Cast of Thousands

A few coal hole iron covers, these particular two are on Merrion Street.

Wide shot Coal Hole Covers in Granite CH iron covers 13

There are coal-hole covers in all the older parts of Dublin.  This Merrion/Fitzwilliam area has a particularly rich store of them.   The majority of the most interesting are coal holes, those circular discs of cast iron capping the coal chutes, ubiquitous to the grander Georgian houses of Dublin.

Dub SE

Set into the pavement at the time the houses were built (in this area from the 1780s onward) they are rich and diverse, covering well over a hundred years of manufacture and design.

 

It has to be said straightaway that the average, humble coal hole iron cover,  so simple in appearance, is in fact a masterpiece of design.  They typically measure around 9 inches in diameter, a very specific width: just big enough to allow coal to be poured (to the cellar directly below) yet crucially small enough to block ingress for possible burglars, intruders or revolutionaries.  The round shape is no accident either.  Coal holes are round for the same reason a manhole cover is.  It’s a safety measure.

Tight close concentric circles coal cover

A round cover remains always the same width at every angle.  Unlike a square or rectangular cover,  it can not fall or drop through its hole causing injury below.   For that reason the vast majority of cover tend to be circular disks.  Having said all that, there’s always somebody who has to be different.  Look at this outlier, by the Fletcher & Phillips foundry.

Fletcher and Phillips Square cover

The covers were scored with patterns not merely for decorative purposes but for other reasons too, like to providing texture to prevent passers by from slipping on wet days. In the later period foundries started to cast their own names into the surface of the cover, thus providing an advertisement for their work.

As for the designs that decorate the earlier covers, some are now so worn and eroded they’re at the point of obliteration, others remain as crisp and freshly minted as the day they were cast. Does this merely hint at a greater volume of traffic or footfall in each location, and thus different rates of wear and tear? Or were there different types of iron used, some hardier than others?

The covers were scored with patterns too, not merely for decorative purposes but for other reasons too, like to providing texture to prevent passers by from slipping on wet days. In the later period foundries started to cast their own names into the surface of the cover, thus providing an advertisement for their work.

As for the designs that decorate the earlier covers, some are now so worn and eroded they’re at the point of obliteration, others remain as crisp and freshly minted as the day they were cast.  Does this merely hint at a greater volume of traffic or footfall in each location, and thus different rates of wear and tear?  Or were there different types of iron used, some hardier than others?

Arrow Head Radial arrow head pattern CH Iron Cover

Floral CH Coal Hole 1b

Floral CH 1

The coal covers boast an incredible variety of designs.  Seeking new unseen designs can  become almost an obsession.  (Trust me on this).  Many date from the Victorian period, these are often more floral in design.    Other are even older, from the Georgian era,  these are often more restrained in design; sometimes geometric, other times with concentric circles.  (See below, one of my favorites!)

Oddly enough, some of these more geometric ones, especially those with concentric circles, can end up looking more ancient Irish in their sensibility.  Some seem to hark back to our hallowed, semi mythical past, unintentionally you suspect. Some even seeming reminiscent of an ancient barrow,  or an earthwork on the hill of Tara.

Concentric circles 5b

Concentric circles CH 2

Not all of the iron covers are 18th or 19th century antiques.  Many were added or replaced in the 20th century.  Some of these seem starkly utilitarian in design compared to the earlier typologies.  They still often have their own beauty though.

Modern Style CH iron cover

 

 

Grid CH 3

above: designs from around Fitzwillaim Sq and Fitzwillam Place.

Some of the older ones however although have a wonderful simplicity of design.  I wonder did the owners of this house worry that the coal was going to emit some noxious or even toxic gas?  They clearly wanted some measure of ventilation.  Yet with its patina of age even this functional simplicity is beautiful.

different Hume St beauty CH Iron Cover Holy

 

As mentioned above, many have a makers mark, the name and sometimes the address too of the foundry that cast them, included both as both a mark of pride and quality and of course, as a form of advertising.  Famous makers included the Hammond Lane Foundry and Tonge & Taggart; the South City Foundry at Bishop Street, the Sharkey Company and so on.

Tong and Taggart

South City Foundry Bishops St 1

South City Foundries CH Bishop St 2

Tonge & Taggart CH 6

As you can see however even within individual foundries, the design did not stay static, Foundries changed their pattern and marks over time.

In addition the South City Foundry used to operate as you can see out of Bishop St. in the Camden St rea, then moved much further east,  to Hammond Lane.  But it is also commonly listed as trading from (and appears in maps of) Windmill Lane.

Map w Grnd Canal docks, georges doc Tongue and taggart Foundry, Guniness and brit & irish Steamshoip Co etc

above:  bottom of picture, slightly right of centre, the Tonng and Taggart Foundry, just visible off Windmill Lane.

But could somebody out there enlighten me, was it also taken over by Tonge & Taggart?   Or, were they always the owners of the South City Foundry, but just start using their surnames (as the company name) after the change of address?

THE IRISH BUILDER. on May 1, 1890 reported  “Pavements. We are glad to announce that Messrs. Tongo (sic) and Taggart, of the South City Foundry, Bishop-street, have completed arrangements for the manufacture of pavement sashes, lilted with semi-prism lenses of the highest quality. Sec Advt. The IS ray and Ennitkeny Light Railway Bill, which has already passed the House of Lords, came before Mr. Courtney, Chairman of Committees of the House of Commons, yesterday as an unopposed measure, to comply to the formalities of committee stage. Proof of the preamble bavins been put in, and the clauses having been gone through, the bill was allowed to proceed with some verbal amendments, and will in due course be reported for third reading…”

Tonge & Taggart and Sharkeys  are just the better known foundry names. Look further and others will appear, like H Saul of Leeson St, H Paseley of Camden St or Gleeson O’Dea of Dublin.

