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HandsOffDublin

The cover of Hands Off Dublin, a collaboration between campaigner Deirdre Kelly and photographer Pat Langan

Deirdre Kelly was only 61 years of age at the time of her passing in 2000, but by then she had done so much. In the words of Dublin’s finest historian, David Dickson, she “became the most fearless community activist – on the streets, in the courts and with her polemical Hands Off Dublin.”

Author, activist and conservationist, she was to the fore of the battle for Dublin, founding the Dublin Civic Group and instrumental in bringing about the Dublin Crisis Conference in 1986. Together with the work of others like Uinseann MacEoin and Frank McDonald, she helped to shine a light on poor planning and the threat to the heritage of the city. She was centrally involved in the campaign to save Hume Street from demolition, which first brought her to public prominence.

Crucially, Kelly (earlier Deirdre McMahon), MacEoin and others were important in changing the image of heritage activism in the city, concerned as much with the proper provision of houses and facilities for Dublin in the present as with saving the past.

In June 1963, the writer Barbara Page lamented those who she felt were concerned only with the Georgian past:

My work takes me frequently into the slums and tenements of Dublin, and although I love the city I feel often depressed and dispirited at the end of the day. I listen to the fine talk of the Georgian Society and read the pleas to save our Georgian Architecture. I climb the stairs, four and five storeys, of Georgian tenements…to rooms unfitted for modern living. There are times when I wish I could make the Gerogian admirers live in these hovels.

No such criticisms could be levelled against an activist of Deirde Kelly’s standing.

The Battle for Hume Street:

Hume Street, and the occupation of a number of endangered buildings by architectural students and conservation activists, drew significant national and even international attention onto the threats facing Dublin’s Georgian heritage.

A significant catalyst for public debate had come earlier, in August 1957, with the demolition of two Georgin houses on Kildare Place, next to the National Museum of Ireland. Campaigners, including Uinseann MacEoin and Seán Ó Faoláin, had argued that these houses had importance in helping to tell the story of the city, and positioned them in an Irish context:

We believe that the architecture of Dublin in this period – the period of Grattan’s Parliament – is one of the country’s chief treasures and to the educated traveller one of its principal attractions. These houses have no particular historical associations: they form a part of a great heritage which was allowed to go to waste in the last century, which, if every effort is not made in the present, will be dissipated. The preservation of a few historical buildings do not keep a city’s character: it is the total effect of houses such as these which made Dublin unique.

The campaigners lost, but the Irish Georgian Society would emerge. Frank McDonald, in his study The Destruction of Dublin, quotes one Government Minister as stating “I was actually glad to see them go. They stood for everything I hate.” The IGS, as McDonald writes, was born “with the twin aims of awakening public interest in Ireland’s heritage of Georgian architecture and spearheading a campaign for its preservation.”

Hume Street played out differently from Kildare Place. Moving beyond words of condemnation into action, the site was occupied in an attempt to stop its destruction. Visiting it in January 1970, journalist Mary Kenny described Deirdre McMahon as leading the occupation:

The architectural students occupying the house at No.1 Hume Street operate in a rigidly democratic manner and proclaim not to have any specific leader. but a yougn woman, Deirdre McMahon, is clearly emerging as a spearheading force in the movement… Miss McMahon, a first year student at UCD, is Dublin-born and bred (from Leeson Street). She is lively, merry and extremely resourceful. She is full of purpose about the project of saving Dublin, but she is clever enough to avoid sounding a hotheaded extremist.

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Irish Press image of the occupation.

Hume Street had been brewing for some time,with the Green Property Company acquriing property there from 1966. In December 1969, when the first demolition began, concerned students and others moved in, occupying the site. This was in the aftermath of the destruction of similar Georgian houses for the premises of the Electricity Supply Board, and feeling was running high. Sam Stephenson, the architect of the ESB offices, took a dim view of the Hume Street occupation, insisting that the protestors should “stop bleating on about all of Georgian Dublin being preserved for posterity – posterity might not want it.”

Reflecting on the Hume Street occupation, Deirdre remembered “we used to have school parties coming in, people came from Belfast and places like that to visit us. We spent a lot of time showing people around.” The occupation lasted several months, and had some curious moments, like the arrival of a Christmas hamper for the students from Charles Haughey.

Things turned ugly in June 1970,when private security arrived to remove the students occupying the building in the dead of night. The violence was serious, condemned as the “strong-arm methods of a private army employed by property speculators”. Gardaí, not for the first or last time, watched on as private security removed protestors from a building. Widespread condemnation followed,and a protest that evening would be addressed by Mary Robinson, Noel Browne and others.

Hume Street was a noble defeat, but a victory in a sense that it demonstrated the broad support for conservation campaigns in the city, a perfect rebuff to the idiody of Minister for Local Government Kevin Boland, who had denoucned the protestors as “a consortium of belted earls and their ladies and left-wing intellectuals.”

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Deirdre Kelly at Christchurch Cathedral.

The Living City Group and the Dublin Crisis Conference:

Beyond Hume Street, Deirdre involved herself in a number of important 1970s campaigns in the city with the Living City Group, and published City Views, which shone a light on poor planning in the city and threats to heritage. The group was founded by Niall Montgomery, Aidan Kelly (her husband, and the business partner of architect Uinseann MacEoin in MacEoin Kelly Architects) and herself, but quickly formed an active and commited membership.

