Expansion controversy surrounds the Jewish Museum

Photo: Rebecca Duffy

Photo: Rebecca Duffy

By Lee Bonass and Joan Byrne

Controversy has surrounded the Irish Jewish Museum on Walworth Road in Portobello, since plans for expansion were announced in 2012.

The plan included enlarging their current premises to merge with three adjoining houses. Planning permission was granted by Dublin City Council in April and many local residents objected to the scale of the plans.

They also felt that the application was submitted without much consultation with the residents.

Residents feel that an expansion of this scale would destroy this area of the traditional Portobello neighbourhood, a warren of narrow streets and 19th century red-brick houses. The plan would include the demolition of the three adjoining houses purchased by the museum and installing a new entrance on Kingsland Parade.

The three houses on Walworth Road have been empty since 2009 and are in poor condition.

Until December, an appeal lodged by seven individuals to An Bord Pleanála appeared to hold weight.  In an oral hearing in November, the appellants were satisfied they had won much of the argument against planning approval.

However, An Bord Pleanála upheld the decision made by DCC to allow the museum to expand in order to incorporate larger facilities; a basement, a multi-story exhibition space, a newly appointed synagogue, a Holocaust exhibition area and a cafe.

The museum, operated by members of the Irish Jewish Committee and volunteers, was established in 1984 by Raphael Siev and is currently housed in two mid-terrace traditional Victorian red-bricks.

Before his death in 2009, Siev purchased the three adjoining houses and bequeathed them to the museum, to ensure its expansion.

The building is well preserved architecturally – a creaky wooden staircase allows access to the old synagogue, a beautiful wood-panelled room that takes the top floor.  The main exhibition space is on the ground floor.

The synagogue was popular until the 1950s, a period when the Jewish community in Ireland experienced a great exodus.   Many migrated after the war to the newly established Israel, to the US and the UK.  Remaining numbers moved out to the suburbs of Dublin.  The synagogue ultimately fell into disuse in the 1970s until it was restored in the establishment of the current museum.

The Irish Jewish Committee stress that the current premises are not fit for purpose.  The museum stores contain art and historical treasures that the IJC say need more exposure, but the museum display space is inadequate.  One example is the ‘Weingreen Collection’ which chronicles the liberation of Belsen.

The aims of the IJC when establishing the museum were to promote and preserve artefacts relating to the history of Jews of Ireland.  They would also like to provide a library resource centre and promote education and research relating to Jewish Ireland.

The IJC feel a particular affiliation with the area due to Portobello’s historical significance in the history of Jewish Ireland.  This, along with Siev’s wishes for the museum to remain in the same location, is a reason why they would like the museum to stay in Portobello.

‘Little Jerusalem’ in Portobello, was for a long time considered the heart of Jewish heritage in Ireland.   At the turn of the 20th century, Irish Jews accounted for 4,800 of the population, the majority living in Dublin.

When the IJM took ownership of the site, Taoiseach Enda Kenny declared his support for the plan, citing in an Irish Times interview the museum as “a significant resource in the cultural life of the [Irish] State” and commending its key role in Holocaust education and the government’s anti-racism programme.

Howard Friedman, a volunteer at the Jewish Museum, is emphatic about the importance of the museum’s place in Dublin.  ‘’The greatest contribution of the Museum is to education. Children from all religions are very badly served in Irish schools – the museum is of great interest to them.’’

Residents continue to oppose the development plans which they believe will not only ruin the residential area but ultimately undermine its heritage. An issue of even greater concern is their belief that the construction may damage current foundations and walls of the 19th Century houses and even affect the water table.  The houses were built before public water and sewerage systems were in place.

The construction would necessitate the use of large drilling equipment to build the new basement of the museum – the equipment would need to excavate to at least a depth of six metres to accommodate the 30 x 20 metre room.

Technical advisors representing the residents that oppose the expansion suggest that an excavation of this scale would have a detrimental effect on the foundations of the buildings – perhaps not in the initial phase but in the years following construction.

The building is located close to the Grand Canal and they say houses here subject to construction will bear a significant risk in developing rising damp.

Residents feel the planned construction would impinge on the quality of their daily lives. The work would take approximately 18 months. The neighbourhood is currently zoned as a Z2 residential area and children often play on the quiet residential streets.

Upon completion of the museum, the IJC hopes that it will attract around 50,000 visitors a year, increasing the current footfall by 500 percent.

Ultimately, An Bord Pleanála decided that the proposed development would not seriously impair the visual aspects or residential amenities of the area.  In addition, the development would not affect public health or pose a flood risk and would be acceptable in terms of current traffic safety measures and convenience. Senior An Bord Pleanála inspector Tom Rabbette, concluded in his 77 page report that the expansion of the museum would be ‘‘a significant cultural asset to Portobello and the city’’.

After the appeal was over-ruled, the residents (appellants) and their advisors were shocked and dismayed at the decision.

Resident Paul Donnelly thought that ‘‘no way, on planning grounds, could this go against us’.  The feeling amongst the residents was that after such long deliberations that their arguments would prevail.

‘‘I’m annoyed and angry that the system doesn’t seem to work very well.’’ Donnelly said.

The residents who are against the development have eight weeks from the appeal decision to lodge a further appeal.  They are considering their options.

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