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Handball Alley, Mount Pleasant Buildings, Dublin. (date unknown)

The story of Dublin handball is interesting. Through the years the country has always been a recognised stronghold of the game, which at times has flourished, dwindled, though not to the point of extinction and, in turn, regained prominence.

So proclaimed the Irish Press in 1966, at a time when handball was already in sharp decline in the capital. Of the GAA sports, handball is the least familiar to the general public today, and yet in the urban landscape of Dublin you can still find handball alleys or the remnants of them, in both city and suburbia. For decades, the game was second only to soccer as a street game in Dublin. In 2014, the photographer Kenneth O’Halloran photographed dozens of old handball alleys across Ireland, estimating there to be close to a thousand dotting the landscape.

The rules for the modern game of handball in Ireland were written by the Gaelic Athletic Association, who included the game within the GAA’s charter of 1884, though the Comhairle Liathróid Láimhe na hÉireann ( the Irish Handball Council) was not established until 1924. The game enjoyed some popularity among the revolutionary generation, with Frank Thornton recalling of his time in prison during the War of Independence that “Inter-wing rivalry was encouraged, and it wasn’t long until the Handball Championship of the prison was being fought out against the gable end wall of one of the wing.” The pivotal figure in the early development of the game in Ireland was John Lawlor, a brilliant player of the game in both Ireland and the United States, who was also a committed trade unionist and nationalist. His graveside oration in 1929 was given by none other than Jim Larkin, and handball historian J.K Clarke has detailed the manner in which Lawlor fought tooth and nail to promote the game.

A contributing factor in the popularity of the game was the inclusion of handball courts in large places of work, with factories and depots looking to handball as a means of providing physical exercise for staff on breaks. Workers at the Great Southern Railway in Inchicore had their own handball alley, and they would also become common place in fire stations and police stations. Early Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy was a great supporter of the game and Gaelic games more broadly. Some of the most capable handball players in Dublin emerged from the force, including Paddy Perry, who took the Irish senior softball title every year between 1930 and 1937, and Tom Soye. Yet such alleys generally give us insight into the game’s popularity among working adults; it was handballs incredible popularity as a street game among urban youth that made it so important in a Dublin context. Paul Fitzpatrick, who has written a number of insightful articles on various aspects of the game, pinpoints the early decades of independence as the glory age for the sport, noting that “Handball shone briefly, brightly and brilliantly in the 1920s through to the ‘50s and just as quickly faded away.” This was a time of rapid suburbanisation in Dublin, and the game proved popular in ever-expanding Dublin.

The popularity of the game, much like soccer, came from its simplicity in terms of requirement to participate. Soccer is sometimes described as the most egalitarian of games, requiring only four jumpers and a ball for youths to enjoy themselves, handball required merely a wall and ball. The dominance of the game is remembered in oral histories of Dublin, including the masterclass Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums. Billy Dunleavy, who grew up in Dublin’s notorious Monto district, told the interviewer that “Kids would be knocking about the streets. We used to play handball against a big wall….and if you mitched from school you’d get a hiding.”

One of the most important handball alleys in Dublin was constructed in Ballymun at The Boot Inn in 1909, remaining in use for decades afterwards, and witnessing a challenge in 1924 between Irish professional champion, J.J Kelly of Dublin, and visiting world champion J.J Heaney of New York. While The Boot is gone, the website irishhandballalley.ie does contain an interesting visual archive of remaining handball alleys in Dublin, including in Blackrock College, Casement Aerodrome and Pigeon House Fort, Ringsend.

Why did the game go into such sharp decline in the 1960s? Rian Dundon, who compiled a beautiful photographic piece on the game in the United States for timeline.com pinpoints a later date for its decline there, noting that “Handball’s ubiquity began to decline in the 1980s as basketball, another urban sport with a low bar for entry, rose to dominance in parks and schoolyards.” By then, the game had sadly all but faded from the sports pages in Ireland.

