Archive for the ‘Dublin History’ Category


The Custom House (illustration by by James Malton)

The architect James Gandon (1743-1823) is today synonymous with Dublin. While he worked in other cities, and was born in London’s New Bond Street, his most celebrated works are to be found here. From the Four Courts to parts of the historic Parliament building on College Green, and from Kings Inns to the Rotunda Assembly Rooms, his work is a reminder of the style of the Georgian period that transformed Dublin.

His first project in Dublin was undoubtedly his most controversial. While the Custom House is today recognised as a Dublin landmark building, the very prospect of its construction infuriated Dubliners who believed it would shift the entire axis of the city and negatively effect their own incomes. So controversial was the development, that Dublin workers (dismissed in contemporary accounts as ‘rabble’) would force their way onto the site of the development, led by the firebrand “populist patriot” James Napper Tandy.

Moving the Custom House:



The earlier Custom House at Essex (now Wellington) Quay.

Before Gandon’s Custom House, an earlier one could be found at Essex Quay, more or less at the site of Bono’s Clarence Hotel. Constructed in 1707, it was plagued by numerous problems, including the fact large vessels had difficulty reaching it thanks to the presence of  a large reef known as Standfast Dick that proved a nightmare for anyone navigating the Liffey! As Maurice Curtis discusses in his recent history of Temple Bar, other problems included the fact that large vessels often had to use smaller craft , known as ‘lighters’, to unload cargo owing to difficulties in navigating up the Liffey, and the building itself was problematic, with its upper floors discovered to be structurally unsound in the early 1770s.

By 1773, plans were afoot to address the problem, with the powerful Revenue Commissioner John Beresford leading the campaign for a new Custom House to be constructed further eastwards.  He proposed a new and enlarged development, though almost immediately the proposals were met by protest.  As Joseph Robins notes in his history of the Custom House, “the proposal was opposed by a variety of individuals who feared their interests would be damaged by any shift in the location of commercial activity. Petitions against the project were presented by the merchants, brewers and manufacturers of Dublin, and by the city Corporation, but the government decided in 1774 to go ahead with the move.”

James Gandon arrives in Dublin:

The architect selected for this development was the Londoner James Gandon, grandson of French Huguenot refugees who had fled religious persecution. Gandon had already been awarded the Gold medal for architecture by the Royal Academy in London, and was in considerable demand beyond these shores; the Romanov family had attempted to lure him to St Petersburg around the same time as the Custom House controversy in Dublin.

When Gandon arrived in Dublin, he was kept a virtual prisoner by Beresford. His biographer Hugo Duffy has written of the real fear that gripped Beresford, writing that Gandon’s suspicion of the whole project “must have been heightened when he realised the opposition was so violent as to keep Beresford in a state of anxiety lest it became known that the architect had arrived.”

The primary figure that stood between Gandon and the new Custom House was James Napper Tandy, one of the great characters of the Dublin of his day. An ironmonger by trade, Tandy was elected to the City Assembly in 1777 and was a champion of the Dublin poor, not to mention a vocal campaigner against corruption in local politics. Later a founding member of the United Irishmen, many were unkind towards his appearance, with one observer of a political meeting he addressed remembering:

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.


Memorial plaque to Napper Tandy, in the park at St Audeon’s, Cornmarket (Image: CHTM)


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Burying Patrick Ireland.


‘Patrick Ireland 1972 -2008’, in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (Irish Museum of Modern Art), (Image: CHTM)

The recent passing of Bishop Edward Daly was a reminder for many people of the horrors of 30 January 1972, when British paratroopers opened fire on a Civil Rights demonstration in Derry.

While there had been earlier atrocities against the civilian population in Ulster, such as that at Ballymurphy,the manner in which the carnage and mayhem in Derry was captured on film ensured international outrage. In particular, images of Bishop Daly with his blood-soaked white handkerchief trying to escort  young Jackie Duddy to safety were reproduced in the press, along with the faces of the dead. In 2010, David Cameron would apologise in Westminster for the actions of British troops on the day. In Derry, it brought some closure but no justice. The city corner, a former British Army major, had correctly called the events out for what they were in August 1973:

This Sunday became known as Bloody Sunday and bloody it was. It was quite unnecessary. It strikes me that the Army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a march that was banned but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately. I would say without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder. It was murder.


