If there is anything more depressing than a study of Dublin’s slums in detail it is a study of Dublin’s slum-dwellers…They look like people who have no healthy interests, no fresh and natural desires, nothing that the wildest imagination could call dreams; people who go through life as a narrow, burdensome, unintelligible pilgrimage; they have lost the capacity of sympathy, understanding and hope.

-From William Patrick Ryan’s The Pope’s Green Island, 1912.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the death of Herbert George Simms, Dublin’s pioneering Housing Architect. We have previously examined Simms in this piece on housing in 1930s Dublin. Much can be taken today from the work of Simms, who was responsible for the construction of some 17,000 new working class dwellings in his time in office, ranging from beautiful Art Deco flat schemes in the inner-city to new suburban landscapes. Speaking to a housing inquiry in 1935, Simms outlined his belief that “you cannot re-house a population of 15,000 people, as in the Crumlin scheme, without providing for the other necessities and amenities of life.” Future decades and failed projects have proven those words correct.

The death of Simms in September 1948 was tragic, with the architect throwing himself in front of a train near Coal Quay Bridge. His suicide note, which was rather curiously reprinted in the Irish Press newspaper, said “I cannot stand it any longer, my brain is too tired to work any more. It has not had a rest for 20 years except when I am in heavy sleep. It is always on the go like a dynamo and still the work is being piled on to me.”

To mark the anniversary of his passing, today we post this stunning image from the collections of Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive. It shows a familiar Dublin landmark, in the form of St. Michan’s Church, but also the meeting of two ages of housing in the Irish capital. On our right, we see the construction of the Greek Street flats. These flats were described in the press as being of “the most modern type….to us they recall photographs of municipal flat schemes from Berlin,Moscow or Vienna.” On the otherside, the tenement slums of Mary’s Lane remain. The image appeared in the Evening Mail, and captures the beginning of the work of Herbert Simms for Dublin.


Image Credit: Dublin City Public Libraries and Archives.

Simms will be honoured in October with the Simms120 conference, open to the public though registration is required:





“The pirate buses used to go around to all different routes. Oh, they could go anywhere they liked. They weren’t confined to one route – a free-for-all! There was no bus stops, anybody could just put up their hand and stop you anywhere. Oh, they’d cut one another’s throats.” (George Doran in Dublin Street Life and Lore, Kevin C. Kearns)

Prior to the Dublin United Tramways (Omnibus Services) Act, 1925., Dublin’s streets were akin to the high seas with privateers commanding routes at will in their ships (buses) with names adorning their sides such as the Whiteline Bus Co., the Blueline and Excelsior Bus Company and the Old Contemptible Omnibus Company. The act empowered the Dublin United Tramways Company to ‘provide and maintain omnibus services in the city and county of Dublin’ and was to spell the end for the private (or as they became known, pirate) bus companies as one by one they dropped off or were consumed by DUTC. The act was in part a response to the marauding pirates who, free from regulation were a law onto themselves. Their presence was seen as an affront to the city’s traditional tramlines, and a perhaps a signal of the demise of her once famed tram system.



The pirates had several tricks up their sleeves and at all times were on the make- their goal was to pick up as many customers as possible and free from the constraints of the electric lines required for lighting and moving the carriages used on the tramways, were better able to navigate Dublin’s streets. Because of this, the buses were known to slowly drive along lines, delaying trams and allowing their colleagues to race ahead and poach customers. In response, tram drivers would sandwich buses front and back and refuse to move until they had emptied.

The pirates were notorious for their ill behaviour- not just against the tram drivers but also among themselves. In the words of  tram driver William Condon, “Oh they were a desperate gang. They wore their own clothes, no uniforms. And they’d blow their horns at one another and hurling words and shaking their fists at one another. The attitude in the pirate business was, ‘I’ll do it my way,’ and rough language.” (Dublin Voices: An Oral Folk History, Kevin C. Kearns.)

