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New life for the GPO

The 90th anniversary of the blowing-up of the Public Records Office, 30th June 1922, calls for the National Archives Public Office  to be rehousedArnold Horner 

 

In just a few years time, the General Post Office, the centre-piece of Dublin’s grandest street, will celebrate its bicentenary. Designed by the renowned Francis Johnston, its foundation stone was laid in August 1814. It opened for business in January 1818. A few years time will also see the centenary of its most turbulent experience. The events of Easter Week 1916 brought the Proclamation of the Republic and soon after the destruction of the building as British forces re-asserted their disputed authority.

Throughout its existence, the GPO has had a special place in Irish life, as the control centre of postal communications across the country and since 1916 for its central role in narratives of the freedom struggle. Architecturally, historically and also by location it has been central to Dublin and Ireland.

There is little doubt that the significance of the GPO is widely appreciated. Less clear is its future role. An impressive post office was once a central feature of every city. But such buildings are no longer essential in an era of digital communications, and in many countries post offices have downsized. Banks, hotels, travel agents and other retail activities now occupy some of the  great post office buildings of the largest US and Australian cities.  Might Dublin’s GPO face some comparable scenario?

Light years ago, in the developer-driven days of 2007, a government think tank contemplated a new role for the GPO. The then Junior Minister Noel Aherne told the Dáil consultants had been engaged to visualise such initiatives as the creation of some sort of shopping mall and a commemoration of Easter 1916. In July 2007, creative ideas were sought although no provision was made for public consultation.  Two years later, then Arts Minister Martin Cullen suggested that the building might be the new home of the Abbey Theatre.

None of these suggestions appears to have attracted much interest or to have generated much popular enthusiasm.  With austerity the new reality, their practicality now seems especially questionable. At a time when proposals for an Arnotts ‘northern quarter’ and for the Carlton re-development in O’Connell Street were being treated as serious runners, a retail role for the GPO may have appeared attractive.  Five years on,  it is highly debateable if a city centre which may soon show signs of hollowing out in an American style could support more shopping.  As for the 1916 proposal, that arguably requires great sensitivity. Anything that is exclusive, or that could be a hostage to physical force nationalism, might be out of place in 21st century Ireland. The Abbey proposal is also difficult to see working, for it is hard to match the current scale of the theatre to the size of the GPO. Huge re-modelling might be needed for any of these projects.

Yet the GPO is such a centrepiece to Dublin that its future surely requires some sustained review and public debate that reaches beyond the vision of government ministers and senior officials. Other options that retain or enhance its civic role deserve consideration. For example, one possibility might be to use the building as a major city library. Given its size and capital city status, Dublin is unusual in having no high capacity, open-access central city library. The imaginative idea to develop the Ambassador Cinema site for this purpose was recently abandoned on cost grounds, so the deficiency remains. An opportunity, at a location where it might be politically more acceptable to embrace the cost, exists at the GPO.

Another possibility is to use the building to provide the National Archives with the premises and centrality that recognises its significance in this state. The National Archives contain a vast and diverse accumulation of state and private records that have accumulated since independence as well as many earlier records. The impression exists that so much was destroyed in 1922, and that little earlier survives. But in fact much remains, for example the remarkable rebellion papers from the 1790s and the unique household records of the 1901 and 1911 censes that are now accessible by internet.

At present the National Archives are mainly located in Bishop Street in the south inner city. With an architecturally-dull façade, the building is redeemed inside by an excellent reading room and a usually cheerful and obliging staff. Opened nearly 20 years ago, it was then a vast improvement to previous facilities beside the Four Courts and in Dublin Castle. But today the building appears much less suitable.  Some storage conditions are less than ideal, and increasingly records are being stored off the site. Notwithstanding staff efforts, materials get lost, mislaid and damaged. The Archives attract many types of user. From within Ireland, many come to flesh out details on their family or, on their local area. From outside Ireland come professional historians and significant numbers with genealogical and other enquiries. Those who have experience of archives in other major cities may well be appreciative of the staff, the records and the excellent web-site, but surely also perplexed that Ireland appears to give such little public recognition to its National Archives. In Washington, for example, the National Archives occupy a prominent site among government buildings and – as the home of the ‘freedom charters’ – are a major visitor attraction. In Britain, the National Archives are located out of the centre but in a superb, purpose-built facility at Kew in west London. Like Washington, it attracts and encourages large numbers of serious users as well as casual visitors.

So, could the GPO ‘work’ as a home for a greatly enhanced city library or for our National Archives? An immediate attraction is that the building appears very spacious with the capacity for extensive on-site storage. But it is its ‘presence’ and centrality that have particular appeal, providing huge potential to engage the imagination of the public. With vision, a facility might be created that could reach out and develop to be, not just a library or record office, but an expression of the heritage of people in Ireland. That would be something very different to the artefact-oriented National Museum. It might be about the population, the plain people of Dublin and Ireland, a broad project that might include, but only as part of something more inclusive, building-specific displays  featuring the postal heritage and the  experience of 1916. The great attraction of these types of use for the GPO is that it could be emotionally inclusive. A library belongs to all the people of the city, a National Archives belongs to all the people of Ireland, and each helps unravel personal stories. In either role, the building would have a civic function that could grow in tandem with the multicultural Ireland of the 21st century.

For nearly two hundred years the GPO has been a source of pride for people in Ireland. Equipped to attract, serve and excite like the great libraries of cities like Boston or Brisbane, or like the National Archives building in Washington, our GPO might continue to have a worthy role, signifying that the Irish state in its maturity reaches out to its documentary past, and recognises its significance, for all its citizens. As 2016 approaches, the opportunity is out there for debating the future of the GPO and for a major cultural initiative that would ensure its continuing centrality in Irish life.

 

Dr Arnold Horner has lectured in Geography at University College Dublin and is an occasional recreational user of libraries and National Archives.