I nearly called this post “Before the Roads”. That’s because road widening schemes have been one of the biggest enemies of old Dublin. Literally hundreds, thousands, of old historic houses have been pulled down to allow for the huge road schemes. Of nowhere is that loss more acute, more extensive, or sadder than the very heart of the medieval city, the ancient district from the Castle to the cathedral and beyond into the western Liberties. Long before Merrion Square or O’Connell St existed this “used to be” the centre of Dublin, in the most literal, spatial sense. In every sense.
Many old streets were of course pulled down in 1700s and 1800s. The Wide Streets Committee (with its somewhat erm, self-incriminating name!) being an obvious culprit. But many buildings went in Independent Ireland, most notably in the 1960s. Few if any, of these later losses were replaced by anything as gracious as the legacy left by the Wide Streets Committee, the city to the East of Dublin castle, which today we call Georgian Dublin.
Lets look at the small area from the Castle and Werburghs to the cathedral. “The cathedral” in this context of course means Christ Church. St Patrick’s of course lies famously outside the city walls. Anyway, those two key institutions of Christ Church and Castle and others like the old Corn House or the notorious “Black Dog” debtors prison, were linked by small city streets like old Skinner Row and Castle Street. These were very different to the huge motorway that blunders past Christ Church today.
In a series of posts starting from today we’ll go on a little tour from east to west, through the heart of the medieval city as it once was. We all know this area has changed a lot. But you may be taken aback, even shocked by the sheer scale and extent of what we have lost.
To aid us, we’ll have two superb visual references. The first, familiar to all regular readers of this blog, is our trusted companion, John Rocque’s 1756 map of Dublin, which I regard in my completely unbiased way as the greatest map of anywhere ever published, ever. (Okay, I may be slightly biased) I’ll be showing images from Rocque, repeatedly, in case anyone wants to actually follow the old streetscape and the sometimes confusing changes between 1756 and now. It’s impossible without a constant visual reference I reckon.
Our second visual source is a small selection- taken from much bigger collections- of stunning old photographs from various sources (mostly public and/or state ones) which were selected, curated and recently shared on Facebook by passionate, brilliant Dublin local historian-archivist Tóirdhealach O’Braoín. I am indebted to him. As are you.. who are in for a treat later. But first, map time. Traveling East to West, so right to left, then South-North, ending at Wood Quay. Ready?
At the bottom-right of this section of Rocque’s map, above we can just about make out the word “Hoey” That’s part of Hoey’s Court, in other words the birthplace of Jonathan Swift, hard by the walls of Dublin castle. The castle which is just off the map here, just off to the right/the east. Above Hoey’s Court, St Werburgh’s is clearly visible and above it Castle Street. Here’s a slightly different, overlapping section of Rocque’s map to make the point better.
Whichever section you look at, the first, most striking thing you notice is that Lord Edward St doesn’t exist. Not just the name. (Edward FitzGerald wasn’t even born in 1756) The street itself doesn’t exist in 1756. In the absence of Lord Edward St therefore, Castle Street- which today we think of as a small almost backstreet- was the main artery through the old city. You’ll also notice City Hall (formerly the Royal Exchange) is not there either. It was only built in the 1770s. (By architect Thomas Ivory). Parliament Street on the other hand is there. But only by the skin of its teeth! It was laid out (meaning planned, bought up, and divided into plots which were sold or leased, (along with some very stringent building conditions)), at the exact time this map was made. So it just made it into the map.
Going East to West, Castle Street then links to Skinner Row, (see above or below) In front of the cathedral you’ll see it, Skinner Row. This was much narrower than the current freeway-style monstrosity that guides thousands of cars very day straight past a 1000-year cathedral, just yards from its ancient walls. Yes it’s true the cathedral was heavily restored in the Victorian era. But much of the fabric is still medieval. And anyway so is the institution as a whole. So no valid excuses for motorways in the middle of a medieval city! It’s a bloody disgrace, to be honest with you. Utter philistine nonsense.
The space in front of the Cathedral was much narrower in Rocque’s time Obviously the roads are vastly bigger now. And the Cathedral 1756 is, as you see, surrounded, absolutely smothered, by a plethora of houses! Today the cathedral is clearly visible to the road/motorway. But then? Look at them on the map below. These thick rows of dwellings surround and screen the cathedral, surround it, entirely so on its North and East sides.
Even behind the rows of houses, there is another layer of buildings crowding the cathedral, including the Four Courts. Sometimes hard to believe today, but this is where the law courts met. prior to their move just across the river to the Cooley/ Gandon building. (Moving only in at the turn of the 19th century.) By the way, the King’s Inns was in this same area too, until they also moved, way up to Henrietta Street, just a bit later.
