The area around the Grand Canal Theatre (I refuse to call it anything else, sorry Bord Gáis) is largely speaking unknown territory to me with regards the history of the city. Recently I was taken aback by a street sign informing me I was standing at ‘Misery Hill’, a name that seems totally at odds with the fashionable area around the theatre today. In a time before theatre and cappuccinos the area looked rather different indeed, and one writer in the Freeman’s Journal in 1920 wrote:
How many Dubliners know Misery Hill? The name itself is a stroke of genius,whoever invented it, and the bare thoroughfare, running between grimy walls, over which peer huge gasometers, with in the distance orange plums of acrid smoke drifting from the chimneys of a chemical factory, shows that Dublin, when it sets itself to it, can outrival Wigan!
Paul Clerkin’s wonderful little book Dublin Street Names (Published in 2001 by Gill and Macmillan and right up the street of a lot of CHTM readers I imagine) gives good insight into this bizarre name, noting that “in the early 13th century, there was a leper hospital close to the junction of modern Townsend Street and Hawkins Street. Sufferers who were unable to gain entrance to the hospital would spend the night at Misery Hill, well away from the town and its citizens.”
The inimitable Éamonn Mac Thomáis spoke about Misery Hill in a paper for the Old Dublin Society in the late 1960s, and like Clerkin points to the historic leper hospital, stating that “it was sometimes referred to as Lazor Hill, Lazy Hill, Lazars Hill and Lepers Hill.” He also states however that another possible meaning for the name comes from the fact that those executed on Gallow’s Hill (“a common place for execution”) often had their bodies taken here, where morbidly enough “they were left hanging in chains for a period of six months to a year.” The example Mac Thomáis provided were two pirates name Gidley and McKinley, whose bodies were hung up here in 1766.
An interesting short history of leprosy in Ireland, mentioning Misery Hill, has appeared on the Facebook page Wistorical and can be read here, and it includes a lot of interesting detail on the history of the disease in Dublin.
A historic street sign for Misery Hill pops up briefly in this video of Ronnie Drew performing Ratcliffe Highway, at 00:56. This is a great video I’d not seen before, and my thanks to Shane Fitzgerald for pointing it out to us on Facebook.
A nice little nod to the streetname comes from Dublin band Tujacques, who in December 2013 used the street sign for an EP cover. That the title of a previous EP was Obedientia Civium Urbis Felicitas (the somewhat ironic city motto of Dublin, implying that obedient citizens make for a happy city) makes us think they’ve a soft spot for the history of Dublin too!