The Old Contemptible Omnibus Company formed in 1924 and was owned by a Kathleen Gilbert of Clontarf. Its initial route ran from Eden Quay to Abbeyfield in Killester,  “primarily to serve the ex-servicemen’s housing estate built there in the aftermath of the first World War.” (Irish Times, April 4th 2016.) Their drivers tended to be veterans of the war and their fantastic name stems from military lore, with survivors of the British Expeditionary Force post WWI dubbing themselves “The Old Contemptibles” due to a dismissive quote by Emperor Wilhelm II.  Their routes would later expand to Philipsburgh Avenue, Howth and Dollymount using 26-seater and 32-seater buses manufactured by Guy Motors in Wolverhampton.

contemptible bus in Fairview

An alleged Contemptible Omnibus in Fairview

The Old Contemptibles weren’t the only soldiers on the road, with the same article stating “after the end of the Civil War in 1923, some ex-servicemen used their demobilisation gratuities to buy a small bus, taking advantage of the lack of regulation to compete with each other and with the tramway company and railways.”

The Company was not averse to the ill feeling between the privateers and the DUTC, with both appearing in Dublin Circuit Court in April 1927 pursuing counter claims against each other for an accident that happened the previous October. Reading from the Court Notes, it appears a ‘Contemptible’ bus and a ‘DUTC’ bus were involved in a collision near Liberty Hall, as they both looked to be racing for the same spot on the road. “On behalf of the tramways company it was submitted that as their ‘bus emerged from the archway, the ‘Contemptible’ bus was obviously making for the same archway, and was only about 50 feet away. The tramway ‘bus came to a stop without any danger or trouble, but the other driver made no attempt to avoid it and crashed into it. The driver of the ‘Contemptible’ ‘bus was, it was stated, on his wrong side and was not going for the proper arch at all.” (Irish Times, April 8th 1927)

In time, the DUTC would vanquish Dublin’s pirates, little by little buying out the myriad of companies and it would be over 80 years until their descendants in Dublin Bus would relinquish control of their routes to privateers again.



Newgate Prison from Robert Pool & John Cash. Views of the most remarkable public buildings, monuments and other edifices in the city of Dublin; 1780 (Dublin City Council)

Though a grim thought to us today, many eighteenth century Dubliners regarded public hangings as public spectacles. While some voices maintained that nothing of merit could come from “bringing unhappy wretches through a city, amid the sighs, and too often the commendation, pity and tears of the common people”, others reveled in the scenes and crowded streets.

I’m currently reading Brian Henry’s study Dublin Hanged: Crime, Law and Punishment in Eighteenth Century Dublin. Published 25 years ago this year, it is a masterclass examination of crime and responses to it in the Irish capital, drawing heavily from the eighteenth century press.  It’s interesting to note how punishments changed over the course of a century, and likewise how the attitude of Dubliners towards very public spectacles of death changed too.

By the end of the century, the authorities wished to put an end to the centuries-old spectacle of hanging processions in the city,  which essentially witnessed the condemned riding in a cart through the city – followed by family, friends, the generally curious and the more than occasional jeering spectator – towards the “fatal tree” in the vicinity of Stephen’s Green. These were, Henry notes, “well publicisied affairs and attracted huge numbers of people.”

By Janaury 1783, it was time for change, with the Lord Lieutenant ordering that future executions occur instead on the city’s northside outside of the Newgate Prison beside Green Street. The site of the prison is today occupied by St. Michan’s Park, where a monument commemorates John and Henry Sheares, two prominent United Irishmen. Following their betrayal by a paid informer, they were hanged outside the prison in 1798, walking to the gallows holding hands, comrades and brothers until the end. The inscription on the monument notes, “within this park once stood Newgate prison associated in dark and evil days with the doing to death of confessors of Irish liberty, who gave their lives to vindicate their country’s right to national independence.”


Erin reflects in the playground of St. Michan’s Park.

Not all who went to the gallows of Newgate prison were “confessors of Irish liberty.” The first man to meet his end there was Patrick Lynch, hanged on 4 January 1783. Lynch was tried and sentenced only a day earlier for robbing one Mr. Dowling and firing two pistol shots at him in the process. Lynch was sentenced under the Chalking Act, under which those convicted “were to suffer death without benefit of the clergy, a medieval term which came to mean loss of regal recourse. In 1784 the Chalking Act was amended and those convicted under it were to have their bodies, after hanging to death, delivered to the surgeons in Dublin or the anatomists at Trinity College, Dublin for dissection or anatomisation.”