But I’d like to draw your attention back to two, much more general characteristics of the old city. First the narrowness of the streets, which in modern terms are more lane-ways really. And second, to emphasise again the sheer clutter of houses. Both characteristics tell us a lot about the extraordinary density of the medieval city. In my view this is the single-most important thing to grasp if you want to picture medieval space. But it’s not always easy. As a mental image to help me, I use the words I once heard an Italian academic use to describe the difference in these terms: that buildings from the early modern period were placed in space, whereas space in medieval and pre-modern cities was more like tiny channels scrapped out of mass. Does that make sense? Another way I try to explain it on tours is to picture a block of that green “oasis’ stuff people used to put artificial flowers in. Then imagine scratching and scrapping channels through that solid green block. Those little groves you make in the block in your minds eye are your medieval streets, your tiny courtyards and alleyways. Some, like Crampton’s Court in Temple Bar (which still survives) or Hoey’s Court (which doesn’t) were small but manageable. Others would have been tiny; scarcely bigger than a light shaft or a lift shaft today. Imagine: nearly everything else as just solid mass: of house, of church, guildhall, great leaning piles of damp brick and timber. Timber? Remember Dublin prior to the Georgian era was full of Dutch Billys, and prior to that, Elizabethan cage houses.
Dates? Well, for our Italian academic “Pre-Modern” means “up to the Renaissance”. Give me dates, damn it says you! Well again it depends where you are. To our sophisticated Italian professor, the city-changes occurs as early as the 1400s on. Although naturally, not everywhere, nor all at once. Wealthy highly developed cities like Florence are far ahead of others. The “Renaissance in Dublin” on the other hand never quite arrives. Or at least not until around the 1660s earliest, the Duke of Ormonde’s return being a favoured date, (triggering the building of the Royal Hospital Kilmanham and the rebuilding of Dublin Castle, in the classical style). So “Medieval Mass” (if we may call it that) was a state of affairs which in Dublin’s case prevails well into the 1700s. By the way, for the sake of clarity, in case I’ve given the impression that everything was ancient or (worse) rotting and falling down by 1756, or even 1956, I don’t mean all these houses on our map were all still medieval in date, at either date. I don’t, and they weren’t. Obviously, dwelling were fixed, repaired, rebuilt and replaced all the time. That’s the nature of cities. That’s the nature of things. It’s the Street Plan, and that Density which is medieval. Look again the way houses crowd right up to the edge of the cathedral and other large public buildings. Of course there was lots of old historic building fabric too. All mixed up from the whole long range of different eras, including the piles of Viking houses, buried just a few yards underfoot. Meanwhile because the new streets of the WSC mostly happened in their new centre to the East, much of this historic building fabric in the old centre actually survived right up until the 1960s, as we shall see.
Look at Rocque again. Across the road from Christ Church at the junction of Skinner Row and Nicholas Street stood the Tholsel, once the equivalent of City Hall and the head quarters of Dublin’s Guild of Merchants, rolled into one. Probably the single-most important secular building in Dublin for hundreds of years. Here’s the most famous, and much-used image of it as painted by James Malton.
Right beside the Tholsel, going South down Nicholas St, stood the ancient church of Saint Nicholas Within. (There’s still a stump of it there, albeit slightly moved back from the road) Just beside that (beside Nicholas Within I mean) the old medieval city wall stood, right up to the 1680/90s. Or more specifically, St Nicholas’ Gate stood, one of the six main gates of old Dublin.
On the other side of the Tholsel, if you crossed the junction with Werburghs and went down Castle St back towards the Castle, was Carbury House. This was the last Elizabethan cage house to survive in Dublin. The cage house you’ll recall is the building-type that pre-dates the Dutch Billy, (which predates the Georgian, and so on) Carbury House, which was once the town house of the earls of Kildare, then later used by wealthy merchants and professionals, stood on Castle St. It was only demolished in 1812.