Despite its declining popularity in recent decades, the game still has its disciples in Dublin. Numerous GAA clubs actively promote the game, and it is included in the ‘Experience Gaelic Games’ programme offered by Na Fianna in Dublin, where the game is still played competitively too. To those who participate in it, it remains an important sport, and perhaps the old handball alleys dotted across this island should encourage the rest of us to investigate the sport more. As sports historian Paul Rouse recently wrote in the Irish Examiner:

They thrived as sites of popular recreation, places where people could gather and play or watch. Or just sit. The image of the ball alley with dozens of bikes scattered around its perimeter waiting to be reclaimed by their owners is one of the great iconic images of mid-20th century Ireland.

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Sarah Parker Remond, who spoke in Dublin in 1859 and 1861.

This year is the bicentenary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, the influential abolitionist who visited Ireland in 1845. His time in Ireland coincided with Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Repeal of the Act of Union, a remarkable grassroots movement that greatly impacted Douglass. Of his time in Ireland, Douglass wrote that “I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country, I seem to have undergone a transformation, I live a new life.”

Douglass was not the first or last anti-slavery voice to be heard in Irish meeting halls. In the 1790s, Olaudah Equiano spoke in both Dublin and Belfast, and his cause was championed by prominent members of the United Irishmen, who were vocal opponents of slavery.

In the later decades of the nineteenth century, a number of anti-slavery campaigners spoke in Dublin, following in the footsteps of Equiano and Douglass. These included Sarah Parker Remond (1815-1894) from Salem, Massachusetts. In 1859 and 1861, she spoke in Dublin before sympathetic audiences, her second speech coming at  a time when America was gripped by Civil War. An activist with the American Anti Slavery Society, she spoke in Britain and Ireland, writing before departure from Boston to Liverpool that she feared not “the wind nor the waves, but I know that no matter how I go, the spirit of prejudice will meet me.” Like the pioneering figures who had come to Dublin before her, she found a receptive audience, with one report of her first speech noting:

They [the audience] were accustomed in this country to hear lectures on public subjects delivered by men only, but this was a great moral question. Miss Remond had identified herself with it, and had made it her own.

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Freeman;s Journal, 19 March 1859

One of those who attended Remond’s speeches in Dublin was Richard D. Webb, the leading voice in Ireland for the abolition of slavery, and a founding member of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Association and a political ally of Daniel O’Connell. Webb, with O’Connell, had attended the important Anti-Slavery Society Convention in London in 1840, and was instrumental to arranging Frederick Douglass’s speaking arrangements during his visit to Ireland. Of Remond, he was moved to write that “she is really very clever – the most so of all the coloured people I ever met, except Douglass, and is a very much more sensible and thoroughgoing person than he.”

The 1859 meeting was described in the press as being organised by the Dublin Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, a respected body which had emerged from the Hibernian Negro’s Friend Society in 1837. The meeting was addressed also by James Haughton, who stated that “although the Irish people, as a nation, always kept their hands clean from participation in the guilt of the African slave trade, that did not weaken their responsibility. It might be that our countrymen in America were sometimes misled, and their ideas perverted, by the outcry of mob opinion in favour of slaveholding.” Remond was presented with an Address of the Irish People to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America urging Irish Americans to oppose the barbarism of slavery.

In speaking in the Round Room of the Rotunda, to an audience that included notable Dublin citizens, Remond received a welcome not unlike that afforded to those who came before her. The welcome of many Irish nationalists was not unlike the friendly hand extended in the past too, but as I noted in a recent piece on Equiano:

It would be a gross over-simplification to insist that Irish radical separatism and the cause of abolitionism have always gone hand in hand; in the 1840s, The Nation newspaper proclaimed that slavery in America was no concern to Irish republicans, as, “we have really so very urgent affairs at home … that all our exertions will be needed in Ireland. Carolina planters never devoured our substance, nor drove away our sheep and oxen for a spoil … Our enemies are nearer home than Carolina.”

By the late 1860s, Remond had settled in Italy. As the website BlackPast notes, “although subsequent records of her life remain scarce, one of the last sightings comes from none other than Frederick Douglass. While visiting Italy in 1886 Douglass encountered Remond and two of her sisters.  All three Remond women had chosen exile over life in the United States.” She died in December 1894.

