Friday, 11 July 2014

Poolbeg and the Pigeon House

The Poolbeg chimneys taken from the Clontarf Road in June 2014

In Dublin some of us have this thing about chimneys. Well, two chimneys in particular. A pair of tall candy-striped chimneys on a peninsula jutting out into the bay and the city's skyline.

They are among Ireland's tallest structures, and my favourite eyesore.

They were decommissioned in 2010 after four decades in operation, but continue to be an unofficial landmark of the city.

Among the capital cities of the western world, Dublin is quite low. It doesn't have that many tall buildings, and even these aren't exactly huge skyscrapers by international standards. So the two chimney stacks at the Poolbeg power station by the Pigeon House still stand out after all these years.

When I heard this morning's news that by the end of the year they will probably decide to demolish the chimneys, I thought "Oh sugar, there's another location in my Moss Reid novels gone."

The Electricity Supply Board says that carrying out the required structural repair works "may not be the best use of resources". May sound practical to a bean counter, but quite daft when you think that the Poolbeg chimneys are the kind of branding that the ESB and the tourist board couldn't buy for love nor money.

Those two chimneys must be as loved as the "Why Go Bald" sign in South Great George's Street. Dubliners would look on them far more fondly than that stupid Spire in O’Connell Street.

"The Two Sisters", letting you know you're home as you fly over the city, and are among the first sights that many tourists will see along with the pretty coastline and green fields (though when they see the stacks half the Yanks are probably thinking "Hey honey, that must be downtown").

The Poolbeg stacks are iconic, steampunk, a focal point, almost a cliché. They have appeared in many a photo, painting and film. They often make a guest appearance in establishing shots in gritty modern dramas set in Dublin (were they ever in Love/Hate?). Michael Winterbottom probably kicked off the trend with the aerial sequences at the start of each episode of Roddy Doyle's brilliant series Family.

Check out Poolbeg's fleeting appearance in the opening credits of episode three:

Poolbeg supplied most of Dublin's electricity until the 1950s, and the ESB took over the site in 1971. So in terms of protected structures and listed building stuff the stacks are still very young - not even four decades old. Hardly from a Victorian industrial past of mines and linen mills, more like the Whitaker-Lemass era.

They are almost 208 metres high. Contrary to popular myth, they aren't quite the highest structures in Ireland - several radio masts are a good deal taller, and Moneypoint Power Station has a chimney some 10 metres taller. And when they were still in operation they weren't smokestacks - they were thermal cooling towers, puffing out not smoke but vapour.

But as far as Dubliners are concerned, the Poolbeg chimneys are the tallest, stripiest, puffiest chimneys in the world. They stand proud and tall in the bay, easy to see for miles around. Some of the best views are from  the northside - from Bull Island or Clontarf promenade, from the Bull Wall (South Wall, Shelly Banks whatever it's called).

Update, 14 July 2014: Dublin City Council has given the chimneys a reprieve. They are now protected structures. The ESB cannot demolish them without planning permission.

Further update, July 2016: the chimneys also feature in this splendid aerial film by Fred Kelly...

And one final final update, November 2016: this young Danish daredevil called Oliver climbed one of the stacks with a selfie stick. Don't try this at home, kids; and don't watch if you suffer from vertigo, but the views in the final two minutes truly are breathtaking...