We’ve looked at Castle St and Skinner Row. Let’s now go the other way, back across Skinner Row, to Christ Church and its immediate area. We’ll take a god hard look at the area we now call Wine Tavern St. Here’s an amazing photo of the NW corner of Christ Church, and Wine Tavern Street. (All photos reproduced courtesy of Tóirdhealach O’Braoín. Please do not use without written permission)
I often make mistakes on my blog, including some really, really sillly and embarrassing ones. A consequence of too much rash enthusiasm perhaps! So I’m very open to correction here but this appears to be a really early photograph, showing Christ Church before its 1878 Restoration, no? Obviously the cathedral changed a lot during that huge, extensive restoration, (almost a rebuilding really) But so too has the entire layout of roads, churches and houses in this whole immediate area. For example, in the photo, the stretch of road to the right (west) of the great hulking cathedral wall should be here called, properly speaking, Christ Church Lane, not Wine Tavern Street as we all say today. In our snapshot of time, anchored to our main 1756 map, Wine Tavern Street only started further down the hill, then ran down to the river. Christ Church Lane was (is) the right name for the small lane which connects Skinner Row/High Street to Cock Hill. This is a detail of a map by Leonard Strangeways, made in the 1900s to work out the route and position of the walls and major buildings. Confusingly North is down and South is up. It also does nothing to illuminate the density of old Dublin. But it does show clearly old Christ Church lane and old Wine Tavern Street, which here is only the shorter road running from Cock Hill (Cock, not Cork) down through the Kings Gate, down to Wood Quay.
You may wish to look at both maps to follow all this stuff!
The top of Ch Ch lane is where it meets Skinner Row. Down the lower end of Christ Church Lane is the intersection where (more or less) Cock Hill becomes John’s Lane. At this same point is a T-Junction, they meet the old, original Wine Tavern Street, coming up from the river, and once crowded with taverns and bawdy houses. With me so far? Phew!
Quick digression on the subject of “taverns and bawdy houses”. Did you know the lovely crypts of Christ Church used to be full of them? Oh yes. The cathedral used to rent out the space to tobacconists, taverns and who knows what. It was quite the den of inequity in its day, under the cathedral. Dublin was not unique in this respect. Over in central-east London the Bishop of Winchester used to own lot of city land. His main tenants were mostly involved in prostitution. In fact, he benefited so much from the trade, (quite knowingly) that ladies working in that professions were called “Winchesters Geese”. For the record, I’m not insinuating anything. Still less accusing any past Dean or chapter of Christ Church of anything untoward!
Getting back to the more serious matter of our changing, oft-abused city, it goes without saying the maze of street junctions and lane ways just outlined, and visible on map above, has completely gone. Christ Church lane has gone. St John’s church is gone. Michael’s Church, replaced by the Synod House in the 1870s Restoration, gone. At least in that case Michael’s was replaced by something beautiful. Not so elsewhere.
Looking at this map, things are so different today it actually gets confusing. One thing to clarify one more time is that St Michael’s itself was rebuilt during the cathedral’s Gothic Revival-style restoration. It became the Synod Hall and this was linked across the road back over to the cathedral via that lovely Venetian Gothic-style “Bridge of Sighs” This rebuilt (Synod) building, occupying the same footprint as old St Michael’s, is now right up against the modern road.
The much extended Wine Tavern Street, despite bearing the same name, is basically gone. It was of course destroyed entirely on its east side from John’s Lane downward. The buildings on the right (left here) have nearly all been replaced and infilled. On the other, east side of the road? Even worse. As all Dubliners know, from John’s Lane downward, the entire area was savagely torn down in the 1980s to make way for for Dublin Corporations headquarters. Das Bunkers. Yuch.
Here’s an amazing aerial picture showing the sheer extent of that destruction. It shows the excavations of the archaeologists, trying to recover (on a time limit) what they could of Viking City under the later medieval and early modern houses. But what the picture also really illustrates to me very powerfully, is how the entire former maze of old streets and houses was just torn down and consigned, brutally, into the dustbin of history. Dublin Corporation, as it was then, had no right in my view, to tear down an entire section of our ancient capital. Disgusting and very short sighted abuse of power.
Here’s an another “aerial picture” the famous, superb engraving that appeared in 1890 as a supplement to “The Graphic” (newspaper) drawn by W.H Brewer (aptly enough) A Bird’s Eye View of Dublin. The viewpoint is purely imaginary, the spaces and positions of buildings all artfully distorted, to allow a maximum of picturesque sights. Yet I love this picture. In the area beside and behind Christ Church, it also shows, (magically, yet now poignantly) the sheer extent of what would be lost forever. It also conveys some sense of the jumble of houses and ancillary churches around Christ Church, and the general atmospheric of historic Dublin. (Both Saint Audoens (C.o.I and RC) are in foreground-left, then old St Michael’s; old Christ Church are further back, both in middle ground and centre-frame. With I think that’s old Saint John’s visible behind Christ Church?
Here’s just one of the hundreds of buildings lost forever in those demolitions. This incredible spot, Timoney’s Pub, also known as “the Irish House” stood at the foot of Wine Tavern Street, turning the corner onto Wood Quay to face the river.