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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you will have heard that Sam Maguire is to remain in Dublin at least a year longer. This year marked the 80th anniversary of the last time the Liam McCarthy cup resided in the Irish capital, something which went largely unmentioned. This wonderful clip from British Pathe, audio and all, captures the 1938 All Ireland Hurling Final and is criminally underviewed on YouTube. Dublin defeated Waterford 2-5 to 1-6.

The archive clip is noticeable for the wonderful shots of the Croke Park crowd and terrace. While the official attendance at the match was 37,129, the news clip gives a significantly higher estimate, and the ground seems packed.

Much has changed since 1938, evident even from reading the beginning of the Irish Press report on the occasion:

Liffey men, Lagan men, Suirsiders, Leesiders, country folk and city dwellers, some from every one of the 32 counties, encircled Croke Park’s playing pitch yesterday and saw Dublin win the nation’s premier atheltic trophy.

The actual match was not outstanding – spectators found it a ding-dong terrior-like game – but the unique atmosphere of an All-Ireland Hurling Final was present. It was more than a game, it was a national occasion. Sections of the crowd were still singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ when Padraig Mac Con Midhe, Preisdent of the GAA, escorted the Bishop of Waterford on the field to throw the ball in.

In time, the writer got to the action:

Dublin’s lead was reduced to two points shortly before the end, and Waterford, fighting hars gve its supporters – there in big numbers – some hope that they would win the day. The Metropolitan hurlers, however, kept their territory intact. All-Ireland Champions, they yet again have won the coveted trophy their opponents have yet to capture.

Remarkably, Jim Byrne of the 1938 Dublin hurlers is the only native Dubliner to have won an All-Ireland hurling medal. As Hell for Leather: A Journey Through Hurling in 100 Games notes, the strong Dublin sides of the 1920s and 30s were drawn from right across the island of Ireland, as “the exclusion of native Dubs from their own county team peaked in the 1920s and 1930s when legions of countrymen migrated Liffeyside to join the guards, army or civil service.” When Dublin won the 1927 All-Ireland hurling final, there was not a single native Dubliner on the team!

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“The Dublin play that started London!” (Image credit: the excellent JPdonleavy-compendium.)

J.P Donleavy’s The Ginger Man is, to my little mind, second only to Ulysses as a Dublin masterpiece of fiction. Like Joyce, Donleavy had his fair share of detractors upon publication of the work, and its eventual banning on both sides of the Atlantic was almost routine. The novel trashes the proclamation of politician Oliver J. Flanagan that there was “no sex in Ireland before television”, and it is a brilliant journey through the catacombs, darkened alleys and public houses of the Irish capital in the 1940s, through the eyes of a sex (and drink) addicted American here thanks to the post-war G.I Bill that enables him to study in Trinity College Dublin. In particular, I adore Brendan Behan’s brief cameo as Barney Berry, “son of the rightful Lord Mayor of Dublin.” Behan was the first to see a manuscript of the work, and his amendments were mostly included by Donleavy.

As was the custom for a 1950s masterpiece, Donleavy’s work made the leap from printed word to stage, being performed in London and Dublin in 1959, four years after its initial publication in Paris. The stage adaptation, performed at the Gaiety Theatre, made it all of three nights before being shut down by clerical pressure. It remains one of the most curious incidents in the long history of Irish censorship, showing that there were agents beyond just the state who wished to control what was read, seen and enjoyed by the Irish public.

When The Ginger Man took to the London stage, it attracted the ire of some in the Irish media. The play was running at the same time as Brendan Behan’s The Hostage and Seán O’Casey’s Cock-a-doodle Dandy, with the Evening Herald lamenting the politics of these works for providing a view of Ireland that was “misleading and distorted….A non-Irish foreign visitor to London would come away from these plays with a depressing opinion of Ireland.”

