Belfast Telegraph

Shock at cost of Co Down historian's Dublin book

A Northern Ireland academic's book on the history of Dublin's St Stephen's Green has cost the Republic's government £800 for each copy sold.

Documents released to the Irish Independent reveal the litany of delays and cost-overruns that plagued the now abandoned project to compile the official history of the Republic of Ireland's Office of Public Works (OPW).

The project has been held up as a spectacular example of wasted taxpayers’ money – as costs far exceeded initial expectations and a two-year deadline was repeatedly extended.

Correspondence shows how OPW boss Clare McGrath was forced to pull the plug on the publication after its author, Dr Desmond McCabe, wanted to extend the deadline to 2019. This would have been 17 years after he was commissioned.

Instead the OPW dramatically scaled back what they wanted, despite paying about £350,000. It was agreed the author would write a standalone title on St Stephen's Green. The book ‘St Stephen's Green 1660-1875’ has been acclaimed by critics, but has sold only 443 copies since it was published in October. The book retails at €35, which equates to a cost to the taxpayer of about €900 per copy if you take the overall €400,000 payment into account.

Documents released under Freedom of Information reveal:

  • Despite the delays, the OPW agreed to pay an extra €7,000 to complete the St Stephen's Green title, even though the entire project was initially supposed to cost €76,184.
  • An OPW official was “holding off ” the Comptroller and Auditor General after it asked when the book would be published.
  • The OPW still encountered delays even after the project was scaled back, with one OPW official in a May 2011 email to Dr McCabe stating they were “desperate” for the text and warned any delays would have “severe knock-on effects”.
  • Bizarrely, Dr McCabe said he had no interest in attending a launch for the book when it was published, but later queried ways in which the book could be better marketed, including the possibility that he would drop flyers into bookshops.
  • In correspondence, he stated he had been feeling despondent and that he had been reassured as to the value of the text when his “spirits were low”.

Despite the cost-overruns and delays, Dr McCabe, who lives in Co Down, said that in 10 years the value of the “cultural study” would become clear. He said he hoped the work would be a standalone, judged on his own merit, but he would not comment on whether he would end up completing the full history of the OPW.

The historian added that he felt he would not get a fair hearing in the media and anything he said might be “distorted”. Dr McCabe was initially contracted in 2002 by the OPW to write the official history, with a completion date of 2004.

When work was not completed by then, the deadline was extended until 2006, and later until 2009. In a meeting in October 2010, OPW chair Clare McGrath pulled the plug after Dr McCabe wanted a revised deadline from 2015 to 2019.

Ms McGrath acknowledged Dr McCabe’s work, but said that as accounting officer, she couldn't let it continue as it was. It was decided that instead Mr McCabe would complete the St Stephen's Green title.

For that, he wanted €25 per hour over an estimated 280 hours, at a total cost of €7,000. The C&AG had highlighted the project in its 2009 annual report, and the matter came before the Public Accounts Committee in October 2010 at which Ms McGrath appeared. The OPW boss commended Dr McCabe for doing “exceptional” work.

Ms McGrath was not available for comment yesterday.

Magnificent tome informs and entertains

It's a pity that Desmond McCabe's impressive book ‘St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 1660-1875’ comes with baggage attached.

This history of the first half of the life of Stephen's Green is the only part of the much larger history of the Office of Public Works (OPW), which Dr McCabe has been working on for the past nine years, to see the light of day so far.

The book is magnificent – a large format 381-page tome full of beautiful illustrations, maps and engravings, as well as an impressive history leavened with fascinating stories from the Green's early days.

It's not just a history of the Green, but of the Dublin of the time in all its changing complexity.

It all started in the early 1660s when Dublin Corporation decided to enclose the central part of what was then a much larger boggy area and to sell land around the new park for housing. Dr McCabe goes through the development of the Green and its surrounding streets over the following decades in extraordinary detail. No piece of information is too small to be left out. There is an extensive undergrowth of footnotes in which to get lost. To be fair, some of it is absolutely fascinating.

But, the forest of detail may be a clue to why Dr McCabe was having trouble finishing his masterpiece on the OPW.

His fellow historians will be impressed by the breadth and depth of Dr McCabe's research. For the ordinary reader, it may be too much of a good thing. If you stick with it (ideally stretched out on the grass in the Green over long summer afternoons) you will be endlessly entertained as well as educated in the history of the city.

You will learn, for example, that at one time the Green was reserved for keyholders, like Fitzwilliam Park still is today. Also that pickpockets and muggers were far more common around the Green than they are today. And that the Wellington Monument was originally destined for the Green before it was redirected to the Phoenix Park.

So where does the Green fit into the story of the OPW? Our OPW did not come into being with the Irish State; the original Office of Public Works was started by the British in the 1830s and it took over the management of Stephen's Green from the local householders who had taken it over from the corporation. Today's OPW still runs the Green.

Of course the story of St Stephen's Green is only a small part of the history of the OPW, before and after independence, a body that was in charge of relief works during the Famine and in later decades built many of the great public buildings we have today.

Whether Dr McCabe gets to finish his history of the OPW remains to be seen. But hopefully he will complete the story of Stephen's Green. This book, up to 1875, is only half that story. The century and a half since then in and around St Stephen's Green was even more compelling. And Dr McCabe is the best man to tell that story, even if it's at his own pace.

Belfast Telegraph


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