Some of the language around Kelly in the press was typical of its time, described in the Irish Independent in 1976 as “housewife who leads war on the planners”, but despite such language she seized upon any and every opportunity offered to put forward her argument:

She does not like the Living City Group being referred to as a conservation group, because this term deals mainly with buildings, whereas their greatest concern is with people and protecting them in their small communities. It’s the threat to these communities with which Mrs. Kelly is concerned at present. The threat, she says, is contained in the Draft Development Plan for the city.

Kelly’s impassioned plea for a new approach to planning, Hands Off Dublin! , highlighted all that was wrong in the Corporation’s Draft Development Plan, in the words of one reviewer, “people before traffic, homes for them near their jobs and property speculators way behind in the list of what Dublin needs is what this book is all about.” With Pat Langan’s brilliant photography, she demonstrated the destructive impact road widenings would have on inner-city Dublin communities, communities she always insisted wanted to live in the city. Cleverly,she and Pat took a busload of local politicans and journalists around Dublin, visiting places mentioned in their study and highlighting the potential negative impact of changes on communities. At the heart of Kelly’s argument for Dublin was for the centre of Dublin to be embraced as “the living heart of a capital city.”

One of Kelly’s greatest moments – in conjuction with other longstanding voices for the city – was the Dublin Crisis Conference, which drew up a Citizens’ Alternative Programme for Dublin. Drawing up a 16-point Citizen Alternaive Programme, the iniative won the support of organisations as diverse as the Architectural Association of Ireland, Dublin Council of Trade Unions, Students Against the Destruction of Dublin, the Liberties Association and the Concerned Parents. There is still much of merit and wisdom within the programme. It drew attention to the need for improved public transport, highlighted the decay of Dublin’s docklands (insisting that it was vital the land there “is developed as a diverse and humane environment in the context of a community planning framework which is compatible with the needs of existing residents”) and opposed road widening schemes which threatened the fabric of the capital.

Beyond her work as an activist, Kelly also produced a brilliant local history Four Roads to Dublin: The History of Rathmines, Ranelagh and Leeson Street, published by O’Brien Press. As with many of her contemperaries – Uinseann MacEoin, Frank McDonald, Máirín de Burca (of the Dublin Housing Action Campaign) – she fought plenty of battles, lost a few and won others. Still, she shifted views, and opened up improtant discussions on the direction in which Dublin was heading. She is commemorated today with a memorial in Ranelagh, where a plaque reminds us to think about the streets we walk down as living streets:

Wherever one walks, one is conscious that these are living streets, steeped not just in their own history but woven into the history of Dublin. Writers and musicians, unionists and nationalists, scientists, poets and artists lived and still do – in the houses which line these streets.

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A place to sit and reflect, Deirdre Kelly’s Ranelagh memorial (Image: Dublin City Architects Blog)

With the departure of the British Army from Inchicore’s Richmond Barracks and the birth of the Irish Free State, the barracks was renamed in honour of Tom Keogh. One of the ‘Twelve Apostles’ and a trusted member of The Squad, the assasination team within the IRA’s Dublin Brigade assembled by Michael Collins, Keogh had played an active and important role in the Irish revolution. Killed in September 1922 during the subsequent Civil War, the naming of the barracks was a form of commemoration, but the military life of the barracks was short following the birth of the state.

Only weeks into 1922, the press were pondering if former British barracks could be utilised for housing. The Irish Independent wrote:

The buildings of the married quarters in most of the barracks might be utilised for housing families and relieving congestion while a proper housing scheme is being put into operation. The sites also offer scope for industrial establishments, and for such the buildings could be used without much remodelling.

By 1924, working class Dublin families were living in what was now known as Keogh Square. Four years later, it was reported that “248 families now are housed in the barrack building…and 218 families in houses recently built on a thirteen-acre field adjoining.” Given the history of the site, those who lived there became known as ‘Barrackers’.

History has not been kind to Keogh Square. In 1969, as the St. Michael’s Estate scheme prepared to open in its place, the demolition of the old homes of Keogh Square was described as “sounding the death kneel for the old world and symbolising the new decade of progress.”

The scheme is remembered today as a place which had a tremendous sense of community, but which was also among the most deprived working class housing schemes in the country. Initally, the converted barracks space had been considered decent with regards public housing, but conditions worsened as the scheme grew. The Dublin Tenants Association in 1918 had deplored Dublin Corporation for builing what they termed “neo-slums” in the place of the old across the city, but Keogh Square was different. When initally converted, each flat contained its own toilet, a large living space and a kitchen. Still, things gradually were left to decline. Local resident Nora Szechy, in her memoir of growing up in 1940s Inchicore, recounted that “it was a converted soldiers barracks to give housing to the poor. It was a dark, dilapidated tenement, which smelt of poverty and decay.”

Conditions in Keogh Square were regularly discussed in the press in the decades following independence. In April 1933, there was widespread coverage of the refusal of tenants to pay rent in protest at conditions, with residents organising themselves into the Keogh Square Residents Association. In 1957, Frank Sherwin T.D went as far as to say, over-dramatically, the conditions were “a kind of concentration camp if you like”,language only matched by the Irish Press, who described it as “a warren of decayed houses, human despair, a seeming example of man’s inhumanity to man.”

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The opening of St. Michael’s Estate, 1970.

Keogh Square made it to the late 1960s, a time of considerable change in public housing in Dublin. For many, the seven Ballymun towers, named in honour of the executed 1916 leaders, are the enduring memory of that time,but change was apace across Dublin. St. Michael’s Estate was an impressive scheme in scale, as four eight-storey towers and seven four-storey blocks would replace what had stood before.