Symbolic coffins left outside the British Embassy at Merrion Square following Bloody Sunday. The building was later set on fire by protestors. (Image Credit: Scannal, RTE)

Walking in the grounds of the Royal Hospital recently, I went looking for the small memorial stone to ‘Patrick Ireland’ in the grounds, a small reminder of the impact of the events of Bloody Sunday on one Irish man. Born in Roscommon in 1928, the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty was already well-established in the United States at the time of the massacre. In the 1960s, he had been art critic for the New York Times, as well as an on-air contributor to NBC television. Deeply troubled by the events at home, O’Doherty decided to adopt the name ‘Patrick Ireland’, later telling a journalist that “the name at least became a reminder. Every work I did after that gained a political context for me and for anyone who may have wondered who Patrick Ireland was.” The symbolic changing of name happened in a performance piece in the Project Arts Centre, entitled Name Change, with the artist Robert Ballagh serving as witness. O’Doherty vowed to sign his art as Patrick Ireland, “until such time as the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights.”

As Whitney Rugg has noted, O’Doherty was a significant figure in the American arts community at the time, “serving as editor-in-chief of Art in America, perhaps the broadest and most mainstream journal for American art at that time.” His protest was widely commented upon in the arts world, where the response to his actions was mostly positive.


(Image: CHTM)

By 2008, O’Doherty felt that his own criteria had been met, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the continuing Peace Process. Symbolically, an effigy (complete with death mask) was buried in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in May 2008, with several hundred people in attendance. Michael Rush, a former Jesuit priest who became a Museum director, facilitated a short service during which a number of poems celebrating peace were read.

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Perspective Sketch from 1973. ‘Fire Brigade Headquarters suggested additional commercial development’. Submitted to Corporation of Dublin Planning Department. Click to expand.

Back in January, we had a post on the blog dealing with the theme of ‘Dublin Re-Imagined’.  It looked at some of the proposals for Dublin in decades and centuries gone by that fell by the scrapheap, including the Dublin Metropolitan Railway and the Merrion Square Cathedral that never was.

In some ways, this post is similar, though it deals with  a familiar Dublin landmark that could have been radically altered.The Tara Street Fire Station, opened in 1907 by Dublin Lord Mayor Joseph Nanetti, was the work of the celebrated City Architect C.J McCarthy.  He was responsible for a number of Dublin fire stations, and  it has been noted that his “renaissance-type brick buildings” in Dorset Street and Tara Street were the most “interesting and original”of these stations.


Photograph of the fire station from the year of its opening.


Postcard from 1907, following the opening of the station (Las Fallon)

This 1973 perspective sketch for the transformation of the station is interesting for a number of reasons. The vision of architect Alica Kelly and drawn by T.Durney, it presents a radical new vision for the site.

Firstly however, beyond the fire station itself, it is truly a product of its time. Notice the flared trousers of the passer-by, and the design of the cars in the streetscape! To the left of the historic tower, an advertisement for tobacco is visible in the larger image above.


This plan would have kept the historic tower, which rises to a height of almost 40m, but almost all around it was to be transformed with modern development replacing McCarthy’s site. The curve in the building would have been lost, along with much of McCarthy’s vision, though it should be noted the very function of the building had changed much in almost seven decades. No longer where there ‘married quarters’ within the station, where firefighters wives and children once lived. With that in mind perhaps, the architects here sought to use such space for commercial purposes. In truth, CJ McCarthy’s own vision for the station wasn’t quite ever realised, with his much more ornate tower rejected for a simpler design among other revisions.

My thanks to Mark Leddy for providing the Perspective Sketch for this piece.


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What links Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, Brendan Behan, Green Day and early morning techno gigs? One address – 1 George’s Quay, Dublin 2.

