The Phoenix opinion column, which has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years, as published in this week’s print edition
PARIS, France, as distinct from Paris, Texas, is, as everyone who has ever been there knows, dripping with art, cultural institutions, museums and exhibition spaces of all kinds. Culture and an appreciation of art and that city’s place in the scheme of things have always been at the centre of the life of the great French capital city. The loss of Notre Dame and its current rebuilding are an example to the world of determination to maintain and preserve the city’s patrimony.
It was amazing to read that yet another new facility, Paris’ former stock exchange, the Bourse de Commerce, reopened its doors this week having undergone a $195 million transformation into a new landmark museum for contemporary art. Three years in the making, the redesign was led by Japanese architect Tadao Ando and supported by a team of Parisian architects, including NeM Architects Agency. The expansive space, stretching over 10,000 square meters (more than 100,000 square feet), will house the contemporary art collection of French billionaire François Pinault. The Parisians believe that you can never have enough of a good thing, especially if it means that a wonderful historic building can be repurposed to house a magnificent art collection.
‘Augustus found Rome as a city of brick and died leaving it as a glorious city of marble’
Readers will forgive me for mentioning Waterford city in the same breath as Paris, although pride of place is probably a shared virtue, but it is incredible to see what an enlightened Waterford City and County Council is achieving in the Viking Triangle under the leadership of council CEO Michael Walsh. Our city may not be the favourite child of the current or recent political dispensations, but our long history and place in the national scheme of things cannot be denied. Everyone knows of the wonderful work done in the Bishop’s Palace and the Medieval Museum. These are cultural spaces to equal, Euro for Euro, anything that Paris has to offer. The two new kids on the block, the Irish Silver Museum and the Museum of Time, otherwise known as the National Horological Museum, are jaw dropping in their ambition and presentation. Local property developer Noel Frisby generously funded the silver museum in the old Deanery building in Cathedral Square. It has been turned into an awesome Harry Potteresque Gringott’s treasury. It also contains, for local interest, the shop and studio of local goldsmith Paul Sullivan. How cool is that?
A hundred yards away is the new Museum of Time in Greyfriars. This superb space has been developed thanks to the enlightened and extraordinary generosity of two Dublin collectors, David Boles and Coleman Curran. Their magnificent collections of rare timepieces from every era create an exhibition unrivalled, on its subject, in any other city in Ireland. The fact that two historic buildings to house these spectacular international quality exhibitions were provided is a credit to the council and indeed to its elected members who continually support the good work being done.
Politics may try to sideline us and policy may try to ignore us, but the bedrock constant which no one can deny is that we are citizens of no mean city.
If I could interject one sour note into these few words about the museums, it would be to say that national cultural policy refuses to recognise any of the museums in Waterford as being national cultural institutions. I understand that the Glucksman Gallery in Cork, the Hunt Museum in Limerick and the Galway city museum are all supported with an annual stipend from the state. It is amazing that excellent council sponsored work in Waterford cannot benefit from the same largesse.
Anyone who has seen the Galway City museum, and this is not schadenfreude, knows that it is quite a poor offering, which does not hold a candle to what has been done in Waterford, yet it still receives national funding. It is in its own small way another indication of the different treatment constantly meted out to Waterford.
We rely on our own efforts and pride and place all the time and it is neither fair nor equitable. There are five cities in the country. We seek no comparison with Dublin or even Cork, but Limerick and Galway were long considered to be our peer cities. That relationship has been stretched to breaking point by recent Fine Gael governments.
The deeply ironic gaslighting of Waterford city by Leo Varadkar only underlines an appalling political cynicism. He can come and drown us in smashing words and sentiment, only to forget where we exist on his way back up the M9. I wrongly believed when he was elevated to Taoiseach that he might have some scintilla of respect or interest in his mother’s home county, but experience has sadly shown otherwise.
The foregoing was written in the context of the remorseless self-examination locally about the North Quays, following the collapse of the Falcon Real Estate deal. Maybe things could have been done better, maybe the council could have called time on Falcon at an earlier stage, but that would be to deny the slowness of national policy and indeed national planning systems when it comes to new building. The saga of the €850 million Athenry data centre or the Glanbia cheese plant at Belview must be eye openers for people from other countries where developments can be fast tracked in the national interest.
On the North Quays it is as well to reflect that it is only latterly, five years after the area was designated for development in an SDZ (in 2016 by Alan Kelly TD) that the government coughed up the funding required for infrastructure. Very welcome it was too. Very welcome also is confirmation that URDF funding will be available regardless of what developer tackles the site.
It is essential that there is a thorough reassessment of the North Quays project. The retail, hotel and office sectors are in flux and no one really has a clear view of the near future. These sectors will change but continue to exist. Internet shopping will hurt conventional retail but will not kill it. Covid will alter offices and hotels but these facilities will still be necessary. The North Quays is a wonderful site. A new development scheme should be approached on the basis of the motto of the Roman emperor Augustus, “festina lente” (make haste slowly), probably with a series of different developers for different areas. Augustus, by the way, found Rome as a city of brick and died leaving it as a glorious city of marble.
Whatever is now done on the North Quays must be considered in the light of the best possible design and architecture. We, or our grandchildren’s children, will be looking across the river at whatever is ultimately built, for the next 150 to 200 years. Paris should be the watchword. French Huguenot immigrants gave us the layout of our great quays in 1705 as Waterford emerged from the wreckage of the 17th century into an 18th century golden age. We need to apply the same style and sensitivity to the North Quays.
While this reassessment is going on for the North Quays we need a realistic, street by street analysis of the old city. The development of Michael Street and Newgate Street has to be brought front and centre. Dereliction and empty site surface car parking has to be tackled head on, remembering the words of economist David McWilliams that empty buildings are signs of too much money. Our historic “old Town” must be presented as a shining cultural jewel. The Viking Triangle shows the way.