The new buildings were architecturally striking,designed by Arthur Swift and Partners. Still, as occurred on the otherside of the Liffey with the Ballymun scheme, there were critics who maintained services were inadequate. In her excellent recent study, Housing, Architecture and the Edge Condition: Dublin is building, 1935 – 1975, architectural historian Ellen Rowley quotes one 1960s voice as stating that “in Ireland, by and large, the struggle has not been to create neighbourhoods but merely to build homes. This is roughly parallel to producing automobiles without building hard surface roads.” Just as in Ballymun, the St Michael’s Estate housing scheme – and Keogh Barracks before it – is now a memory. The excellent Richmond Barracks museum and exhibition space includes reconstructed homes from both Keogh Square and St Michael’s Estate.

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Architectural Survey, 1971. Digitsed by brandnewretro.

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Aerial view of the former St Michael’s Estate. Dublin City Council.

Dazzling Dublin New Wave/Post-Punk band The Atrix are set to release their long awaited anthology. The boxset (available in vinyl and CD) of remastered tracks from the 1979-81 period also includes a 24 page booklet designed by Niall McCormack containing a reflective history of the group by journalist Declan Lynch, song lyrics and photographs.

The relaunch takes place on Thursday 19th September in the Sugar Club. There will be a short comedy set from Kevin McAleer; a poetry reading by Paula Meehan; a roundtable discussion of the Dublin music scene of that era (line up TBC) and a live performance from the band featuring original members Dick Conroy (bass) and Hughie Friel (drums). Tickets (€15) are available here.

The Atrix relaunch poster

Dublin in the late 1970s and early 1980s produced some amazing musical talent and this new release will bring The Atrix’s music to a younger audience of music fans and collectors. The band deserve their place in the top table of local acts alongside The Blades, The Boomtown Rats, The Radiators and U2.

For more on the band, see our previous posts on their singles; ‘A Sense of Ireland’ 1980 festival in London and footage from a 1982 gig in The Top Hat.

Links:

Website – https://www.theatrix.ie/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/theatrixdublin
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/pg/theatrixofficial/

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JSA Architects image of ALDI Terenure, incorporating the old DUTC tram terminus on left and right into the modern design. (Image Credit: JSA)

Before Nelson’s Pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley started from Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston Park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend, and Sandymount Tower, Harold’s Cross.

The hoarse Dublin United Tramway Company’s timekeeper bawled them off:
– Rathgar and Terenure!
-Come on, Sandymount Green!

While forever immortalised in Ulysses, there are still remnants of the Dublin United Tramways Company to be found around Dublin city today, including the former premises of the DUTC on Marlborough Street, which the name of the company in the stonework still.

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1914 image of trams in Terenure. Notice The Eagle House on the left, still going strong today. (Image: National Library of Ireland)

At Terenure,the old and the new meet in a curious way, with historic features of the DUTC tram terminus incorporated into the ALDI development. Not being from the area, but living nearby, stepping inside the ALDI and looking at its surroundings gave me a sense there was a longer history to the site than a supermarket. At the nearby The Eagle House pub, the location where Joyce’s mother was born, pictures on the wall show the local streetscape at a time when trams were a part of life there, the familair red triangle of the No. 15 which serviced Terenure and its environs. Today, Terenure is serviced by the 15 route of Dublin Bus, a nod towards the historic tram route.

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The 15 tram for Terenure in Rathmines.

The Terenure tram depot opened in February 1872, at a time when horses were still utilised by the DUTC. As Joseph V. O’Brien notes, the introduction of electric trams into the city at the very end of the ninteenth century was considered “one of Dublin’s minor glories”, and while critics felt the minimum fare was too high (twice that of Glasgow, a city of considerably more industry), electric trams were widely praised. By January 1900, most of DUTC’s system had moved to the electronic system. It was to be a system which lasted less than a half century. The DUTC made it to the mid 1940s, when – under the banner of ‘progress’ – the tram system in Dublin ground to a halt, with the exception of the Hill of Howth tram which would carry into the subsequent decade. The final tram to pull into Terenure did so on 31 August 1948. Dozens of miles of tram track would dissappear in subsequent decades from Dublin. In time, the city would lay down tramlines once more, but many parts of Dublin once serviced by the DUTC don’t see trams today.

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Liffey Street commemorative plaque to Hector Grey, unveiled in1988.

Passing through Upper Liffey Street recently, I was surprised to see the transformation of the street, with the demolition of a row of buildings that included the site of one of Hector Grey’s Dublin shops. This is to accommodate the construction of another hotel in Dublin, this time a 310 room budget hotel.

Born Alexander Scott in 1904, the name Hector Grey was borrowed from an Australian jockey,an interesting character in his own right who had been banned from horse racing on more than one occasion. Having married Annabelle, a Dubliner from the dockside, he moved to Dublin in the hungry 1920s. Any Dublin memoir from the second half of the twentieth century which fails to mention Hector is incomplete. Journalist Gene Kerrigan captures him best:

He was a big, heavy man, balding, glasses, a strong Scots accent after decades in Ireland, a distinct voice honed on years of street selling. “I’m not asking for three pounds or two pounds! I’m not even asking for a pound!” and we knew he was going to bring the asking price down to ten shillings and the adults considered the wisdom of making a purchase. Yes, it was reasonable value at ten shillings, but did they really need it?

