Tuesday, 10 May 2011

In Dublin's Fair City...

Drugs, drink and the stench of urine are alive, alive oh...

Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama are on their way to Dublin, but we won't be be in a hurry to show them sections of the city centre where drug dealers, drunks and beggars rule the roost...

It is a gloriously sunny May morning in Dublin and there's considerable drama happening outside Ireland's national theatre, The Abbey. A crowd of vagrants -- their faces ravaged by years of drug addiction -- roar obscenities at each other. They seem to be arguing over the final dregs of cider in a large plastic bottle. One of them -- a woman who looks like she's in her 40s but is probably much younger -- swings a punch at an especially emaciated man and keels over in the effort.

The commotion lasts for five minutes until they split into two groups -- the smaller bunch making their way unsteadily towards Eden Quay, the other along Marlborough Street in a northbound direction. They leave behind a trail of litter -- including the empty cider bottle.

The Abbey Street Luas stop is less than 100 metres away from the National Theatre -- and roughly the same distance again from O'Connell Street, the home of Clery's famous department store, the Spire and the Gresham Hotel.

Among the waiting crowd of shoppers and tourists is another group of drug addicts. They are hustled around the ticket machines, loudly demanding change from nervous customers.

As the tram arrives, an addict steps absent-mindedly in front of it and the driver is forced to slam on the brakes and blare the horn. That seems to be the cue for his companions to join him on the track, blocking the progress of the Luas.

What is perhaps surprising, as the tourist season kicks off and on the eve of VIP visits by Queen Elizabeth and US President Barack Obama, is how commonplace scenes like this have become on Dublin's streets.

Ireland needs the tourist euro like never before. Last year was a disaster for visitor numbers with figures showing a 15pc drop in Irish trips by overseas visitors from the previous year to 5.6 million people, and Dublin took a major hit; it lost 500,000 visitors compared to 2009.

Yet, for shoppers, workers, business owners and tourists, large swathes of Dublin city centre have become areas to be hurried through -- while side-stepping drug dealers, drug users, drunks, beggars and feral children.

Apart from a few well-heeled thoroughfares, many people, locals and visitors alike, say they feel deeply uncomfortable with what they see. They feel unsafe. They feel threatened.

Daylight or night time, it makes little difference; many of the city's streets are shabby and menacing.

Just listen to Pat Liddy, a respected Dublin historian who conducts walking tours of the city: ""There are sections of it east of O'Connell Street that are virtually no-go and even around the so-called affluent Grafton Street, there are problems. The lane-ways off it are the pits. It's all very dispiriting for a proud Dub like me."

In London and New York, huge steps have been taken to clean up tourist areas such as Leicester Square and Times Square, with intensive policing and anti-dereliction schemes. Critics say Dublin now needs the same fresh ideas to arrest its dramatic slide.

Perhaps the most startling observation comes from Ciara Sugrue of Dublin Tourism, who, in a blunt admission, said of the city: "Anti-social behaviour rules the roost."

Angry that their funding from Fáilte Ireland is minuscule compared to the rest of the country, Dublin Tourism says a run-down capital is having a hugely detrimental impact on our potential.

Sugrue points out that Dublin was the sixth most popular European capital in 2007 but the city has now slipped out of the top 10 to 11th.

Senior gardaí admit there are problems, but they insist the force is making progress.

Yet the evidence is hard to ignore. The owner of one tourism business said some of his visitors have vowed never to return to Dublin.

"They're shocked by the poverty, the on-street drinking, the urination, the petty thefts," said Cathal O'Connell of Paddy Wagon, which caters for backpackers.

The city's increasingly ugly face can be seen at first hand in a long walk around the city centre -- north and south of the river -- a litany of nastiness in broad daylight.

In just a few daylight hours last week, I witnessed what many people in the city see every day: a drug deal in a laneway off Eden Quay, as two young men exchanged a tiny plastic bag and money.

Nearby a man lay prostrate on the pretty boardwalk near the Ha'penny Bridge. Under the blooming hanging baskets, he lay prone with blood and vomit soaking his tattered T-shirt.

