A controversial plan to convert the location of the setting of James Joyce’s famous short story, 'The Dead' on Dublin’s quays into a 54-bed hostel has been approved by An Bord Pleanála.
The board rejected an appeal by a number of parties including author Colm Tóibín and heritage group An Taisce against the decision of Dublin City Council last October to grant planning permission for the project.
More than 100 leading figures from the worlds of literature, film, and academics, including Edna O’Brien, Salman Rushdie, Richard Ford, Anne Enright, Michael Ondaatje, Sally Rooney, Lenny Abrahamson, John Banville, and Kevin Barry, supported an objection initiated by Mr Tóibín and academic John McCourt, who claimed the plans for the hostel would “destroy an essential part of Ireland’s cultural heritage".
Others who supported their appeal included authors Ian McEwan, Patrick McCabe, and Dermot Bolger; poets Eavan Boland and Paul Muldoon; historian Roy Foster; and theatre director, Garry Hynes.
The ruling will allow developers Fergus McCabe and Brain Stynes to refurbish 15 Usher’s Island — which is a protected structure — and convert the four-storey building from its former use as a visitor centre into a tourist hostel with a café at basement level.
Consultants acting for the developers claimed the building had fallen into disrepair and the plans for a hostel represented an opportunity to secure its remaining historic and cultural value as well as allowing guests to stay “in a unique heritage building”.
They said the café would also allow the public to continue to have access to the Joycean building and they envisaged some space within the café could be used for cultural displays associated with Joyce.
They reduced the original number of bed spaces from 56 to 54.
In its ruling, An Bord Pleanála said the proposed development was in accordance with the policy of the Dublin City Development Plan and would not detract from the visual amenities of the area or adjoining protected structures.
It directed that the hostel should only be used for tourist use on a short-term basis and for no other purpose.
An inspector with An Bord Pleanála said the building’s architectural heritage and cultural significance was not in question.
However, the inspector said the desirability for a certain use over another was not a justifiable reason for refusing the application planning permission.
“A cultural use may well be the most desirable use in an ideal world,” he observed.
The inspector said it could be argued that the last permitted use of the building, which was cultural in nature, failed to guarantee its ongoing active use and maintenance of the structure.
“The best way to preserve a structure of architectural heritage is to provide it with an ongoing use in which it is occupied and maintained,” he added.
The inspector noted the plans do not alter the historical layout of the structure or remove any of the features specifically mentioned in 'The Dead'.
Despite some reservations about the proposed refurbishment of the building, Dublin City Council concluded that the change of use to a tourist hostel would be “the best way to secure its long-term conservation". The house, which was built in 1775, was rented by Joyce’s great aunts in the 1890s where they were often visited by their great-nephew.
In his appeal, Mr Tóibín claimed the interior of the building had retained the character of the house since the time it was the setting for Joyce’s famous short story from his 1914 collection, Dubliners.
Mr Tóibín said a failure to save the house would undermine Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature.
The council’s ruling was also appealed by the Friends of Joyce Tower in Sandycove, while the Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht had raised concerns that the conversion of the building for hostel accommodation was inappropriate for the character of such an historic structure.
Charles Hulgraine of the Friends of Joyce Tower Society said he was disappointed with the outcome.
“Not alone is there the loss of the Joyce house, it is a bad planning decision,” said Mr Hulgraine.