While Hector’s former shop is no more, a small plaque on Liffey Street by the Ha’penny Bridge marks the location where he began trading. Grey’s empire would expand in time to include shops in Liffey Street, Mary Street and the Crumlin Shopping Centre. At the time of his death, an obituary noted that “even when he was a millionaire he came back to this bank of the Liffey to sell from a box anything from Korean umbrellas to Penang penknives.”

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Evening Herald, November 1976.

Beside the Ha’penny Bridge, Hector ran a sort of auction, offering the goods to those willing to pay the highest price. The key to Grey’s success was exploring foreign markets for materials to sell here, as “by exploring the cheap markets of the East he brought many consumer goods to within the reach of the underprivileged.” The form of selling shifted when Hector opened his stores, which became a sort of Aladdin’s Cave offering just about everything you could imagine at knockdown prices. The empire grew to employ more than a hundred people,from John Kearney and Ernie Fields who helped Hector at the Ha’penny Bridge to Joe Flaherty, who became the retail manager of a growing empire. In 1977, the Irish Press noted Grey sold something in the region of a million pounds worth of toys each Christmas.

Recently ,I asked on Twitter for any recollections of Grey and his empire of shops. The thread produced some excellent and personal responses. From Mary Buckley, on the magic of the place:

Kids’ paradise. Crammed with small metal toys in bright colours with movable parts. No computer chips or screens for us then. A clockwork train was the stuff of dreams. Hector made xmas for families with little money that wanted to give their kids nice gifts

Historian Terry Fagan recounted:

Lots of memories of Hector Grey. I remember my father worked on the docks, the boat that came into Dublin Port at Christmas time loaded with toys for Hector Grey & other shops was called “The Blue Funnel” my father & other Dockers got toy’s for their children

Hector died in 1985, and the fact a plaque was unveiled only three years later in his honour says something about his standing in Dublin, a ‘street character’ in his own lifetime. The family continued the business into subsequent years. Long after closing, the name of Hector Grey remained on Liffey Street, as documented by the brilliant builtdublin.com.


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Remembering Seán Treacy

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The unveiling of a plaque to Seán Treacy at the Republican Outfitters, Talbot Street (Irish Press, 1937)

While the focus of many people in Dublin is firmly on the coming challenge of Kerry in the All Ireland Football Final, tomorrow will see a showdown of a different kind, when Tipperary and Kilkenny take to the field of Croke Park.

Those in Dublin at noon should take a stroll down Talbot Street, where a tradition plays out every time Tipperary reach the final. Gathering in honour of Seán Treacy, hundreds will pay their respects at the spot where he was killed before making their way on to Croke Park.

Treacy, born in West Tipperary in 1895, had been a participant in the Soloheadbeg Ambush of January 1919, often considered to be the beginning of the War of Independence, though there had been fatalities on both sides in the years following the Easter Rising and before that ambush. Dan Breen recounted:

…we took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. [Seán] Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces … The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected.

Living in a Dublin safehouse in October 1920, Treacy was caught in a firefight on Talbot Street with Gilbert Price, part of a British Secret Service surveillance team monitoring the Republican Outfitters and seeking wanted men in the capital. The bodies of both Price and Treacy were photographed lying in the street, and while the conflict was primarily being fought in rural terrain, it was a reminder that a war of espionage was being fought on the streets of the capital too. Treacy became one of the most commemorated figures in the aftermath of the conflict. Desmond Ryan, 1916 veteran and later historian of the revolution, wrote on his anniversary that:

Twenty years after his death, his very name is sufficient to dissipate many dark clouds of disappointment and disillusion among those who knew him, to bridge Civil War differences, to dispel the questionings and weariness with which many regard the aftermath of the recent wars of Ireland.

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Memorial card for Seán Treacy

Gathering to honour Treacy at the spot where he died is a tradition now among Tipp fans, one of few commemorative rituals in Ireland which seems to grow with time rather than diminish. Where once flowers were quietly left, now the national anthem is sung, as well as a ballad in honour of Treacy and a decade of the rosary. In 2016, one participant told the Irish Independent that “I don’t think it makes a difference on the game but it represents us and where we come from.” For those of Tipperary blood in the capital too, it is an important celebration of identity.

Video of the 2014 ceremony:

The sign of the Zodiac

A visitor to Bruxelles today couldn’t help but notice the rich musical pedigree of the pub, with framed memorabilia honouring the connection of the establishment to Phil Lynott, whose statue takes pride of place in Harry Street outside the pub.

Bruxelles has layers of history to it however, beginning life as The Grafton Mooney in the 1880s. The unusual Victorian design of the pub was the work of architect J.J O’Callaghan, who has left a rich architectural legacy across the island of Ireland.

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J.J O’Callaghan’s Harry Street design (Dublin City Library and Archive collection)

In 1947, The Grafton Mooney was rebranded The Zodiac Bar, described in the press as the “newest and quaintest cocktail bar in Dublin”. By then, cocktails were very much in fashion, panicking some. In the words of one temperance association that same year:

Due to modern influence, human respect and lack of moral courage, many of our young people are cultivating the cocktail habit, imagining that it charmed away the possible evil consequences of strong drink. Gin was gin, whether it was taken in the ‘Lady in Pink’ or the ‘Lady in Green’

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1947 advertisement for The Zodiac.

At a time when ladies were increasingly accepted in Dublin’s public houses,cocktail focused bars like The Zodiac were opening in the city. More peculiar about the bar than serving cocktails was the iconography of the bar, bedecked with unusual tiled designs “showing the ancient signs of the Zodiac”,which remain behind the main bar today, shown here by DublinTown.