Near Mulligan's famous pub on Poolbeg Street -- a must for any visitor -- a man dropped his trousers in broad daylight and urinated, his waste streaking the pavement just metres away from disgusted female passers-by.

Minutes later, near Mabbot Lane, teenage girls from an English lacrosse team stood transfixed as a drug-addled couple verbally abused each other in front of them. The female was accusing her partner of beating their child.

Nearby, another tourist favourite -- a line of Dublin Bikes -- was under assault. A group of feral children, oblivious to the onlookers, hacked away at the machines's tyres, saddles and bells, in an attempt to render them unusable.

Everyone seems to have a story. Tom O'Neill and his wife, Anna, a couple in their 50s, were visiting last week from upstate New York, their first visit to Tom's ancestral country. Both were shocked at how grubby Dublin city is and the extent of public drinking -- a criminal offence in the US.

The couple had been looking for the famous Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough Street. "We're staying near Merrion Square and that part of the Dublin is lovely," Tom said, "but I can't get over the difference on this side of the river. I'd no idea there were so many homeless people in Ireland, and there seems to be a major drug problem, too.

"The concierge told us to be careful about coming to this side of town at night time and I can see exactly what he means. We don't feel very safe now. The camera is staying in the bag."

It was a feeling mirrored by Rie and Michael, a pair of marketing students from Denmark, staying in a hostel on Gardiner Street. Neither wanted to walk the area at night.

"Copenhagen has its problems too," Michael said, "but you don't really see it in the centre of the city where the tourists are. I can't believe how many people seem to be drunk in the middle of the day, falling about."

The pair laughed when told Dublin 1 was -- long before the introduction of postcodes -- the most prestigious part of the city. "Well, it definitely does not feel like that now," Rie said. "That must have been a long time ago."

It is indeed difficult to imagine that this part of our capital was far more fashionable than the southside in the early 18th century. It was only when the Duke of Leinster built his imposing townhouse on what's now Kildare Street that the moneyed set followed him across the Liffey.

The north inner city has never truly recovered. O'Connell Street may have had a much-needed facelift in recent years, but the streets off it remain down at heel. It's clear that today's issues are not just about policing; Dublin City Council has much to answer for too.

One need only venture into Sackville Place to see how derelict this part of Dublin truly is. Once you go past the Clery's building you step back to a world that remained untouched by the Celtic Tiger.

There's a desolate row of shops, almost all unoccupied. Last week, an old man lay sleeping in a doorway. The lane near it, Earl Place, is so uninviting, even the homeless avoid it.

I retraced my footsteps and walked down Marlborough Street. There was a persistent smell of urine and it was impossible to walk up the street without noticing the sheer numbers of drug addicts congregating here.

Drug treatment centres pockmark Dublin 1 -- and this is the result, on a once magnificent street parallel to O'Connell Street and just 100m away.

At the corner where Marlborough, Talbot and North Earl streets meet, staff who work in the shops here are on constant alert. Just a stone's throw from the Pro-Cathedral and the HQ of the Department for Education, the area is a notorious hang-out for drug dealers and shoplifters.

West of O'Connell Street and it's much the same story. Middle Abbey and Henry streets are comparatively free of anti-social behaviour, but once you reach Wolfe Tone Park (behind the Jervis Shopping Centre) and environs, it's a depressingly familiar story.

Last week, the park was teeming with tourists and workers having lunch, yet the mood was dominated by a group of drunk men, congregating near The Church pub, and a large group of teenage boys, shouting foul language at strangers and themselves.

Up at Smithfield, a plaza re-developed at vast public expense, the smell of failure was everywhere. The Lighthouse Cinema has closed and numerous other businesses are boarded up. The square was deserted.

I completed my walk on Middle Abbey Street and watched a group of Romany gypsies harassing customers having coffee outside Arnotts. Anti-begging legislation was introduced last year and has been a qualified success, but gangs are still operating across the city.

It's a scene -- like so many others I witnessed on the Dublin tourist trail -- that is almost guaranteed to make visitors say: "We'll never come back again. And we'll advise our friends never to visit Dublin ... "

Article by John Meagher - Irish Independent

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