Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The manhole wars of the new millennium

Time for a very long ramble about the ground behind my feet.

Picture the scene. It's mid-May 2011, the week before the Queen of England comes to town.

The Irish weather has been kinder than usual this spring, and there have been marches and demonstrations, anti-visit posters, bomb threats, hoaxes, suspect packages, a pipe bomb on a bus from Maynooth, surveillance operations and pre-emptive arrests north and south of the Border.

All this unrest will soon be forgotten in the rose-tinted feel-goody afterglow of the historic royal visit to Ireland.

But one particular venue in the centre of Dublin has been singled out as a security nightmare: the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square. As Wikipedia puts it, this garden "commemorates freedom fighters from various uprisings". It's the republican equivalent of sacred ground, as it were.

And, of course, one man's freedom fighter is another man's security headache. The entire square will have to be blocked off. The Rotunda maternity hospital will have to cancel hundreds of appointments and visits. You better not be expecting when the Queen comes to town.

The royal couple will stay in the State Guest House in the Phoenix Park for the three nights of their visit. It's in the Farmleigh estate within the park, which I've written about before as an interesting location for crime fiction.

As they're staying in Farmleigh, that will mean several journeys to and from the Park: high-speed convoys along the Liffey quays to the western fringe of Stoneybatter at Parkgate Street. For almost a week they will stop ordinary traffic from using most of the quays, and several bridges across the river will be closed.

In fact the entire Phoenix Park will be shut, all 707 hectares (1,750 acres) of it, cutting off one of the main arterial routes into the city. That means they'll have to shut the zoo too.

Besides 10,000 Irish police and soliders, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh will be accompanied on their four-day trip by 120 SAS-trained officers of the Royal Protection Squad - an elite Scotland Yard force who will come armed with Glock pistols and Heckler & Koch submachine guns.

The royals will be leaving on the Friday (20 May). But as if things couldn't get any worse, the Europa League final is taking place at Lansdowne Road on the Wednesday (18 May). Oh, and US President Barack Obama and his family will be arriving to rediscover their Irish roots the following Monday (23 May, though as it turns out that they'll cut short their visit; Grímsvötn will get the blame - it's an Icelandic ash cloud).

So in the run-up to all these visits by the royals and Obamas and footie fans and pesky ash clouds, large parts of central Dublin will be under a sort of curfew. Reporters warn of "lockdowns", "daunting" logistical and security challenges, "a ring of steel", a giant cordon sanitaire.

* * *

Stacks of crowd control barriers begin to appear on street corners. There are road blocks, road closures, blue-and-white "GARDA - NO ENTRY" tape flutters around the few remaining phone boxes on Parkgate Street.

Apart from the phone booths, an entire zone of the city has had all its street furniture removed - and I mean all of it, even the green postboxes if I remember correctly. On the pavements, the council's "permanent" rubbish bins have been wrenched up from their concrete roots and replaced by temporary oil drums, painted in the sky blue colours of Dublin's GAA teams.

Many of the changes are in the ground beneath your feet. Strange yellow spraypaint marks begin to appear overnight on the street's manholes: I don't have any photos of them, but they are like a silhouette, a yellow stencil of a spanner. It's the official indication that the holes have been fully checked and sealed.

As the Indo puts it:

"Specialist search teams from the gardai and the Army have also been sweeping key location[s] and the sites are then secure and kept sterile."

For the past month the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit (actually its official name today is the Garda Water Support Unit) have been down the sewers checking for bombs and assassins. Military planes patrol the airspace. Teams check and seal the manholes. And more manholes. All 5,000 of them.

You'd be surprised how many manholes there can be in just a short stretch of street. Manholes, culverts, flaps, drains. The teams check the lamp posts and traffic lights too; they could be hiding-places for guns or explosives. A bicycle chained to a railing could also conceal something dangerous. Remove all the bicycles! Even the wrecks!

But you all know what happens next. Nothing much. Except in crime fiction perhaps.

* * *

Yet here's a fact: for those few days that May, many Dubliners became a lot more aware of all these manholes and service covers beneath their feet.

All that ironmongery, telling a history of Dublin's ironworks and foundries, the Tonge & Taggarts of yesteryear, the Cavanaghs and Conway & Sons and William Lacys, the fire hydrants and Béal Tuile (literally "flood mouth") covers with their three castles of the city crest, and the ancient coal holes from Georgian and Victorian Dublin, and the more recent "WSC-R" water supply control units.

Chinese artist Chen Jiale has tried to capture the beauty of some of these older grids and manholes, using ancient water mark printing methods to take exquisite prints of them.

In 2010 the Ireland Expo Pavilion in Shanghai showed her exhibition, “Water Marks of Dublin”, which she completed during a residency with the council's Drainage Department at Wood Quay.

* * *

At the end of last year, as the controversial new water meters arrived (or tried to arrive) in Stoneybatter, large chunks of pavement were ripped up. They were replaced by concrete of a slightly different colour (no, they couldn't even get that right), almost like sandy mats halfway between the pairs of houses.

Cue a video from the Battle of Oxmantown Road...

But the metal and plastic covers and hatches in our roads and pavements also tell much longer stories of sewage systems and water drains, of electricity and gas networks, of phone companies and broadband and digital TV providers, a vast underground jungle of utilities jostling for space and consumers.

After the old covers of the P&T (the Department of Post and Telegraphs, or Poist agus Telegrafa in Irish) and its successor Telecom Éireann (a "semi-state", as we call them in Ireland), came all the free market covers of Eircom, NTL, UPC. There will be many more battles between these acronyms as they carve up the world beneath our feet.

"Eircom" will soon be replaced by "eir", because this month the company has begun rebranding itself. It's possibly the most expensive rebranding exercise in Irish history, if you don't count the establishment of the Irish State itself back in 1922.

Mind you, you'd need a €16-million facelift too, and a complete erasure of your old brand, when you've been through the mill so often since that "everyone's-a-shareholder" privatisation debacle, what with six changes of ownership over 16 years.

An excellent piece on Creative Review's blog notes that

"[Eircom's] old identity belonged very much in the global-swooshiness of yesteryear. Moving Brands’ [that's the agency responsible] new system aims at all the qualities we now expect of such brands – as the studio says it 'conveys the business’s shift from a supplier of infrastructure and services to one that is more approachable, human, warm, and positive'."

Yuckety yuck. So that logo beneath your feet doesn't signify a decent proper infrastructure or service supply any more. None of that wires and cables nonsense and "global-swooshiness" stuff. No, it stands for entertainment, emotional connections, airy-fairy things and squidgy logos.

So that's "eir" for you. "eir", all cuddly lower-case and looking like a curled up old phone cord and sounding exactly like "air". Yeah right. All this from the latest private equity firm from god knows where to own eir/Eircom/Whatever It's Called This Week.

While they're at it, they might as well dicky up the TV and cinema commercials with nice nature shots from a drone around Skellig, and lots of shiny happy people, and the big appeal to history and nationhood and essential essences and a rattling old song as Gaeilge (the tune is called Fionnghuala, by the way, and I still prefer the Bothy Band's version).

Right. Enough of all that guff. That TV commercial has me demented already.

Eyes down. Time for another long ramble around the streets of Stoneybatter.