H Paseley CH Camden St Iron Cover

Gleeson ODea iron Cover CH Hume St

above, a Gleeson O’Dea coal plate, spotted on Hume St, Dublin 2, just off the Green.

It is amazing once you start to notice these old iron covers, how you almost can not stop looking.  I was incapable of passing one with stopping, incapable of passing a really good one without snapping a picture.

One of the nicest things is when they are set into the original granite slabs.

Wide shot Coal Hole Covers in Granite CH iron covers 13

above:  Merrion Street, near the hotel of that name.

another lovely aspect is the circular chiseled, or chased-out channel that surrounds the iron covers.  This is there to collect rain water.  They really did think of everything. But it can also be very beautiful.    The most traditional or best preserved ones for example have another, straight channel, taking the water away from the cover and off the footpath toward the storm drains.  The best pavements thus have a slight rake in them, to facilitate this process.

Coal Hole CH with drainage channel

Wet Victorian

 

Fitzwilliam Sq Iron Cover CH w Water Groove

Some of these channels are longer than others.  But all are beautiful.

Fitzwilliam Sq Iron Cover CH w Water Groove 2

Coal holes and related stone channeling, Pembroke Street and Fitzwilliam Sq W area.

This, spotted on Fitzwilliam Sq South,  is another oddity, a double and bow-shaped channel.

Coal hole with Bow shaped channel

Another pleasing aspect is how sometimes, even when all the other old granite paving slabs have now gone, have disappeared, and generally been replaced with ugly concrete slabs, some coal hole covers are left with (and within) their original granite slab.  Even when all the surrounding slabs have been replaced with concrete.

Isolated granite slab 2

Look around Fitzwilliam Sq East in particular, and you’ll see what I mean.  There are many individual surviving paving slabs of granite here. But they are islands, surrounded by concrete slabs.  Indeed they are there only because they host a coal hole.   It’s a form of conservation, one might say.  We should be protecting the coal holes. But instead they are protecting us, from our negligence and vulgarity.  Trying to save us from ourselves, and to save a little of what is beautiful, before it is all stolen, destroyed, smashed up and carted away.

Isolated granite slab 1

Conversely, when a coal hole cover goes missing, is ripped out and filled in, it feels like a little piece of Dublin has died.

Missing coal hole CH 1

Even then, they still leave their traces, and their ghosts…   But some day, possibly sone day sooner than you think, even this granite slab will be gone too.  then even the trace of this iron cover will be gone.

Missing coal hole CH 2

It will be a sad day if we loose many more of these beautiful objects.

It did really become a bit of an obsession of mine, May to August 2017,  looking at them all, finding new designs every day.   I even found after a few weeks that the obsession spread from classic coal covers over to include other iron covers, especially iron covers for utilities such as gas, water and the like.   But I’ll deal with all that on another day!

For now, what can I say, except thank you for reading?

UPDATE:   since this post went live a few days back, I’ve received many kind and interesting messages with additional information on Dublin Foundries, both here on WP and via a linked thread on the Dublin Decoded Facebook page.  Particularly enlightening was one on the Fb page from local historian Toírdhealach ó’Braoín speaking about the locations of two of the casting foundries mentioned above. The first is Fletcher & Phillipson.   Here is their coal plate again here below.  Yes that’s right, the awkward square one, albeit with the very nice design.

Fletcher and Phillips Square cover

Toírdhealach reckons were essentially hardware/providers.  Their shop seams to have been on Baggot St,  (near the corner with Pembroke St, Toírdhealach reckons)  He says he still has an ancient bottle from their shop bottle, containing linseed oil, for oiling furniture, with their name on label.  Toírdhealach also mentions another relevant post he saw recently on Fb, an old photo posted up by Dan Doyle, the photo apparently showing a van or truck, belonging to Gleeson-O’Dea.  (See their coal plate in the images above, or here below)

Gleeson ODea iron Cover CH Hume St

Gleeson-O’Dea also seem to have been primarily builders’ provider/hardware merchants, but must have also had a small foundry operation as well.  They were it seems on Christchurch Place, now much windened, alas,  but more or less where Jury’s Hotel is today.     What we may perhaps deduce from all this is that many of the foundries making cast iron coal holes in Victorian/19th centry Dublin and Ireland were actually smaller than you might first imagine, not big concerns at all, but rather very small local businesses, tendering for cast iron jobs, then operating a small smelting and casting operation,  almost in the rear of or out behind the shop.  Almost a cottage industry in others words, usually operating at very small scale.   Yet another contributor on the same thread, Des Wade,  mentions a very interesting German project, called   “Raubdruckerin”   Des descibes it as is an experimental printmaking project, that uses urban structures like manhole covers, grids, technical objects (my italics)  and other surfaces of the urban landscape, to create unique graphical patterns on streetwear basics, fabrics and paper. Every piece is hand printed, mainly on-site in the public space, as a footprint of the city. raubdruckerin is based in Berlin, but is regularly on the road, to street print all over European metropolis”.   Des wonders if some enterprising Dubliners might do this “before the covers are all lost to “”progress?”

It’s all food for thought anyway.   Many thanks to everybody who has taken an interest in the articles.  If you would like to see the original thread and the comments,  you can see it here,   or via our Facebook page, here.

-Arran.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Cast of Thousands

  1. Yes it would have to be a very slim revolutionary to get down one of those Arran 🙂

    The bird’s eye view towards the top, is it Merrion Square? If so what happened to the wide street at a right angle to the centre of the square, heading north?

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