays as an example.
“I don’t want us to be seen to be surrendering a laneway that is off O’Connell Street,” said Costello. Other businesses in the city centre could start petitioning the council to close their laneways too, he said.
Horner said she agreed it was a shame to close it off, and that it sets a bad precedent for the rest of the city.
She asked if the council could close the laneway temporarily and then focus on developing a longer-term strategy to improve safety with a view to reopening it.
Mitchell said the procedure to extinguish a public right-of-way is permanent.
Councillors could decide to open it again at a later stage though, he said.
Dublin is no more dangerous than most other capital cities but there is a shortage of Gardaí, said Perry, the independent councillor. “We need high visibility policing on the streets.”
Gardaí are being diverted to police concerts and protests and are overstretched as a result, said Burke.
Councillors met senior Gardaí recently, he said. “They made it very, very clear that they did not have the personnel.”
Reimagining the laneways
Social Democrats Councillor Cat O’Driscoll said she was at a conference in London where communities face similar issues with anti-social behaviour.
In Islington, they were taking a three-pronged approach to tackling anti-social behaviour, she said, promoting community-focused initiatives, urban design and policing.
They made the streets safer by greening them and by providing more activities on the street. “It is a strategic approach we need to take and there is no quick fix,” says O’Driscoll.
Five years ago, in July 2018, Dublin City Council said that it was working on plans to animate five laneways in Dublin 1 as a pilot project.
Architect Seán Harrington said he was drawing up an action plan for some of the more problematic laneways in the Dublin 1 postcode, as part of the council-led Reimagining Dublin One project.
The laneways selected for transformation were Abbey Cottages, Byrne’s Lane, Coles Lane, Talbot Place and Jervis Lane Upper. The idea was to get businesses to open up onto the laneways at the back, increasing passive surveillance.
Some of the first changes planned for the five laneways included removing vehicle shortcuts, improving landscaping and, where possible, bringing life back to ground-floor buildings.
“This will help to strengthen the existing residential community and support local businesses,” said Harrington in 2018.
The Reimagining Dublin One report also includes images demonstrating ideas for animating Harbour Court using colourful paintings and projections, although it was not one of the five lanes selected for the pilot.
In July 2018, a spokesperson for Dublin City Council said the plan should be ready in a few weeks once those involved finish gathering views.
In any case, the pilot for the five laneways in Dublin 1 never went ahead, according to a council spokesperson. “Due to issues most notably the Covid 19 pandemic this project had not moved beyond concept stage.”
Covid-19 arrived in Ireland in February 2020, more than a year and a half after the council said the plan should be ready in a few weeks.
None of the five lanes named in the project have been closed, the council spokesperson said. An update on the plans to animate laneways in Dublin 1 will be provided to local councillors at an upcoming meeting, he said.
Mitchell said that update would be in the autumn.
The council will advertise its intention to close off the public right-of-way in Harbour Court in a local newspaper and by erecting notices at each of the entrances, according to the council report.
It will consider any observations from the public, says the report.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 12.20pm on 19 July to reflect that the graffiti on the wall of the laneway said “Tune in, turn on, drop out” rather than “Turn on, tune in, drop out”.