The future of Poolbeg: Are the odds stacked in its favour?

Anna Sheehan reflects on the history of the Poolbeg towers

This year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first tower, the Poolbeg stacks apprehensively await the ruling of their fate. Visible from many of the city’s quarters the twin red and white chimneys are catalysing much debate at present, following a jarring announcement from Dublin City Council earlier this month. The Council cautioned that the stacks may need to be encased in fibreglass or concrete to ensure their long-term stability; a manoeuvre that would both “alter the appearance and integrity” of the structures, and cost several million to the state.

Soaring more than 200m above the Irish Sea, the Poolbeg towers have been lauded for symbolising Dublin City, yet few can offer any real or substantial explanation for this claim. Albeit allegedly unwelcome to begin with, the towers now command a sort of je ne sais quoi, beguiling more and more Dubliners with their spell each year. And staying on the French theme, the story of Poolbeg can, in fact, be likened to that of the Eiffel Tower, which initially attracted grave hostility, before winning over the hearts of Parisians and French alike. Donal Fallon, a local historian and podcast-producer related the allure of the chimneys to the Mona Lisa. “You spot them in the most surprising places,” he said. “They seem to follow you everywhere you go, looking at you all the time as you as you go across Dublin.”

The chimneys were constructed in 1971 and 1978 respectively, coinciding with a burgeoning demand for electricity, in what was a time of epochal advance for the city. Fallon noted in his podcast that the antagonistic attitudes towards the towers back then were in fact grounded in fear of pollution rather than appearance: “The Evening Herald reported in 1972 that housewives of Sandymount area got wash day blues on the double when smut and black lines ruined the Monday wash.”

 By the 1980s, Poolbeg assimilated itself into Ireland’s rock and roll scene, popping up in music videos like U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love) and Phil Lynott’s Old Town, as well as in a particularly legendary press shot of Elvis Costello. On a more ominous note, however, the towers also began to embody a generation of mass emigration in the eighties. For many they were the last glimpse of home as they set sail for England in search of work and a livelihood. 

Following on into the 1990s the Poolbeg stacks began to infiltrate the arts and culture arena and continue to do so up to the present day.

The connected power plants halted production approximately a decade ago and the chimneys were decommissioned in 2006 and 2010. 2014 saw the proposals of some unparalleled restoration ideas, like Michael O’ Mara’s solution which conjoined the towers with a sky bridge, or Patrick O’Reilly’s bid to illuminate them. While neither such endeavours materialised, the structures still stand today and are ubiquitous in Dublin craft, painting, store logos, and street art.  Given their now defunct nature, the dispute around the towers’ “symbol” status remains contested, yet the question of their future is dichotomous: let live or let die?

26-year-old Conor Duffy grew up in Sandymount, the perfect vantage point from which to admire Poolbeg. Having relocated from his home of Dublin to London over a year ago, Conor now finds himself yearning for his former daily vista. Like many    Dubliners, Conor is adamant that the chimneys ought to stay in place.  

“I attach a huge amount of personal pride to these towers.” 

“I attach a huge amount of personal pride to these towers,” he explained. “Friends of mine have them inked on their bodies; when I moved abroad my mother packed me a print of them to remind me of home; I have them as my phone screensaver. They offer comfort to those away from home.”

Like many, Conor sees few other Dublin landmarks being as emotionally resonant as the Poolbeg chimneys. “Lansdowne Road is now a personality-lacking glass bowl named after an insurance company,” he began. “The Spire is universally regarded as borderline embarrassing. All modifications to existing landmarks, or efforts to generate new ones, have been a huge disaster and the public generally ends up being the loser.”

“Retaining Dublin’s sense of identity should be top of the agenda. As a capital city, we lack a host of landmarks; we cannot afford to lose one of our most beloved and iconic ones,” he continued. “The Poolbeg Towers hold a huge emotional attachment for many in Dublin City. You can see them from the Northside, the Southside; they are the first thing you identify as you approach Dublin via plane or ferry. They symbolise ‘Ah, we are home’.”

Conor is insistent that the Poolbeg stacks represent a hugely untapped opportunity from a tourism standpoint. “There are hordes of people who travel from all over Dublin to walk along the strand to see and savour the towers,” he urged. “They are recognised nationally. In normal times Dublin is a top destination for weekend trips. I believe Poolbeg could be leveraged to draw some of the tourist euros away from Temple Bar and reroute them in the Ringsend direction.”

He admitted however that “this would require investment and imagination from our locally elected representatives, as well as support from the public at large outside of the Dublin 4 bubble, all of which could be difficult”.

On the contrary, there are those who render the chimneys a complete and utter eyesore, holding Dublin’s natural wonders such as Dublin Bay along with Bray and Howth Heads, in much higher esteem. Jane Keenan was born and bred in Terenure, a proud Dubliner, but unlike Conor, is a strong opponent of Poolbeg’s restoration.

 “To be honest, I find it quite bizarre to think that people consider them iconic”, she began. “I guess if you lived in Sandymount all your life, then maybe such a claim is justifiable. But I feel there are a lot of people who just adopt this belief because they see the towers all the time, yet they wouldn’t actually be able to tell you anything about their history.”

“To declare that the city’s culture and heritage are rooted in these marmite monstrosities is outlandish in my eyes.”

Regarding the towers being an emblem of the city, Jane couldn’t agree less. “I actually never would’ve even considered them a symbol of Dublin until this decision about their future came to light recently,” she said. “They’re not old enough to represent a significant era in Dublin’s history. To declare that the city’s culture and heritage are rooted in these marmite monstrosities is outlandish in my eyes. I actually prefer the Spire.”

“It’s going to cost a fortune to maintain them, too,” Jane went on. “They are dysfunctional and an expense to the ESB as it is; having them accumulate a further few million in restoration costs is completely unnecessary. We are living in a pandemic after all, with millions of people waiting to be vaccinated, and thousands more unable to access routine healthcare. I can certainly see better uses for state money.”

As is the case with numerous Irish landmarks, opinions around the Poolbeg towers are polarising. While some see them as beautiful, allegorical monuments, to others they are merely unpleasant blots on the landscape, signifying nothing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. But whether they are beautiful or not, the towers cannot be maintained without gargantuan preservation efforts.To that effect, perhaps the cost of demolition would be weighed up against that of maintenance. 

Alas this debate encapsulates so much more than money matters. It is rooted in the towers’ affiliated symbolism, sense of identity and heritage; or lack thereof. And as the ESB continues to work closely with Dublin City Council on the fate of the chimneys, it must be decided: are the Poolbeg stacks a pivotal part of the capital’s skyline, or is it simply the dearth of an actual skyline that makes so many Dubliners believe so?