Most Dubliners can recall the sight of unusually-dressed adolescents gathering in Central Bank Plaza on Dame Street. These teenagers often sported a variety of long blue bangs, band shirts, piercings, and sometimes broke out in impromptu musical performances. We know subcultures such as punks, goths, rockers and skaters. Some will be familiar with emos, spicers or scenes. But do you know of the ‘bankies’? These Irish-based adolescents were named after the national institution they gathered outside. They encompassed many subcultures within one community, one’s tastes or identity did not matter for inclusion. It was a community where simply being different was celebrated and safe. You might have been a rocker, a goth, a rap music fan or pop music fan.
Central Bank Plaza’s origins as a hangout space for the goth and punk scenes seem to have started in the 1980s . This may have been partly due its proximity to numerous alternative shops and venues in the pre-gentrified Temple Bar, which was a hub of sorts for alternative music cultures. Large open spaces have typically been a rarity in Dublin city centre, as a space it was quite adaptable, being capable of holding protests, rallies or simply offering a respite in the city with benches and a south-facing aspect. The deep cantilever of the former Central Bank also provided a degree of shelter during rainfall. The location has been favoured in the past for many high-profile protests such as ‘Occupy Dame Street’. For a five-month period in 2012, pallets, tents and makeshift structures adorned the plaza in a protest against economic injustice and inequality.
Over time, the groups occupying Central Bank Plaza claimed the space, some even formed their identity around its location. In sharp aesthetic contrast to the anti-establishment style of punks, goths, and rockers, the Central Bank building, designed in 1980 by Sam Stephenson, was brutalist in style and authoritative in character. This begs the question, is the Central Bank Plaza an accidental success story for ad-hoc usage of an urban space? It was undoubtedly never designed for with these particular end-users in mind. I endeavoured to find out why it was popular through a series of interviews with former bankies.
One regular attendee, Jack Barrett, believed its popularity was an indication of the lack of good public spaces in the city suburbs:
’I guess it started for me, and probably for a good few people, because of where we grew up. I'm from Drimnagh, just outside the city centre. It's a very working-class area and even now, there are not a whole lot of amenities or things to do for kids from that 12-16 age range – if you're not into like football or normal things – so town was the best place for us to go to on weekends to have something to do’ .
Jack added that back in the days when communication with peers was more sporadic, through online services like Bebo/MSN, it was easier to agree on a familiar and established location such as the Central Bank when organising a meet-up, with less chances for confusion or required clarification . The Central Bank had instant name recognition and was an urban landmark for wayfinding. Thoughts of security were critical for young adolescents. In a central, busy area, the location had visibility and passive surveillance. As Bebhinn Cullen, a frequent attendee, noted:
‘It was just a landmark that was close to everywhere and safe because we were out in the open and there was really nowhere else for us to go in town! Stephens Green was an option, but it had a closing time and was a bit dangerous too ... Everyone's bus stop was close. And we were never told to move on for loitering’ .
Cullen added that being able to see business workers constantly passing by, including in the Central Bank itself, was a reminder of the passive security, expecting you would likely not be harmed in such a visible location . The plaza was very well-served by public transport.
Once occupied, the space could be animated and unpredictable. Bebhinn reminisces on how you could go to meet a friend and a few hours later you may be involved in recording a music video for a rap song . Many of the attendees of the plaza would have been considered different by regular society, given their alternative choice of clothing and hairstyles. However, this ‘otherness’ extended past musical or stylistic subcultures into minority communities such as the LGBTQI+ community.
Lynn McGrane, a self-proclaimed bankie who met her husband during their teen years at Central Bank Plaza, discussed how a vast portion of the group were members of the LGBTQI+ community. In fact, it would have been common to see large groups holding rainbow flags as cloaks on the plaza on pride days. McGrane notes:
‘The thing that above all else we all had in common is that we just weren't considered normal. Because of how we've come on in the last few years, people often forget how far behind Ireland was in terms of social progression’ .
Only thirty years ago, in the 1990s, same-sex sexual activity was illegal . Those with shorter memories may be shocked that there was such a recent time when being a part of the LGBTQI+ community in Ireland was dangerous in public. That said, even today we still hear too often of malicious attacks on individuals for merely not disguising their sexuality in Dublin city .
The bankies’ home in Central Bank started to come to an end when it was announced that the plaza was being sold to private developers in 2017 . Initial speculation of the privatisation of the space caused unease within the community, for whom the place had personal and collective significance. The loss of public space to gentrification is not unusual, however in this case the development heralded the potential destruction of the bankies’ ‘natural habitat’. Developers, elected officials, and detached members of the public may have seen gentrification of this urban space as a way to remove the 'nuisance' of loitering teenagers. Drug and alcohol use was a regular hobby of some attendees . This may have provided an argument for redevelopment as a means to apparently limit anti-social behaviour. Similar unease was created during the late 1990s, with defensive railings erected outside the steps of Central Bank, preventing access due to claims of anti-social behaviour .
Where are the bankies now? Some sources claim that they have relocated to an area dubbed ‘emo green’ within Stephens Green. Ultimately, Central Bank Plaza unwittingly provided a space in our community for alternative outsiders and LGBTQI+ people for over three decades. Urban planners and designers can learn from this; safe spaces for vulnerable adolescents in our cities should be celebrated and preserved. Nothing could be considered more punk and anti-establishment than the bankies of Central Bank Plaza bravely celebrating their differences loud and proud, in the public view of those that would call them unsightly. As Lynn McGrane astutely described it:
‘As f**ked up as we all were (are?), in one way or another, being around others who were willing to talk about it when everyone else wanted you to just be quiet and conform was just amazing’ .
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