On Tuesday about 11am, there’s a group of seven people standing and chatting in the cobbled laneway that runs behind Christ Church Cathedral.
One of them, a woman in a pink bicycle helmet and sunglasses, is leaning against a waist-high granite-clad retaining wall, facing the cathedral, with a grassy, leafy expanse behind her.
On the other side of that wall, a man is walking his small dog on a lead under the tall shady trees between the laneway and the council’s hulking Civic Offices.
Out from under the shade of the trees a grassy lawn sweeps down towards Wood Quay and the River Liffey beyond.
This picturesque laneway is called John’s Lane East, and the council has plans for it.
On the agenda at Monday’s meeting of the council’s South East Area Committee meeting was a presentation on these plans to transform this laneway, opening it up to connect it with the green space next door.
“This existing green space is centrally located within the city but underused,” the presentation says. The planned changes would “bring this medieval route back into public focus”, it says.
“I think it’s a really great project,” said Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne, by phone on Tuesday.
“It could be absolutely fantastic. Look at the setting,” said independent Councillor Mannix Flynn, also by phone on Tuesday.
John’s Lane East is hemmed in on both sides, between the closed-up back of the cathedral – which rises abruptly, high into the sky – and the retaining wall.
“These constraints work against the use and enjoyment of the space,” says the presentation on the plan put together by the council and Dermot Foley Landscape Architects.
The central idea of the proposal is to remove the retaining wall that separates the laneway from the greenspace, sketches in the proposal show.
They also seem to show a seating area at what is now the boundary between the laneway and the greenspace.
And two cafe tables with people sitting at them in just about the spot where the man was walking his dog under the shade of trees on Tuesday morning.
It’s just an indicative sketch, though, and the plan is at an early stage.
“I like to think that they could work around the existing trees and incorporate them,” said Byrne, the Green Party councillor.
The presentation says that the “Removal of existing retaining walls allows easier access, permeability and passive observation within the open space, creating a safer public space.”
“Opportunity to sit, converse and relax benefits local community and visitors alike,” it says.
In terms of design and materials, the presentation references the nearby park at St Audoen’s Church, and its use of “high quality natural materials” and “integration of steps with existing slope”.
The next step in the project is to present these plans to local residents and businesses. “Following consultations, the project will be developed further (detail design) and prepared for tender,” the presentation says.
The project would not need planning permission, the presentation says. “Pending support a works tender is expected to issue before the end of the year.”
This proposed transformation of John’s Lane East is part of a wider plan to “improve the grounds of the Civic Offices as a public open space that is attractive and can be used by all”, the presentation says.
A site with a history
“John’s Lane is an ancient route in the city and has been documented within the first maps of Dublin,” the presentation says.
For some Dubliners, the local government’s cavalier treatment of this historic part of the city has been a sore point for decades.
The area between Christ Church Cathedral and the river was home to an important archaeological site with “a vast swathe of intact archaeology spanning most of the Viking-founded town’s Scandinavian occupation”, “with over 100 houses, thousands of objects, and a wealth of environmental evidence”, according to Current Archaeology.
In the 1970s protesters tried to stop the council from following through with its plans to bulldoze the site and build its massive new offices there.
Their efforts included the September 1978 “Save Wood Quay” protest march in which approximately 20,000 people took to the streets, and three-week sit-in on the site by 52 protestors, “supported by thousands of members of the public”, according to History Ireland.
Still, the corporation went ahead and built its Civic Offices on Wood Quay, where they stand today, just over the wall from John’s Lane East.
Byrne, the Green Party councillor, said the council’s heritage office would be involved in the new plan to open up John’s Lane East, and she was confident that the physical and natural heritage of the site would be treated with the “utmost care”.
After the improvements
Although the laneway, in broad daylight on Tuesday morning, looked clean and safe and well-used, Flynn, the independent councillor, says it’s not always that way.
With the cathedral on one side and the high retaining wall on the other, and only narrow entrances on either end, it’s a secluded spot, especially at night.
“That lane is full of excrement and piss and needles,” Flynn says. “That whole area is rife with anti-social behaviour.”
There’s a plan to put a centre at Merchant’s Quay Ireland – about 400 metres away from John’s Lane East – where people could go and inject drugs inside, with staff supervision, and dispose of their needles. But six years on, there’s no time line to actually build and open this safe-injecting centre.
Assuming the council does go ahead with its plan to open up and improve John’s Lane East, it will need to then be properly maintained, Flynn says. “Those kinds of things only work if you monitor it properly.”
Byrne, the Green Party councillor, wasn’t quite as hard on the current state of John’s Lane East. “I wouldn’t say it’s a no-go area or anything, but we could do better,” she said.
She said she thinks the planned revamp of the area will help to address what anti-social behaviour occurs there. She pointed to (relatively) recent renovations of the nearby Peace Park and the park at St Audoen’s.
“Once you socialise them, these spaces can be completely transformed,” she said.