It featured an extraordinary array of exterior sculpted decoration, on patriotic themes, including a statue of Daniel O’Connell (holding his Repeal Act)
Photos reproduced courtesy of Tóirdhealach O’Braoín.
This pub was once one of the “sights” of Dublin. It featured for example in Life magazine. Neither that celebrity, nor the protest of tens of thousands of outraged Dubliners during the famous Wood Quay protests- were enough to save the district from annihilation.
Back up on higher ground, above the cathedral, so to speak, Lord Edward St was also driven through, at an angle snaking up the hill (lopping off a corner of Fishamble St on the way) while Skinner Row was massively widened (loosing its name and identity in the process) as that new Lord Edward joined High Street. Then in the 1960s High Street was further widened to make a motorway. Directly in front of the cathedral. Yuch. And after this they then knocked down the Irish House and its surrounding district, in the 1980s. You couldn’t make it up.
Admittedly, as we said at the very top of this article, over to the east of the Dublin Castle, the old 1600s-early 1700s street plan also changed radically as from 1757 the Wide Streets Commission used their vast powers (including compulsory purchase orders) to both destroy, and to create huge and, well very Wide streets, as they effectively re-made the city. In doing so, they also dragged its whole centre of gravity East, toward the College, the Parliament, and that new Grafton Street-O’Connell Street axis. Meanwhile the so-called West, in reality the old centre, became ever more neglected, a victim of changing fashions, the pattern of development just discussed, and steep economic decline (largely due to some really pernicious English trade laws). By and large therefore, no Georgian terraces were built in the area we now call the Liberties. As a direct consequence of that semi-benign neglect, old Dutch Billy townhouses and other ancient fabric, survived much longer in the west than east. That’s why we have a lovely, intact, medieval quarter there to this very day. Right? No of course we don’t. Independent Ireland, and the general and, in fairness international 1960s obsession with the motorcar, saw to all that. Motor cars meant progress. Out with the old, the lame and the tired. In with the shiny and new. But a nation of motor car owners need wide roads. We are lucky we still have the canals. They were nearly infilled and tarmac-ed over too.
So it was that various Governments (National and municipal ) in the post-Independence era achieved what Ascendancy Georgians failed to- the destruction of the Liberties. This was now enthusiastically completed, some 200 years after the WSC was formed.
Make no mistake, English Trade laws did huge damage, socially and economically, and pure human suffering, to west-central Dublin. On a par with the mindless (they would say high minded) destruction of religious art 200 years previously. But most of the actual tearing down of old buildings in the Liberties, admittedly sometimes in very bad condition- was done post Independence. Ascendancy Georgians had plenty of faults, monopolising power and wealth like spoilt, bigoted children. But they did at least have one, partially redeeming feature, a sense of pride in the city and some notion of taste. They destroyed most of pre-modern Dublin to the east of Dublin castle. But they at least managed to replace it with something elegant, cohesive and harmonious. Would to God we could say the same of the Governments of the Free state, Irish Republic and the municipal Government of Dublin Corporation/ City Council.
Many thanks for reading this rant, dirge, my lament! Please feel free to share and/or leave a comment. It’s always great to hear from readers and fellow history lovers. I can’t promise to answer queries though. Some of the material is complex, either spatially or even on occasion historically. Some of it is contentious. I find it takes forever to answer seemingly innocent and simple questions in a clear and satisfactory way (Clear and satisfactory to me anyhow). You can however come on a walk sometime, and ask all the questions you’d like. I’ll certainly try do my best to answer them on a walk. There are 2 different types of walks by the way, private ones, which you commission on a date you chose for your own group. Price depends on route and size of group, so we ask you to specify that when you get in touch. Separately, there’s another type of walk, our public walks which are obviously open to everyone. These tend to be around the €15 mark and very sociable and good fun, due to our horribly knowledgeable Dublin guests! 🙂 The best way, almost the only way really to hear when public walks go ahead is via our free monthly newsletter.
In our next post we’ll visit St Audoen’s and Cook St, then later the old Corn House and the notorious “Black Dog” debtors prison. We’ll also look at the vanished Dublin institution that was… the Watch House. I hope you’ll join us then.
As a final treat, here’s a nice film of old Dublin, including the Irish House pub, on this collage of old film footage. If you look carefully you’ll see the amazing external decor of the Irish House, including that statue of Dan O’Connell and Repeal Act. The movies were shot by a Mr Leslie Crowe in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. He was a Dublin firefighter who spent his spare time filming the old cuty. What an incredible gift, and record, he left us. Don’t forget to hit that newsletter link if you’d like to join a walk sometime. The subscribe link opens in separate window, so don’t worry, you won’t loose this page or the movie link 🙂 Enjoy!