Richard Harris dominated the reviews of The Ginger Man, with even the most cynical of theatrical reviewers acknowledging his brilliance in the role of Sebastian Dangerfield. At London’s Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden, they came to hear every bad word, though a few were cut. After six weeks, the production transferred to Dublin. Here, it made it all of three performances before clerical pressure led to its sudden cancellation.

To the Evening Herald, a trip to the play amounted to a “sordid and repulsive evening to the theatre.” Going further still was the Irish Independent, to whom the play was a disgrace almost without parallel:

The Ginger Man is one of the most nauseating plays to ever appear on a Dublin stage and it is a matter of some concern that its presentation should ever have been considered. It is an insult to religion and an outrage to normal feelings of decency.

Unlike the Playboy of the Western World, The Plough and the Stars or The Rose Tattoo, there was nothing in the line of audience denunciation, at least nothing significant enough to make it into the media. But then, after only three presentations, it was reported that the play was finished. The following statement was issued by the Gaiety to the press on the third night of the run:

The management of the Gaiety announce that the run of The Ginger Man will be discontinued after tonight’s performance because of the lack of co-operation by Spur Productions Ltd. of London, who refused to make cuts as demanded by the management on Monday.

The driving force behind the collapse of the production was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. As McQuaid’s biographer John Cooney has noted, “one of the Archbishop’s secretaries arrived at the theatre to convey His Grace’s disapproval of the play, which had been described in the newspapers as an insult to religion and decency. ‘There goes a battleship’, Richard Harris remarked as the priest left the theatre.” In the words of theatre historian Joan Fitzpatrick Dean, “McQuaid’s action was perhaps most menacing because it was not only so effective but also wholly outside the rule of law.” McQuaid’s influence would be utilised repeatedly in this period against what he regarded as low culture. Famously, he would condemn Edna O’Brien’s breakthrough novel as “a smear on Irish womanhood”.

Donleavy never forgave McQuaid for his action, and it took four decades before the play returned to the stage in Dublin for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1999.  Despite its initial banning, more than forty million copies of The Ginger Man have been sold internationally, and Sebastian Dangerfield’s exploits continue to shock and fascinate new readers.


In memory of J.P Donleavy, who died a year ago this month.

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History On Your Doorstep

Back in 2011 I attended a conference in Barcelona where social historians and others active in a similar field of history to ourselves from across Europe met up and talked shop. I was very struck in particular by a group called Raspouteam from Paris, who took images of the iconic Paris Commune and essentially pasted them onto the contemporary streets. It was all very naughty, seditious and illegal of course.

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‘La Commune’ – BY RASPOUTEAM

The idea of putting historic images back on the street in relevant places stayed with me. When I was fortunate enough to get employment with Dublin City Council as one of their Historians in Residence, the idea came out almost immediately for something called ‘History On Your Doorstep’.  It is, of course, very different from that glorious French street art intervention. Done in conjunction with the city, it nonetheless would bring historic images back to the places they depict and capture.

All of the images featured are taken from Dublin City Archives, contained in the expansive Pearse Street Library. Already, a team of us have compiled dozens of these, with a few already on the streets in various forms. They are in Ballybough (Heffo’s Army), Chapelizod, Dolphin’s Barn, Cabra, Finglas and more besides.

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Historic images of Seán MacDermott Street and biography of the Fenian leader.

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1930s Cabra and Herbert Simms, Naomh Fionnbarr’s GAA.

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“Many bridges to cross” – Ringsend.

This is still in its infancy, and hopefully in time the various info boards and banners across the city can be mapped and put online. Do keep an eye out for them however, and remember that these images all come from the archives of the city. Anything that takes history and puts it back where it was made is something I see as a worthwhile endeavour.

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US 1920s advertisement for the Tommy Gun, “the gun the bandits fear most.”

In time of revolution, hushed meetings can happen in the most unlikely of places. In revolutionary Dublin, intelligence policemen followed republican suspects from cafe to newsagent and everywhere in between. At the National University of Ireland, Earlsfort Terrace, both students and staff had radicals in their midst.