The novelty of cocktail bars (the Evening Herald wrote of the “frivolous, flighty, feather-brained creatures often encountered in American social life” who hung around such establishments) passed of course, and in time the Zodiac was a regular boozer, both like and different from McDaid’s across the street. In the 1970s, at the time of Ireland joining the European Economic Community, the public house was once again rebranded, this time taking the name Bruxelles. The flags of the EEC member states would adorn the walls, as well as tiled features showing the EEC flag, but the zodiac symbols remain for those who look hard enough.

What is that in your hand?
It is a branch.
Of what?
Of the tree of liberty.
Where did it first grow?
In America.
Where does it bloom?
In France.
Where did the seeds fall?
In Ireland.

-Catechism of the United Irishmen.

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Theobald Wolfe Tone, central to Bastille Day celebrations in 1790s Ireland.

To Edmund Burke, the French revolutionaries were “the swinish multitude”, and his Reflections on the Revolution in France set in motion one of the greatest ideological debates of human history. Without it, we would never have had Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, a spirited defence on the revolution and its necessity which was labelled the “Koran of Belfast” by Theobald Wolfe Tone, such was its influence here.

Politics,then as now, played out on the streets as well as in the chambers of power. There could be no greater expression of support for the revolution in France than participation in Bastille Day celebrations, which people here did in their thousands in 1791 and 1792. The presence of uniformed men in military procession, banners thundering support for the revolution and marching bands in both Dublin and Belfast made it evidently clear that while Burke may have been horrified by the spectacle of revolution in France, many others embraced it.

Enthusiasm for the French Revolution in Belfast, and to a lesser extent here, coincided with an age of remarkable change in print media, and the availability of affordable mass produced pamphlets. The Northern Star, pamphlets like Paine’s and Tone’s Arguments on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland all played their part in shaping public discourse and opinion.

Across the island of Ireland, but in particular in Belfast, Dublin and Cork, the words of Paine had an electrifying effect, selling more than forty thousand copies. Paine’s eternal optimism, and his declaration that “it is an age of Revolutions, in which everything may be looked for” appealed to a young and politically hungry generation. There was no greater way of demonstrating your support for that vision than taking to the streets.

The armed Volunteer movement played a central role in the Bastille Day events in Belfast and Dublin in 1791.In Dublin, they paraded to St Stephen’s Green behind a banner bearing the words ‘The Rights of Man’, with a cannon discharged in the Green. Of Belfast, Jemmy Hope recalled that:

The company to which I belonged, marched into the field in coloured clothes, with green cockades. We had a green flag, bearing for a motto, on one side— “ Our Gallic brother was born July 14, 1789. Alas! we are still in embryo”; and on the other side— “Superstitious galaxy”. “The Irish Bastille: let us unite to destroy it.”

Parades, dinners and military processions marked the day. Banners borne in the northern procession linked Belfast to the politics of the day globally, with one asking ‘Can the slave trade though morally wrong be politically right?’ Another banner carried the image of Benjamin Franklin, alongside the words that “where Liberty is – there is my country.” In a city that was coming to pride itself on its political cosmopolitanism, the day had strong international connotations beyond just the Bastille. The incredible scenes in Belfast were noted in France. From the National Assembly of France came the reply to a sent declaration:

LIBERTY OR DEATH! . . . Citizens of Belfast! you have celebrated that Triumph of the human mind, and you have done it with such splendour, as renders you truly worthy to partake of the hatred with which we are honoured by crowned tyrants… we swear to preserve it in our archives.

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Illustration of 1791 in
Belfast. Notice American and French flags flying.

Those who marched in Dublin that year were denounced in the pages of the contemporary press, with the Freemans Journal mocking the class of the men who celebrated the event, as “the French Revolution may give the shop boy a pleasing opportunity of appearing in the disguise of a military officer, or enable the merchant’s clerk to personate a hero.”

In 1792, there were wild scenes in the Falls area of Belfast, where Wolfe Tone rode out of the city centre with some 790 Volunteers behind him, parading down High Street. Tone’s biographer Marianne Elliott note that “some 20,000 spectators were gathered” for proceedings. Marching back into the city later in the day, “the parade was preceded by boys in national uniform carrying banners representing America, France, Poland, Great Britain and Ireland – the last bearing the motto ‘Unite and be free’.” They marched to the White Linen Hall, “fired three feux de joie and assembled inside.” Tone’s address in the Linen Hall demonstrated his political radicalism, maintaining that “no reform would answer to this gathering’s ideas of utility or justice, which should not equally include all sects and denominations of Irishmen.”

By 1793, such public expressions of support for the French Revolution were no longer possible, and the United Irish movement found itself driven underground. Clandestine commemoration and celebration of the storming of the Bastille continued in Belfast, moving to the mountains and to more hushed gatherings in taverns and meeting rooms. When all was said and done, and blood was spilled, the authorities had little doubt of what had motivated so many to join the United Irish cause in the first place. In the words of one report read before the House of Commons, the blame rested firmly on “those destructive principles which originally produced the French Revolution.”

Surrey House, Rathmines

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Surrey House, Leinster Road (July 2019)

Tomorrow morning, a new plaque will be unveiled on 49b Leinster Road, a house of enormous significance to the history of the Irish revolution in Dublin. As the home of Constance Markievicz, the house often operated as a sort of headquarters for the Na Fianna Éireann youth movement of which she was a founding member and important patron. The ‘Surrey House Clique’ was the name bestowed on a group of young Na Fianna activists who grew particularly close politically to the Countess, and who maintained a near constant presence at the home in the lead up to insurrection.