1 George's Quay, 2016, Google Maps.

1 George’s Quay, 2016, Google Maps.

On the southside of the city between the new Rosie Hackett Bridge and Butt Bridge, this well-known and loved early-house pub closed in July of this year and re-opened a month later as a Starbucks.

The pub was situated on the corner of George’s Quay and Corn Exchange Place (formerly White’s Lane). Its address was 1 George’s Quay but the location was often mixed up for Burgh Quay.

As The White Horse, it was a popular haunt from the 1950s to the 1970s for the city’s journalist and literary set due mainly to its close proximity to the Irish Press building. In the 1980s and 1990s, its upstairs ‘Attic’ venue played an important role in Dublin’s rock and alternative music scenes. A relatively unknown Californian punk band called Green Day played there to less than 40 people in December 1991 at a gig organised by the pioneering Hope Collective.

Most people would probably say that the pub lost its true charm after a massive refurbishment job in 1998. However, up until recently as The Dark Horse, it played host to an array of techno, reggae and other ‘underground’ gigs. Its closure sees the city’s number of early houses drop to eleven.

19th century history:

Captain William Bligh, who was in command of the infamous HMS Bounty in 1789 when its crew famously rebelled, arrived in Dublin in September 1800 and stayed for about a year. A number of accounts have him staying in lodgings above the tavern at 1 George’s Quay. During his time here, he conducted a survey of Dublin Bay and recommended the construction of the Bull Wall. There was apparently a plaque outside the pub confirming the validity of this historical claim but it has long since disappeared.

In this wonderful scene from 1820, you can clearly make out 1 George’s Quay. It is the brown building in the mid right of the engraving with a prominent chimney. The neo-classical Custom House (opened 1791) is on the left and the Corn Exchange (opened 1816) with its distinct granite facade is on the right.

The Custom House viewed in 1820 from Burgh Quay showing the Corn Exchange on Burgh Quay and ships moored along the quays. Engraved by Henry Brocas. Credit - magnoliasoft.net

The Custom House viewed in 1820 from Burgh Quay showing the Corn Exchange on Burgh Quay and ships moored along the quays. Engraved by Henry Brocas.
Credit – magnoliasoft.net

In this version of the above drawing, published on the National Library of Ireland website, it is possible to zoom in and make out that the name above the building is ‘White’s Spirits Stores’:

Zoomed in version of the engraving from the NLI website.

Zoomed in version of the engraving from the NLI website.

This corresponds with William Phipps’ book The Vintner’s Guide (1825) which lists a Philip White at 1 George’s Quay:

White, Philip. 1 George's Quay. The Vintner's Guide (1825) by William Phipps

White, Philip. 1 George’s Quay. The Vintner’s Guide (1825) by William Phipps

In a 1846 commercial directory, a vintner Eliza Fagan had taken over the business. In Thom’s Dublin Street Directory (1862), the premises was owned by a “wine & spirit dealer” by the name of William Bergin. Denis Bergin, presumably his son, sold the pub in 1880.

An Irish Times article (29 June 1880) described the premises as an “old – established wine and spirit concern” situated in this “great leading thoroughfare and commercial district, close by Corn Exchange, and the immediate shipping traffic, which … always leaves it one of the most desirable houses of its kind in the city”.

The public house had “recently undergone a complete change, having been taken down and rebuilt in its present modern form at an outlay of several thousand pounds.

No detail was left out in the newspaper sale advertisement:

The exterior has a most substantial and appropriate appearance. The shop has three entrances, with folding doors to each, panelled with diamond-cut glass. There are six large-sized plate glass windows, with zinc blinds and bronze gas bars to each.