That some prominent nationalists worked in academia at the university ensured that more than just academic issues were discussed on campus. P.J Paul, Officer Commanding the East Waterford Brigade in the intensifying guerilla war in the Irish countryside, recalled meeting Richard Mulcahy in his office in the university in 1921 to discuss the course of the conflict, before being taken to another room in the University:

which I remember had the name on the door saying that it was the room of Professor Eoin McNeill. There I met Emmet Dalton and a man named Cronin, an American, and another American who was with him. I was shown a specimen of the Thompson sub-machine guns which I learned were being smuggled in from America in some quantities. The two Americans were the experts on the gun and they demonstrated how it worked and explained its mechanism.

The Thompson submachine gun, or the Tommy Gun, was invented in 1918 by United States Army officer John T. Thompson, coming onto the market in 1921. The gun is synonymous in popular culture with Prohibition-era Gangsterism in the U.S, recalling Al Capone and incidents like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The so-called ‘Chicago Piano’ has maintained a lasting place in popular memory owing to television shows like Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders. Still, before the gun was ever utilised in the chaos of mob warfare, it was tested by the Irish Republican Army in Marino and fired for the first time in a military capacity in an IRA ambush in Drumcondra. For the Irish republican movement on both sides of the Atlantic, the gun would represent a definitive turning point in the war in Ireland. Internationally, it is remembered as “the gun that made the twenties roar.” In Ireland, it arrived late in the War of Independence, but would have a formative influence in subsequent political turmoil.

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A famous 1930s Hollywood depiction of the Tommy Gun, from Scarface: Shame of the Nation.

Developing and selling the Tommy Gun:

For General John T. Thompson, the journey towards a “one-man, hand-held machine gun” began in 1916 with the foundation of the Auto-Ordnance Company. Financially backed by American insurance magnate Thomas Fortune Ryan, a supporter of the Clan na Gael Irish-American Fenian movement, Thompson’s gun prototype was initially known as ‘The Annihalator’.  Unsurprisingly, the gun attracted the attention of Irish republican representatives in the United States, who supplied IRA GHQ in Dublin with as much information as possible on the Tommy Gun and its capabilities. GHQ relied on number of channels – including the Liverpool docks and European arms dealers – to equip the IRA in its guerilla campaign, and attempted to remain abreast of developments in arms on the continent and beyond.

The Tommy Gun was not cheap, retailing at $225 a piece. Likewise, the absence of suitable ammunition in Europe would create real headaches. Still, greatly encouraged by reports of the guns capabilities, IRA GHQ encouraged those in America to secure quantities of the weapon. Having received cuttings on the gun from Harry Boland in the U.S, Michael Collins sent a memo to the Quarter Master General of the IRA in January 1921, writing “I wonder if you saw the attached having reference to the submachine gun. It looks like a splendid thing certainly. I’d like to know what it costs.”

By May 1921, small quantities of the gun were beginning to arrive in Ireland, along with Major James Dineen and Captain Patrick Cronin, former officers of the US Army who were to train IRA men in their use. Oscar Traynor of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade later recalled:

The first introduction of these guns followed the arrival of two ex-officers of the American Army, one was Major Dineen and the other, whose rank I forget, was named Cronin. These two men were made available to the Brigade for the purpose of giving lectures and instructions in the use of the Thompson submachine guns. The lectures, which were given to selected men of the Dublin Brigade, consisted in the main of taking the gun asunder, becoming acquainted with the separate parts and securing a knowledge of the names of these parts, the clearance of stoppages, as well as the causes of these stoppages. In the early stages it was not possible to give practical demonstrations of the shooting powers of these weapons, but the handling of the guns, together with the methods of sighting, made the men reasonably proficient.

In the presence of Dineen and Cronin, the gun was test fired underground at the Casino in Marino before a select audience of IRA men. Vincent Byrne recalled that “It was Cronin who gave the demonstration. Standing back a few yards, he fired at a tin can. The first shot lifted it into the air and he kept hitting it in mid-air. The Big Fella and Mulcahy were delighted at the results and our only wish was that we had plenty of them.” Tom Barry of the IRA’s 3rd West Cork Brigade fired the gun at Marino too, but the massive roar of the gun led to fears the men would be discovered. All in attendance left impressed by its remarkable capabilities.

