Tailors Hall at Back Lane in the Liberties is an often overlooked building of great importance in the heart of the city. For over 300 years it has served as an important place for meetings and assemblies in the city. It was constructed between 1703 and 1709 by the builder Richard Mills, and Robin Usher has written that “a bust of George III was placed over the external doorcase in 1771.”
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a variety of such guild halls could be found in the city, for example not far from Tailors Hall was the Weavers Hall in the Coombe. Tailors Hall became known as the ‘Back Lane Parliament’ in the 1790s when those seeking improved rights for the Catholic majority in Ireland met here in 1792. It would also become a popular meeting spot for the Society of United Irishmen in the city. Despite its important history, the building was allowed fall into disrepair, as was sadly too often the case in Dublin. In a 1983 article in The Irish Times, campaigners stated that:
For well over a year now, Tailors Hall has stood empty, cold, damp and open to the elements, the windows open, doors broken and with many break ins. It is a sitting target for anyone who wished to burn it down and for those who wish to vandalise it.
Today, it is home to An Taisce, and the guild hall is open to the public.
A brilliant account of attending a meeting of the United Irishmen at Back Lane was published in the book Sketches of Ireland Sixty Years Ago, from 1847. In it a student of Trinity College Dublin talked about watching a meeting of the society at first hand, and below we have republished the account. His descriptions of some of the people present are brilliantly colourful.
I entered college in the year 1791, a year rendered memorable by the institution of the society of the United Irishmen. They held their meetings in an obscure passage called Back Lane, leading from Corn Market to Nicholas Street. The very aspect of the place seemed to render it adapted for cherishing a conspiracy. It was in the locality where the tailors, skinners, and curriers held their guilds, and was the region of the operative democracy.
I one evening proceeded from college, and found out Back Lane, and having inquired for the place of meeting, a house was pointed out to me, that had been the hall in which the corporation of tailors held their assemblies. I walked in without hesitation, no one forbidding me, and found the society in full debate, the Hon. Simon Butler in the chair. I saw there, for the first time, the men with the three names, which were now become so familiar to the people of Dublin: Theobald Wolfe Tone, James Napper Tandy, and Archibald Hamilton Rowan.
The first was a slight, effeminate-looking man, with a hatchet face, a long aquiline nose, rather handsome and genteel-looking, with lank, straight hair combed down on his sickly red cheek, exhibiting a face the most insignificant and mindless that could be imagined. His mode of speaking was in correspondence with his face and person. It was polite and gentlemanly, but totally devoid of any thing like energy or vigour. I set him down as a worthy, good-natured, flimsy man, in whom there was no harm, and as the least likely person in the world to do mischief to the state.
Tandy was the very opposite looking character. He was the ugliest man I ever gazed on. He had a dark, yellow, truculent-looking countenance, a long drooping nose, rather sharpened at the point, and the muscles of his face formed two cords at each side of it. He had a remarkable hanging-down look, and an occasional twitching or conclusive motion of his nose and mouth, as if he was snapping at something on the side of him while he was speaking.
Not so Hamilton Rowan. I thought him not only the most handsome, but the largest man I had ever seen. Tone and Tandy looked like pigmies beside him.His ample and capacious forehead seemed the seat of thought and energy; while with such an external to make him feared, he had a courtesy of manner that excited love and confidence. He held in his hand a large stick, and was accompanied by a large dog.
I had not been long standing on the floor, looking at and absorbed in the persons about me, when I was perceived, and a whisper ran round the room. Some one went up to the president, then turned round, and pointed to me. The president immediately rose, and called out that there was a stranger in the room. Two members advanced, and taking me under the arm, led me up to the president’s chair, and there I stood to await the penalty of my unauthorized intrusion. I underwent an examination ; and it was evident, from the questions, that my entrance was not accredited, but that I was suspected as a government spy. The ” battalion of testimony,” as it was called, was already formed, and I was supposed to be one of the corps. I, however, gave a full and true account of myself, which was fortunately confirmed by a member who knew something about me, and was ultimately pronounced a harmless ” gib” and admitted to the honour of the sitting.