From October 1911, Contance Markievicz lived in this Rathmines house with her husband and their family. The coming and going of individuals from the home was often watched closely by the intelligence police operatives of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Markievicz was anything but discreet in her political pronouncements, with Fianna member James Nolan recalling seeing a tricolour flying from the home on his first visit there, something which may have been in contrast with popular political feeling in Rathmines at the time, a district which would even return a Unionist in the 1918 General Election. Mocking the feeling of the locals, Fianna member Seán Prendergast would recount:

The existence of such a noisy place as Surrey House, with its noisy callers and its equally noisy musicians and songsters, disturbed the peace and quietude of Rawthmines. Surrey House was an intrusion and a challenge to the dignity and respectability and “loyalty” of Leinster Road.

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Theo Fitzgerald (left) who painted the flag of the Irish Republic at Surrey House, Leinster Road. Image: Na Fianna Éireann history blog.

At Leinster Road, the Irish Republic flag which would fly over the GPO at Easter Week was painted by Theo Fitzgerald (full-name Theobald Wolfe Tone Fitzgerald, a young Fianna Éireann activist), with accounts suggesting Poppet, the beloved dog of the Countess, made the task difficult. A Fianna activist recalled that “the flag was on the wall of the top back bedroom for about a week previous to Easter 1916.” It was perhaps unwise to keep such seditious items in a house so frequently raided by the authorities. Of a raid in early 1916, The Workers’ Republic newspaper noted that “no one was in the house except the servants and a few of the boys of the Fianna who make the place their headquarters. While the search was going on these boys and girls kindly entertained the police with songs, music and comforting remarks. Unfortunately, the G-Men have no ear for music.”

The house was frequented by labour leader James Connolly, with Seamus Reader (a leading light of Na Fianna and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Glasgow, centrally important to the importation of arms into Ireland) recalling:

Most of the talking I had with Connolly was in Surrey House in the morning or at night. He more or less told me about the Rising. In November and December, I knew definitely from the Countess and Connolly that there was going to be a rising or a tight. Connolly told me to be prepared for things that would be expected of me. He talked about Trade Unionism and how they were going to run the fight, what was going to happen and what to expect.

In the aftermath of the Rising, Surrey House was badly looted by Britsh forces, with a Fianna Éireann banner among the artefacts taken from the home, while much of its beautiful antique fittings were destroyed. As the biographer of the Countess notes, “furniture was broken, books, ornaments and pictures strewn everywhere. Someone had even taken the trouble to smash every single one of a collection of lantern slides. The garden had been dug in a search for arms.”

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Interior of the George’s Street Arcade, 1950s. (Image: Dublin City Library and Archives)

Dublin Fire Brigade’s Chief Officer Thomas Purcell was only weeks in the job when the South City Markets complex went up in flames, creating panic in the city and drawing huge curious crowds into George’s Street and the surrounding area. All human life was there, as “ladies with Macknintoshes spread over their brilliant evening dress crowded on the pavement with denizens of the Liberties.” The following day, the press would label the fire “one of the most destructive remembered in Dublin for a long time.” In the words of one reporter:

The centre of the markets where the fire orginated became speedily enveloped in flames, which gradually extended before a strong wind in the direction of Drury Street. The flames gained in volume every minute, and stall after stall was caught up by them and reduced to ashes.

The George’s Street Arcade, as we know popularly know it today, stood little chance against the flames of 27 August 1892. Purcell’s men fought bravely and saved what they could, but “the woodwork of the markets offered an easy prey to the fire.” The firefighters could hold their heads up high walking away from the destruction, thanks to their efforts, the bonded stores of Powers whiskey contained within the South City Markets escaped the flames. In a city where the ‘whiskey fire’ of the 1870s was still a living memory, things could have been much worse.

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George’s Street and Fade Street corner view of the markets (National Library of Ireland)

Originally dating from 1881, the George’s Street Arcade was Ireland’s first purpose-built shopping centre, and one of the first on the continent. Designed by Lockwood & Mauson architects, the sheer scale of the market complex is sometimes lost on Dubliners today, forgetting that it compromises not just the central core that we stroll through from George’s Street to Drury Street, but surrounding businesses such as Dunnes, the Market Bar (situated at the site of a nineteenth century abattoir) and others. As architectural authority Christine Casey notes, “the scale and ambition of the market building are remarkable, even by modern standards.” There was initially some hostility to the market locally, owing to the use of English materials and labour in its construction. In the words of The Irish Builder, it was “an English enterprise built by English architects and by English labour.”

In a city more defined by her Georgian heritage, the market structure, constructed in a truly Victorian-Gothic style, is a rare nineteenth century gem in the city. While its exterior is much the same as upon opening, the interior of the market core is the work of W.H Byrne, the architect who initially came second in designing the market, but who was tasked with its refurbishment following the blaze.

From the beginning, the market prided itself on the diversity of its offerings, with 1881 advertisements promoting all from Dublin Bay Oysters to confectionery. Into the living memory of the city, the markets had the feel of a more traditional market place, boasting stalls selling fruits, vegetables, flowers and even two butchers shops and a fishmongers within it into the 1970s. The fortunes of the market dipped in the late 1970s, and it required a significant overhaul, to the tune of £300,000, in the early 1980s, though it was noted that “meticulous in their restoration, the developers showed great reverence for the old Gothic style which they incorporated in the new woodwork, street lamps, etc.”

