There’s not much left by the way of pre-boom buildings on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. Row upon row of mis-matched shining steel and glass structures tower over the few remaining Victorian warehouses and enginehouses, relics of an era when Dublin’s docks bustled with industry. One warehouse that has managed to survive, a double gabled redbrick building that sits where the Samuel Beckett bridge meets the Southside boasts two unusual and very original features.
The warehouse at 30- 32 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay was built in the 1890’s and was once home to the Dublin Tropical Fruit Company, who occupied the premises for decades. It has played host to plenty of drama in its lifetime; in the mid-thirties, a young teenager fell to his death from the roof, the sixties saw a long running strike on the premises and the eighties saw a fire come close to gutting the building. On 16th April 1950, a ship named the Abraham Lincoln arrived into Dublin bearing tonnes of bananas bound for the warehouse. When the ship made port, it was discovered that its cargo of fruit was already too ripe for sale, leading the company to refuse it and the ship’s crew to dump tonnes of black skinned bananas overboard. Alexandra basin was lined with scores of people waiting for the chance to grab any that might float ashore, whilst rowboats set out from Ringsend with the aim of getting to the booty first. Gardaí struggled to maintain order as hundreds of children tried to force entry into the basin. (Irish Press, 17/4/1950.) The building later housed offices belonging to U2 and is now home to a software company.
Anyway, to the point of the piece. Over the doors of the building, hang two recognisable figures- two granite keystones representing Anna Livia and the Atlantic, replicas of which appear elsewhere along the River Liffey. Originally sculpted by the eminent (though self-effacing as some records state!) Edward Smyth, they had once adorned the archways of Carlisle Bridge, the structure that predated what we now know as O’Connell Bridge. The bridge was remodeled in the late 1870’s and the granite keystones were removed- Carlisle Bridge having had three arches with a hump rising high above the water below, Anna Livia and Atlantic were deemed too large to fit the lower elliptical arches of the bridge. The new bridge had arches which sat much lower over the water, and the keystones would need to be replaced. They were remodeled by Charles W. Harrison and the originals sculpted by Edward Smyth somehow ended up on the facade of the warehouse on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.
Smyth (1749- 1812) was a sculptor and modeler who served an apprenticeship under Simon Vierpyl (Clerk of Works for the Casino building in Marino) and later worked for a Dublin stone cutter named Henry Darley. His work was mainly ornamental, according to the Dictionary of Irish Architects, that is until Darley recommended him to one of the leading architects working in Ireland at the time, none other than James Gandon in the early 1780’s. James Gandon being one of the most sought after architects of the time, Smyth rose to prominence under his patronage and went on to sculpt some of the most recognisable features on some of Dublin’s most famous buildings. From humble beginnings he was to become a wealthy man.
Looking out over College Green from the roof of the Old Parliament, stand his figures of Justice, Wisdom and Liberty. His works are dotted around the Custom House; the 14 keystones representing 14 Irish rivers on the building are his, along with the Arms of Ireland- a Lion and a Unicorn standing either side of the Irish Harp. He was also responsible for work on a number of churches throughout Dublin, ornaments, statues and coats of arms at Kings Inns and you can add his name to the debate on something we’ve looked at before- who sculpted the anthropomorphic figures playing billiards and other parlour games on the windows of The Kildare Street Club? In her “This Ireland” column in the Irish Times in March 1975, Elgy Gillespie noted that it wasn’t until the 1950’s that discovery of Smyth’s keystones on the building at Sir Rogerson’s Quay was made, quoting Harold Leask (architect responsible in part for the reconstrucion of the GPO) in the Royal Society of Antiquaries Journal on their discovery. That column, and anything I’ve read on the subject, neglects to mention how the heads managed to make their way from Carlisle Bridge and onto the facade of a building on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. Another reason why, when walking around this city, you should keep your head up because who knows what you might find!