The form of the city

The second in a series of articles by Mary O’Malley exploring the concept of civic space in Galway

Sunday morning and the sun is shining after Saturday’s rain. The sky is that clear October blue, the air tastes of autumn. The drive over the Quincentennial Bridge, past the military bulk of the CT Electric building, the utilitarian Mulvoy Park, all along the roundabouts and left, past the industrial estates, past the brown blockhouse Telecom building, takes me into old Mervue.

There is no sea view now, at least not from the large central green, but there is water. The silver taps of the city council’s safe supply are shining in the sun. I park opposite a low row of shops, a butcher, a barber, a pharmacy and an Oriental restaurant, all in a row beside the post office. Further along is the booth where the shoe repair man works. I came here first in the late eighties, held brief written exchanges with the shoemaker, returning at the appointed time to collect my mended footwear. All are closed today, except for Londis. A little boy is running along the pavement. An old man walks his collie along the green. The little boy reaches the end of the pavement and stops. A car slows to let him cross, but he changes his mind and streaks back the way he came. His father emerges from a car and together they go into the shop. Londis is bright and well stocked. A group of teenagers are coming out as I enter. One holds the door open. The woman behind the counter is friendly. A young man carries my briquettes to the car, chatting easily about the weather. A couple stroll in for the papers.

The streets here are at angles to the green and one another. The longer rows of houses are punctuated with a single acute angle of a steep roof, below which an arch leads the eye and the occupant through into a hidden space behind the house. Those houses, their bedrooms perched over the arch, fascinated me when I first came here. They serve no obvious purpose, but indicate at the very least a horse, carriage, stables at the back. They lend an air of mystery to the otherwise ordinary streets. I try not to stare up at the coveted rooms above the arches as I pass. Three dogs play on a lawn. The big lab ambles to greet me.

Where Emmet Avenue meets Parnell Avenue there is another small green. Tall sunflowers make a bright splash in a front garden. On Mc Donagh Avenue a thin Buddha sits on the sill, his elegant back towards the street. There are trees, but no seating that I can see. Telephone and ESB wires criss-cross the horizon and the red and white tower of a telecommunications mast rises up on one side. Nearby a white crane idles. There is a sense of ease, of safety here.

On the way through Ballybane, I meet a man walking two weimaraners. Silvery pink, with their strange green eyes, they remind me of lovely dead Cleo. I turn back and ask their owner about them. They are friendly, well behaved, and not remotely like Cleo, nor like Sappho, given to me as consolation and so funny I soon stopped resenting her. She used to stand at the window so forlorn that someone once offered her a lace handkerchief. The owner doesn’t mind my interest. We talk about how to handle these gorgeous dogs, their beauty. How quickly we are banished from this Sunday morning world domesticity.

I drive on, past the car dealerships, the Clayton Hotel, reminded of Paul Muldoon’s poem mistranslated into French as ‘The Ballygawley Carousel’, because the French could not imagine anyone going on a Sunday drive to see a new roundabout.

I negotiate several before taking a left at the Briarhill Shopping Centre and into Doughiska, left again into a new estate. There are no more front gardens, only car ports. There are many apartments, at angles to a very large green area. A game of football is in progress, young boys being coached. Many of the houses have a view of a solid grey block wall that girds the estate. There is something unsettling about the narrow entrance, the bareness. There are no shops here. Then I see them, six dogs lined up at the edge of the green. A man is standing behind them. They are all blue. They are not real. Paol Simon’s Renee Magritte with his wife Georgette and their dog after the war. I sing softly. I am glad of the daylight.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are no flesh and blood dogs to be seen. I leave, feeling that I might be hallucinating.

I go into three other settlements, estates, developments. I count two bus stops. Neither has a shelter. Neither has a seat. They are very exposed. There is very little sidewalk. This is no place for the old. Nor the young, if they are pushing buggies or prams. I see neither park, nor swimming pool nor football pitch, though I read that there are plans afoot by a developer for a leisure and sports centre, that residents will get a good rate during hours set aside for the public. Is this good enough?

I see a few teenagers hanging about with what could be intent. What on earth can they do here? What can anyone do? There is about the area a sense of apartness, of isolation. The hoardings outside a new development look like Dunne’s Stores interiors. The outside looks grim, like a fort. There is a rash of auctioneers signs. This could be anywhere. That is true of most estates when new, but scale and amenities and corner shops are basic requirements for civilised life in most countries. All are in short supply here.

There is an awful lot of Doughiska. It feels like a very big building site. There are wrought iron gates denoting the entrance to places with improbable Irish names carved into stone. One has lettering resplendent in mirrors. You could say the names have no streets.

Who planned this? Why do the residents not deserve bus shelters? How do the mothers keep their children dry? Or safe?

I drive through, across the main road at Roscam. There is Mass at 11 o’clock in the GAA Centre. It is now two in the afternoon.

Last year, a friend drove me through Moss Side, a notoriously troubled part of Manchester. There was nothing much wrong with the houses in Moss Side, apart from the burnt out shells, the occasional boarded up window or door, the sense of fear and human despair that thickened the air. That and the feeling of being in a ghetto, a place apart, a place where you could easily be trapped.

Unaccountably, I thought about Moss Side all day, about how a development becomes a place to be proud of, to belong to. Or doesn’t.

On the way home, on instinct I took a detour into an estate in the western part of the city. It was as empty and dead as when I lived there some years ago. Not a child played on the ample green, not a soul was abroad on a fine Sunday afternoon. When I first moved there, I felt as if a huge spaceship had landed in a field, and might take off again any minute. The houses were well appointed. The neighbours were a mysterious absence. My cat Fiddles voted with her feet and ran away repeatedly. When I moved a few hundred yards away to Friar’s Hill, she climbed onto a chair, fell asleep and never once wandered. The houses in Friar’s Hill are funky, the neighbours gracious and the view varied. Sitting in the car at the edge of the other estate, I understood the instinct that had brought me back: the high stone walls, the empty green, the sense of isolation were not some demographic accidents, but came from a very physical source. Due to the high stone walls and the small entrance, there was no horizon. There was, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, no there there.

Why the siege architecture, the pillars and stone gated entrances? Like a late night pilot who becomes disorientated, did the city planners over the last 15 years lose their horizon, so that they didn’t know which way was up?

Galway has no city architect. There are associate architects, but no one responsible for an overall aesthetic. As a result, brown brick meets mellow yellow in a sort of messy accident. Brown is an evil colour, in the western light.

Roscommon has an architect, Mayo has, Westport has. But then Galway has no seats with backs, no public toilets, and you are likely to be closer to a sex shop than a litter bin.

Mícheál Mac Liammóir’s poem ‘Gaillimh’, opens with a question:

Ca bhfuil na súile agat,

A Éire chroga chaidh?

It goes on to mention ‘…tithe beaga / mar boscaí stain.’ Mean houses like tin boxes. A question for the city council, now that the money has been wasted: Who’ll feed the blue dogs of Doughiska?

Valerie Ledwith’s talk on geography and planning will take place on Tuesday October 14 at 8pm in the Siobhan McKenna theatre and will be followed by a discussion.

• The London based Faber poet Maurice Riordan will read at 8pm next Thursday, October 16, at the same place. All are welcome.

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