Yesterday evening I went along to a meeting about Balbriggan library. The venue was the upstairs floor of the Milestone Inn, a pub on Balbriggan’s main thoroughfare, which nowadays consists of so many takeaways that it hardens your arteries just trying to count them. If you are on the lookout for attractive buildings you might consider the old bank building opposite Railway Street, which was upgraded from a bank to a funeral parlour at some point during the current economic crisis.
People hold public meetings in the Milestone Inn because there is nowhere else to hold them. This last few years I have been to a number of meetings there, and have at times made up 25 percent of the public. The surroundings are perfectly suitable for a Friday night disco where people are far too interested in drinking and getting down on the dancefloor to be worried about the surroundings. When the place is deserted, as it usually is at public meetings, it feels like a scene from a David Peace novel. And you feel like one of the characters. But it’s the only place. The town doubled in size to around 20,000 over the last decade or so and a decent venue for discussing the common life of the town was never going to be high up on the planning authorities’ list of priorities: there were developer urges to be sated. Oh, and Phil Hogan decided to abolish Balbriggan Town Council -an institution over 150 years old- at the stroke of a pen. Welcome to democracy in Balbriggan.
Last night was different. My guess is 300 or so people turned up. When I got to the pub there was a queue to get in. The queue snaked through the ample enough lounge area and up the flight of stairs, and the upstairs area was bunged.
Fingal County Council has decided to move the library to a nearby former mill building. As I understand it, the intention is for the Office of Public Works to buy the mill building and then lease it to Fingal County Council, which will use it for the library and, it has been suggested, a museum. Meanwhile the library building -which also houses the soon-to-be-abolished Town Council, will be handed over to the Department of Social Protection, which will use the building as a site for one of its rebranded ‘Intreo’ centres.
The plan to move the library from its existing building has materialised without any kind of public consultation. For many people this seems to be the final straw, the ultimate expression of the contempt displayed by public authorities toward the local population.
For all the traffic that passes through it, the town centre is quite a desolate place now, with many premises closed down and boarded up, as a consequence both of the recession and the centre of commercial gravity shifting up towards the new Tesco behemoth that overlooks the town.
The library, for locals, is not just a pleasant place to go in its own right, but a public institution that is bound up with the historical memory of the community and its sense of identity. Its removal from pride of place in the town would mean, for many people, the end of the town as they knew it.
Several speakers brought up the names of people who used to work in the library, and remembered them with affection. Others spoke of childhood memories of going to the library. People seemed bewildered at the thought that what was such a precious thing for the life of the town should be taken away.
There was some speculative discussion of the financial interests operating behind the decision. Debts accumulated by Fingal County Council. The local consortium who currently own the mill building who, it was speculated, were out to make a tidy sum from the operation. The involvement of Moriarty was suggested, which sounded a rather sinister note for me since some people immediately started objecting to the naming of names, until I realised they were talking about the local supermarket and hotel magnate, not some Satanic criminal mastermind.
As far as I could see, everyone there was white. News of the meeting seemed to have spread through circuits, online and off, that involve mostly people who have lived in the place since well before its dramatic expansion. People living in the newer parts of town, where there is a greater proportion of migrants, were inevitably out of such a loop. One of the organisers referred to the fact that most of those in attendance were familiar faces, and that there was a need to encourage newer town residents to take part.
The fact that the library is to be turned into a social welfare office -as opposed to some other kind of building- seemed to be a particular cause of concern for some. One individual, with an eloquence I found unnerving, compared the “Beauty” of the library to the “Beast” of the social welfare office. One meant knowledge, culture, history. Andrew Carnegie had built a beautiful library to reflect that. Whereas the dole office, by its very nature, was a “beast of a building”. “You cannot send someone to collect his dole cheque in a building that reflects wealth, affluence and beauty”, he said, in an observation that many people saw fit to applaud.
By the standards of North County Dublin property developers, Andrew Carnegie can look like something approaching a secular saint. But his beneficial legacy to Balbriggan in the form of a pleasant library building can obscure some uncomfortable truths. “There are higher uses for surplus wealth than adding petty sums to the earnings of the masses”, he wrote. “Trifling sums given to each every week or month…would be frittered away, nine times out of 10, in things which pertain to the body and not to the spirit.”
Carnegie worked vigorously to smash organised labour at his factories and introduced 12 hour days. He was a devotee of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinist view of the survival of the fittest. Contrary to what some people seem to think, Carnegie would have endorsed the financial suffocation of local councils in the pursuit of profit. He would have had no problem with the removal of public services that got in the way of wealth accumulation by the high and mighty. If profit meant demoralising a community and driving it into ignorance by mothballing a library and consigning it to museum status, he would have given it the thumbs up without hesitation. He would see nothing wrong with forcing a trade-off between a decent public library and decent social welfare services, or with ratcheting down the quality of both.
If Balbriggan library occupies a special place in local people’s affections it isn’t because of an enlightened social vision on the part of Andrew Carnegie -who accumulated his vast wealth through the ruthless exploitation of multitudes- but because of what local people and those who have worked in it have done with it down through the years. It ought to be possible to campaign for both a decent and flourishing public library and decent social welfare services in the town without having to see it in terms of the Beast of unemployed masses out to devour the Beauty of the library.
The meeting exposed the threadbare quality of municipal politics in the town. After a couple of candidates to the upcoming local election had given a couple of brief but hardly electioneering statements supportive of the meeting and of keeping the library where it is, one Town Councillor stood up and denounced the fact that the meeting had turned “political”, and then left. As if a meeting to prevent a public library from being moved were not by its very nature political, and as if Fingal County Council were not a political institution, and as if he himself were not a politician! In Balbriggan as in many other parts of Ireland, politics is constantly presented as something practised by politicians, not everyday people. This is an image of politics that many politicians, of course, are more than happy to maintain.
On the whole, people seemed buoyed by the sense that after a long time sitting around muttering about the state of things in private, this was a public sign that people really did care about their town and were not willing to be trampled on any longer. Some people spoke with passion and emotion about “taking the town back” (but from whom?). Clare Daly, one of the local TDs, received the biggest applause of the night when she said that in a strange way, the attempt to move the library was in a way one of the best things to happen to the town since it had resulted in such a show of strength, the biggest such meeting in any town in the Fingal area in recent years. There will be a protest on February 10th outside the County Council Offices in Swords, and petitions to be circulated.