The interior is fitted up to modern style and in keeping with mercantile utility ; range of bar fixture the entire length of shop, in architectural form, with massive column supporters, surmounted by deep, concise,elaborately carved and finished, with eight-day clock in centre ; presses and lockers under for bottled wines, malt drinks and mineral waters : range of counters with return ends and four-fly partitions panelled to match doors and in keeping with the wainscoting round the shop : five large-sized oval spirit casks, in oak and gold : several five-light gasoliers in bronze, a very superior six-pull porter machine …

The upper portion of the house forms a most comfortable residence, 5 sitting and bedrooms, kitchen, 2 pantries, lavatory …

20th century history:

The 1901 census shows that James Ennis (50), a “Tea and Spirit Merchant” from County Meath, lived in the building with his sister Ellen (35). They employed two commercial assistants – William Byrne (30) and John Byrne (23). Both from County Carlow and possibly brothers. A servant Mary Monaghan (50) from Meath also worked for the Ennis siblings. All five individuals in the house were Roman Catholic and unmarried.

James Ennis died in 1905 and the pub was taken over by businessman John McGrath.

In the 1911 census, John McGrath (33), a Licensed Vintner from County Monaghan was living there with his wife Mary (23), from DunishalCounty Wicklow, and their two Dublin-born daughters  Lizzie (3) and Mary (11 months). They employed two shop/pub assistants James Fitzpatrick (18), from Ferns, County Wexford, and Robert Leggett (21), from Dublin. A domestic servant Kate Kavanagh (17), from Thurles, County Tipperary, also worked in the house.

As this wonderful photograph from May 1915 shows, the pub was only separated from the Tivoli cinema by a small laneway. The title ‘J. McGrath’ is clear above the door and on the top storey.

Tivoli Theatre with P. McGrath's (later White Horse Inn) in background. Photographer: Robert French of Lawrence Photographic Studios, Dublin Date: Circa Monday, 31 May 1915 Credit : National Library of Ireland

Tivoli Theatre with P. McGrath’s (later White Horse Inn) in background, 31 May 1915. Photographer: Robert French. Credit : National Library of Ireland


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Plaque marking the office of The Nation, Middle Abbey Street.

The impressive Independent House on Middle Abbey Street still carries the names of the Evening Herald and Irish Independent upon it, though today they are mere ‘ghost signs’, as the Independent Media group have relocated in recent years to Talbot Street. Easier to miss than the names of these contemporary newspapers is a small plaque marking the fact that the site was once home to the offices of The Nation, an influential nationalist newspaper that began life in the 1840s.

Instigated by the Young Ireland movement, and spearheaded by radical nationalists like Thomas Davis, William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchel, The Nation provided a platform not only to nationalist political ideas but to cultural output too. It was within its pages that ‘A Nation Once Again’ first appeared, the work of Thomas Davis. Women could contribute to the newspaper, and one such contributor was Jane Wilde. Writing under the pen-name ‘Speranza’, Lady Wilde’s poetry was often seditious in nature, calling for armed revolt against British rule in Ireland.In particular, she attacked the British political establishment for creating the conditions that allowed famine to ravage rural Ireland, and called the peasantry to revolt:

Fainting forms, hunger-striken,

what see you in the offing?

Stately ships to bear our food away,

amid the stranger’s scoffing.

From ‘The Famine Year’


Jane Wilde, who contributed to The Nation under the name ‘Speranza’

As Christine Kinealy has written in her study Repeal and Revolution: 1848 in Ireland, Jane Wilde would come to be an inspiration to later generations of female nationalists, including Countess Markievicz and Alice Milligan, one of the leading-lights of the Irish Cultural Revival. At the time of  Jane Wilde’s passing in 1896, Milligan wrote of her “matchless spirit which in a time of doubt, danger and despair, she brought to the service of Ireland.”

The Young Irelanders would ultimately attempt insurrection in 1848, in a year synonymous with revolution and revolt on the European continent.  In a country ravaged by starvation and disease, any such rebellion was doomed. John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the movement, would later declare that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in 1854 into a peculiar household, with a mother who was an unrepentant nationalist poet, and a father who had been knighted in the 1860s for pioneering work in his own field. Oscar would maintain that the best of his education came from his association with his parents and their remarkable friends, and their Merrion Square home was a hive of discussion and cultural activity.