There is still a great diversity on offer today, with long established Dublin institutions (independent record shop Spindizzy,Simon’s Cafe and Stokes Books coming to mind as our favourites) and new arrivals like the Cheesemongers and wine shop Loose Canon.

This year, the 100th edition of the Liffey Swim will take place in Dublin. The event was famously captured by Jack B.Yeats in 1923,a year when the press reported that the swim was “witnessed by many thousands, who defied the rain and cheered the leading swimmers at the finish.” The terrible weather of that year is absent from the beautiful depiction of Yeats, and so too are the stubborn swans, who “cruised about with proud majestic mien in the water in front of the barge” for half-an-hour before the men contested the swim.

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Jack B. Yeats – The Liffey Swim (1923)

The first Liffey Swim, competed in 1920, was instigated by swimmer Bernard Fagan. A mere 27 men contested the first race, won by J.J Kennedy. It was a time of war and revolution of course; in his statement to the Bureau of Military History, Alfred Burgess, brother of revolutionary leader Cathal Brugha, remembered watching the swim one year, a welcome distraction from the politics of the day:

On one occasion I was looking at the Liffey Swim, from the southside of the Liffey, right opposite Lalor’s. Down under Lalor’s was a lorry load of Auxiliaries, and in one of the windows in Lalor’s was Cathal, looking out of the window at the Liffey Swim also.

For Dubliners, the Liffey occupies a centrally important place in our identity. We define ourselves partly by which side of it we call home, while the “the brewery tugs and the swans” made their way into the poetry of writers like Louis MacNeice. To Joyce, the river was Anna Livia Plurabelle. In more recent times, Damien Dempsey would sing of how “the Liffey cuts the city like a meandering blue vein.” No matter how much we love to gaze at her from Grattan Bridge, jumping into the Liffey is another thing entirely.

From the humble beginnings of 1920, the race has grown into a spectacular event, attracting international swimmers. Last year, 320 men and 219 women completed the Liffey Swim. As a spectator event, it has long drawn crowds too. More media coverage in the past went on Dubliners watching the event than Dubliners competing in it. Take this from 1928:

From windows and roofs the progress of the competitors was keenly watched, and hundreds of people availed of lorries, motor cars, hackney cars, in fact, vehicles of every description to view the swimmers.

Youngsters evinced no trepidation in taking up hazardous positions on the ladders leading to the river and on the parapets of bridges.Their enthusiasm was unbounded, and with them the Lifey Swim is an event that is eagerly anticipated each year. They greeted the victor with wild cheers when he ascended the steps at Butt Bridge, and the Gardaí had to make a passage to enable the competitors to make their way to Tara Street Baths.

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1928 coverage of the Liffey Swim, Irish Independent.

Between 1936 and 1939, the Liffey Swim took place from Bull Wall to Dollymount Strand, at a time when there was real concern about the health risks of pollution in the River Liffey, fears which would later lead to the race being moved upstream in the 1977-1979 period. C.J Smyth, the leading authority on the Liffey Swim, has written about these concerns:

The deterioration of Irish rivers, the increasing incidents of pollution, the seeming indifference of official bodies and the ineffectiveness of advisory boards to the government were a time-bomb waiting to explode. Pollution levels in the Liffey would reach crisis point in 1977 when the river was declared unsafe for humans to swim in.

While the location has shifted, there has been perfect continuity in so far as there has been a race each and every year.

The competition has produced its own heroes too. The youngest ever winner, Francis ‘Chalkey’ White, was eleven at the time of his victory in 1966,and would go on to repeat the achievement the following year. The son of a Guinness brewery worker, he represented the Guinness Swimming Club, and was described as a “wisp of a boy” in the press. Even younger, Mairéad Doran would emerge victorious in 1979 in the equivalent ladies competition at the age of ten.

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Francis (Chalkey) White, 1966 winner (Irish Independent)

The involvement of women in the Liffey Swim has not been without controversy, indeed it was not until 1991 that women were permitted to compete in the same course as men. Prior to this in the 1970s, women contested for the The Tommy May Cup, named in honour of a 1950s winner of the Liffey Swim. As early as the 1920s, some championed the idea of women participating in the event in letters to the press,though unsurprisingly there was later clerical opposition to this idea from Archbishop McQuaid and others. To McQuaid, “Mixed athletics are a social abuse, outraging our rightful, national tradition.”

The crowds observing the event may be somewhat smaller than in earlier decades, but the race maintains an important place in the identity of the city. In 1988, during Dublin’s Millennium celebrations, they raced towards the Dyflin, a reconstructed Viking longboat which served as the finishing line. Still, contemporary accounts are not unlike those of the 1920s, with The Irish Times noting of the 2014 race:

Crowds lean over river walls and bridges along the way cheering them on, while some supporters jogged along foot-paths cheering on their man or woman, all the way through the city centre.

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Brendan and Beatrice Behan, September 1959 (NPG)


In the world of arts and culture, a good name will get you far. So it was for The Pike Theatre in Herbert Lane, with co-founder Alan Simpson remembering:

After much discussion, we fixed on ‘The Pike’, meaning the long pole with a spike on the end, which was used by the Irish insurgents of 1798 to discomfort the slick English cavalry. In other words, we wanted our theatre to be a revolutionary force of small means which, by its ingenuity, would stir up the theatrical lethargy of post-war Ireland.

