Uirbeacha Láithreach (Instant Urban)
by Alan Mee
When travelling the Irish countryside, it is not unusual nowadays to come upon a car showroom in a pastoral setting, apartments in fields on country roads, and other arguably instant indicators of the Irish urban condition. It has been suggested that the island is now so urban that most of us expect to be able to buy a good Latte within 15 minutes driving, wherever we are. How this aspiration will fit with the Core Strategy and settlement hierarchy intentions of our legislators remains to be seen, but the gradations of urban, and some of the facts of the occurrence of the current and historic urban condition, are of interest.
The history of what has been urban on the island is a fascinating area, one which still seems open for examination and investigation at many scales. An ISUF Paper by Loughlin Kealy and Anngret Simms of 2008  has many insights, including the proposition by Wallace that “urbanism took root in Dublin before the end of the ninth century”, stressing the importance of early property boundaries, though this view was contested by medieval historian H.B. Clarke, who warned that “house plots standing side by side cannot be used as a sole criterion for urban form”. Andrew Kincaid, suggests in his 2006 book  that urbanism and architecture arrived with the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century. It seems that a fuller account of the lineage of Irish urban form would be of interest, particularly given the recent expansion of the areas of Irish studies, urban geography, and the humanities generally here.
Amongst our archaeological sites, Clonmacnoise in particular suggests urbanity with churches located less than three metres apart, facing west, alongside each other. At its peak, it is suggested that up to two thousand people could have lived here, before the rise of Athlone as a crossing point to the north. Almost no above ground evidence of this level of urban density remains, though archaeology has established the urban nature of the place to the extent that the recent draft nomination for inclusion on the World Heritage List is titled “The Monastic City of Clonmacnoise and its Cultural Landscape”. The statement in support of the nomination suggests that, as an urban place, “its dates are relatively early in the chronology of the urban development outside the boundaries of the old Roman Empire”.
On an entirely more modest level, anyone who has studied a rural Ordnance Survey Map will know of historic clachans , nucleated groups of farmhouses, which have mainly disappeared over time, but once strongly represented communal and social space in rural Ireland, despite the absence of shops or other service functions. Another spatial manifestation was the handball alley, sometimes located at rural crossroads, and representing public life that was shared and enjoyed locally. Indeed many instances of built crossroads invited social functions over time, even if they have mostly died and rotted back into the ground at this stage.
The appearance, disappearance and re-emergence of the urban condition in unexpected places is not so new here, and may be testament to the fact that the landscape, as well as being intensely inhabited at certain times, and socially and culturally rich, also has the ability to change physically quite quickly in relative terms. Derry O’Connell, at the School of Planning and Environmental Policy at UCD, has undertaken a study of Irish satellite morphotopes, with the morphotope being defined as “the smallest distinct type of morphological region” . He has examined these in relation to the small Irish town, showing somewhat hopeful isolated urban terraces in the countryside for example, or other indicators of urban densities in unexpected locations.
The inference from a quick overview of historic patterns of urban settlement on the island may suggest that a form of ‘Instant Urban’ character, or even a feeling, impression or temporary sensation, might not be unprecedented in our landscape. As parts of our inner cities now start to loose their urbanity, the current challenges include the definitions and evaluation of the quality of the Irish urban condition, wherever it occurs, the understanding by designers and others that these particular formal impressions on the landscape may well melt away over time, and the possibility that in some cases they could even be allowed or planned for as ‘Instant Urban’ for a time, and then removed in a planned way at another time in the future.
 Kealy, Loughlin and Anngret Simms (2008), The Study of Urban Form in Ireland (Paper) Urban Morphology, International Seminar on Urban Form.
 Kincaid, Andrew (2006), Postcolonial Dublin: Imperial Legacies and the Built Environment., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 Duffy, Patrick J. (2007), Exploring the History and Heritage of Irish Landscapes, Four Courts Press, Dublin. (Pg 79, Small Farming in Ireland).
 International Seminar on Urban Form (ISUF), Glossary, http://www.urbanform.org/glossary.html
This Article appeared in Architecture Ireland Issue 257