As a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and Oxford, Oscar Wilde first burst into public consciousness as a poet (“The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame” wrote Punch) and a hugely entertaining and engaging public speaker, a recognised figurehead of the aesthetic and decadent movements of the late 1870s and early 1880s. In 1882, Wilde departed for the United States on his first speaking tour there, quickly  discovering that in many circles Speranza was a more recognisable public name than Oscar Wilde. Promoters began including mention of her on advertisements for Wilde’s lectures, and the Arizona Weekly Citizen condemned Oscar as being “so low that he does not scruple to advertise himself for a dollar a ticket as the son of Lady Wilde (Speranza)”.


A mocking cartoon from the time of Wilde’s 1882 tour to the United States. (Image Credit: Oscar Wilde in America)


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In May of this year, the veteran Socialist activist Eamonn McCann was elected to the Stormont Assembly as MLA for the Foyle constituency. It was a remarkable achievement, all the more impressive given the election of his People Before Profit  colleague Gerry Carroll in West Belfast. At 29, Carroll’s political education came from campaigns like that against the Iraq War. For McCann, it was the Civil Rights movement that erupted in the North of Ireland in the late 1960s that would influence the course of his life to come.

On September 17 1970, there was widespread condemnation in the press for the actions of McCann at the Peacock Theatre (affiliated with and hosted by the Abbey), when he interrupted a performance he believed made a mockery of the worsening political situation in Ulster.  ‘A State of Chassis’, described in the press as a “satirical revue”, was the work of the Abbey’s artistic director, Tomás Mac Anna, and the Belfast journalist John D. Stewart. It was not the first production in the history of the Abbey to be interrupted,  but it was a reminder to many in the south of the tensions at play in northern society.


Irish Independent front page, 17 September 1970.

Before the performance, McCann distributed leaflets outside the theatre appealing for funds for the defence of Frank Roche, who had caused quite a stir by throwing C.S gas canisters into the House of Commons. As D.R O’Connor Lysaght noted in an article at the time of Frank’s passing in 1993, this act “caught people’s imagination, angered the Establishment and, without killing anyone, made its point, as Frank put it, that ‘that’s what it’s like, you bastards.'”

What irked McCann and others about the performance in the Peacock was the caricature of Bernadette Devlin. At only 21 years of age, Devlin had been elected to the House of Commons in 1969. In that same year, she published The Price of My Soul, a book that remains essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the emergence of the Civil Rights movement in Ulster. Devlin argued for a class-based approach, maintaining that “we refused to accept the politicians’ logic that the problem could be seen in terms of Catholic versus Protestant.” McCann, Devlin and those around them were young, yet their political ideas had developed well beyond the traditional camps in Ulster. They were internationalist in outlook, and saw events in Ulster in the context of an international movement for Civil Rights.


McCann with Máirín Keegan of the Young Socialists at the Peacock, with thanks to the Irish Republican & Marxist History Project.


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This week, my ‘Hidden Histories’ slot on Newstalk Breakfast looked at the history of the Irish and tattoos. The last item on the show, time was tight but we covered quite a bit and I thought the slot worth sharing here. It was a chance to draw attention to the great research of Damian Shiels on the Irish in the American Civil War,  and I particularly enjoyed digging into the archives to look at some of the coverage of Dublin’s first professional tattooist,  Johnny Eagle, from Irish newspapers in decades long past.

John Larkin (1929-2015) was better known to generations of Dubliners as as Johnny Eagle. Born at the tail end of the 1920s, he opened his first studio at Frenchman’s Lane near Busaras, though in the years that followed he moved around the city (indeed, the name can still be seen at the top of Capel Street). When Michael Vincy of The Irish Times interviewed him in 1962, he wrote that “there are some 200 tattooists in Britain,one in Ulster, and Johnny as far as he knows has the Republic to himself.”  His obituary in the same newspaper last year noted that Larkin’s neighbours once believed he drove a van for a living. Certainly, Dublin today is a more inked city than in the early days of Johnny Eagle.


1962 feature on visiting Johnny Eagle’s tattoo shop.



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