With seating for just 55 audience members (one British reviewer would recall the audience “Jammed together tight as bricks in a wall, sweating, sticking our elbows into our neighbours, digging our knees into the people in the row in front”) The Pike was hidden away in a Dublin laneway, though what it lacked in size it made for in ambition. While primarily remembered today for a disgraceful raid by Gardaí in May 1957 during a production of The Rose Tattoo, the theatre has a much richer story, bringing the work of respected international playwrights to the stage in Dublin,including Eugène Ionesco, Jean Paul Sarte, Samuel Beckett and others. The theatre hosted the world premiere of Brendan Behan’s The Queer Fellow, a work which had been rejected by the Abbey Theatre.

The Pike was created by Alan Simpson and his wife Carolyn Swift. Both had a history of working with The Gate Theatre of Hilton and MacLiammóir, a theatre which Simpson remembered “brought all the more exciting dramatists of Europe and America to the Dublin stage.” Entering the world of theatre managers themselves, the premises they found in Herbert Lane proved you can do much with little; Simpson recounted “we found a premises which, though not suitable, was just possible – just within our means.” With the outer appearance of a shed,The Pike’s size was something that would be seen both as a pro and con through different eyes. Certainly, it was intimate, and the close proximity of the audience to the stage, and the small size of the stage itself, would impact on The Pike. Speaking in the Dáil at the time of Swift’s passing in 2002, Michael D. Higgins would recount that “The 1950s was an absolute barren place where all the shutters were down”, but that small theatres like The Pike emerged, bringing something new and invigorating to Dublin cultural life.

Despite being housed in a refurbished old Georgian coachhouse,the Pike was more concerned with the contemporary than the past, and stated that “the aim is to stage productions which, for one reason or another, would not be seen in the commercial theatres in the city.” A few things set The Pike apart from its Dublin competitors, including the introduction of late revues, where George Desmond Hodnett (author of the satirical song ‘Take Her Up To Monto’) entertained visitors to the theatre on his piano. “The Follies of Herbert Lane”, packed with humour and performance, filled the tiny little theatre, as revelers made their way home from the pubs of nearby Baggotonia. Actors, including a young Milo O’Shea, made their names before that audience.

Some plays sat better with Dublin audiences than others. Simpson recalled that during performances of Sarte’s Men Without Shadows, “we regularly used to have to bring out female members of the audience in a fainting condition to the lane outside, where they were draped across the bonnets of parked cars, for lack of any better means of dealing with them, sometimes as many as three cars being pressed into service at one time!”

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Hoddy performing on stage at a Pike Theatre late revue.

In England, the maverick theatre director Joan Littlewood would identify the talents of Brendan Behan, but in the same way as her Theatre Workshop championed a writer some would rather keep at arms length, The Pike in Dublin was a welcoming institution for Behan. On reading the play which became The Queer Fellow, Simpson recounted that “the construction was loose and in places repetitious, but it was immediately clear to me that here was dialogue that could grip an audience and twist the emotions this way and that, as only O’Casey had done before.” Behan made rehearsals for the play difficult:

As the momentous day drew nearer,the atmosphere became too much for Brendan, and he took solidly to the bottle, appearing at intervals accompanied by some friendly but uncomprehending soak whom he had acquired in his perambulations through the various pubs in the area. The latter, puzzled as to why he had been dragged away from his creamy pint to this strange, cold garage in a back lane, would sit in the auditorium, muttering amiable obscenities,while Brendan dug him in the ribs and repeated again and again, ‘I wrote that!’

To the audience of The Pike, Behan interruptions would sometimes become a feature of actual performances too. There was no such risk with the work of Samuel Beckett. Though a Dubliner, there was a feel of bringing an international work to Dublin in performing Beckett in the theatre.Waiting For Godot had divided opinion when performed in London, Simpson recalling that “the popular press dismissed it as obscure nonsense and pretentious rubbish”, but in Dublin the response was much more favourable. Godot ran, and ran, and ran, breaking all records and becoming the longest continuous run in Irish theatrical history to that point.

The story of the 1957 production of The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams has been well told elsewhere, but unfortunately it has become the primary memory of the Pike Theatre in Dublin. The use of a condom on stage as a prop was enough to cause indignation, and to lead the Pike Theatre into the criminal courts, though as Hugh Oram rightly notes, “the fact that the Pike Theatre put on works by the likes of Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett became overshadowed by a controversy that to modern eyes seems utterly ridiculous.” One actor in the production later recounted how “I brought a nightdress and a toothbrush with me to the theatre each night, in case I would end up in Mountjoy.”

The play had been met by positive reviews, the Irish Press insisting that “once again, The Pike must be highly recommended for giving Dublin a remarkable piece of theatre”,but that counted for little when the Gardaí arrived, arresting Simpson and bringing him to the Bridewell, where he was formally charged with “presenting for gain an indecent and profane performance.” While the trial would subsequently collapse, it has a real impact on many involved in The Pike, perhaps discrediting the immortal words of Pike writer Brendan Behan, of their being “no such thing as bad publicity, except your obituary.” One outcome of the lunacy was a stifling of creative output, Simpson recounting that “I had, for obvious reasons, to avoid the presentation of any play which could possibly be considered even faintly controversial.”

Writing of 1950s Dublin cultural life, the critic Brian Fallon has maintained that “Undoubtedly, most of the laurels for the decade belong to the gallant little Pike.” Today, no plaque in Herbert Lane marks the spot where a tiny little theatre attempted to reinvent Irish theatre, but closed its doors in 1961. In less than ten years, the little theatre of Swift and Simpson had done so much.

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