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The Casino in Marino, where the IRA tested the Tommy Gun for the first time. (Image Credit: WikiCommons)

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In March 2013 we published an article on the site looking at the Papal Cross in the Phoenix Park. For the week that is in it I have revisited this subject, and this is an expanded piece on the subject. The original comments are included below.

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Irish Independent map, September 1979.

Yellow and white pontifical flags are flying on the main streets. Bright coats of green paint have been slapped on hundreds of buildings and “Brits Out” and other graffiti have been scrubbed from thousands of walls. At Phoenix Park in Dublin a 200‐foot steel cross, bleachers and vast roped enclosures await a crowd of a million for an outdoor mass Sunday afternoon.

So wrote The New York Times days before Pope John Paul II arrived in Ireland in 1979. American readers were told that “no Pope has come to Ireland before, and John Paul’s visit is viewed here as a kind of papal blessing on Irish nationhood.” Never mind New York, perhaps the truest observation came from The Spectator on the neighbouring island, proclaiming that “Ireland in its history has been more loyal to Rome than Rome has been to Ireland.”

When it was all over, they made their way home from the Phoenix Park in their hundreds of thousands, still streaming out of the park six hours after the conclusion of mass. The Irish Independent correctly proclaimed that it all “proved the most major feat of organisation in the history of the state.”

Little remains to be said or written about that Papal visit of 1979. The lasting legacy, of course, is the Papal Cross monument in the Phoenix Park, which will be central to this weeks visit by Pope Francis. The story of its construction and placement in the Phoenix Park is the stuff of legend, with the structure turned around in mere weeks. The visit saw something in the region of a million people crowd into the park, with six thousand people in the choir alone. The Papal Cross was the work of Scott Tallon Walkers Architects, and cost an incredible £50,000. It was constructed in the Inchicore steelworks factory of J and C McGloughlin, and the structure weighed in at 31 tons. It, in many ways, was the main symbol of the event, attracting international media attention and designed to capture the magnitude of the occasion.

Writing about the cross in 2004, architect Ronnie Tallon gave some idea of how quickly the project was completed, noting that:

At the beginning of August 1979, I received a call from the Archbishop of Dublin appointing our practice to design and build an outdoor event for the celebration of Mass for one million people. He had just received confirmation that the Pope was coming to Ireland in eight weeks’ time.

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The arrival of the cross in the Phoenix Park, Irish Independent.

The sheer scale of the event is clear from all the small details of the day. The Papal carpet alone was two acres in size, and was delivered to Dublin upon three lorries, each carrying thirty rolls. The carpet was made in Antrim, the home county of the Rev. Ian Paisley, something which the media didn’t fail to comment on. Ian Paisley outlined his “total opposition” to any attempt by the Pope to visit the north, and in the end Dundalk was as far north as he went.

Tallon recalled that “we decided that we required a cross the height of Nelson’s Pillar, which was 125 feet high, which would be clearly visible to all from the furthest reaches of the vast congregation and which would give a sense of focus to the occasion.” Tallon was afterwards awarded a Papal knighthood for his efforts in designing the cross and altar for the historic event. According to Tallon, “normally if you were doing a steel contract it would take six weeks to get the material in and another twelve weeks on top of that to have it fabricated and erected.”

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Evening Herald, 1979.

The cross arrived at the park on 7 September, and took a rather unusual route, beginning its journey in Inchicore but heading into the city and crossing the O’Connell Bridge. The sheer size of the structure meant that this longer journey was required, as shorter routes would not accommodate the cross. It took two hundred-ton cranes to lift the cross into position. Was Tallon ultimately satisfied with his Papal Cross? He would tell a journalist that “I’m never happy with anything I’ve made and if I was I’d retire. It’s one of the difficulties of any creative society. You aim at perfection, which is impossible to achieve.”

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