If the intention in moving hangings from the Stephen’s Green area to Newgate Prison was to prevent a public spectacle,  it was a colossal failure. The area in the vicinity of Green Street was a long established market district, beside the Ormond fruit and vegetable market and amidst a warren of streets occupied by small shops, making it a hive of activity. Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh, in their classic history of Dublin, were scathing of conditions in the prison and its locality, noting that it was “environed by dirty streets,and in so low a situation as to render the construction of proper sewers to carry off its filth impracticable.” To them, it was quite simply “a disgrace to the metropolis.”

Less than 24 hours after his conviction, Lynch, a member of a sizeable criminal gang in the city who had been tried previously for several robberies and burglaries, appeared on the front steps of the prison. The executioner fixed a noose around his neck, attaching it to a mechanical apparatus on the first landing, then “Lynch was suddenly hoisted up in the air by a pullet affixed to the window just above the front door.” The Dublin Evening Post described the hanging apparatus thus:

A tremendous apparatus for the execution of criminals is fixed at the front of the New Gaol in the Little Green. It consists of a strong iron gibbet with four pulleys of the same metal, underneath which is a hanging scaffold on which the fated wretches are to come out from the centre window and on a signal the supporters of the scaffold are drawn from under it and the criminals remain suspended.

His body swung there from noon until four in the afternoon, witnessed by thousands of people. It was a grim spectacle, to such an extent that in its aftermath it was decided bodies should not be suspended for more than an hour at future hangings. The manner of hanging was brutish, Dubliners christening the “city crane” which so violently lifted men to their deaths. It was quickly replaced by a drop platform system, ensuring that the Newgate’s second victim met a quicker end.

Not long after Lynch’s death, reference was made in the press to troublesome young men who were “loose, idle and very profligate fellows…belonging to the gang of that heinous offender, Lynch, who was lately executed in that exemplary manner.” Patrick Lynch was the beginning of a tradition of death by hanging at the Newgate that would continue into the nineteenth century. The site gained a certain romanticism because of the death of prominent United Irishmen there. In 1898, nationalists marked the centenary of the United Irish rebellion by parading at the site of the prison and playing the ‘Marseillaise’ to the memory of those who had died for the ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. Yet most of those who were hanged at the prison were lowly criminals like Lynch, and there was no romanticism in their deaths before the Dublin crowds. The prison finally closed in 1863, and was demolished thirty years later.




The Dublin Festival of History begins next week, and will run right through into a brilliant weekend of talks in Dublin Castle. There are over 140 events taking place in Libraries across Dublin. Highlights include a talk from the team behind the marvelous Atlas of the Irish Revolution, songs from the struggle for Suffrage  and  Paddy Cullivan’s very funny yet very serious 10 Dark Secrets of 1798.

I have quite a few talks in the Festival. Please note that in the programme I am down for several walks, unfortunately I’ve broken my ankle (one of the few things in life that actually is as bad as it sounds), the 1918 walk from the Mansion House will go ahead in the very capable hands of Justine Murphy, while the Revolutionary Dublin tour is in the hands of Dr. Brian Hanley, author of The IRA 1926-1936, The Lost Revolution and a new study from Manchester University Press examining the impact of the conflict in the North of Ireland on southern society.

Catch me hobbling into the following libraries:


Tenements and Suburbia, 27 September, 6:30PM

Gaelic Sunday 1918, 4th October, 6:30PM.


The Many Lives of Jackie Carey, 25th September, 6:30PM


Tenements and Suburbia, 24th September, 6:30PM.

30th Anniversary of Feel No Shame: An Interview with Christy Dignam, 26th September, 6:30PM (booked out)

The Life and Politics of Liam Mellows, 1 October 6:30PM.


From The Plough to the Stars: James Connolly at 150, 28 September,1PM.


1918: The Year Everything Changed, 29 September, 11:15AM.





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.


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.

Screenshot 2018-09-16 at 10.22.04 PM

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.

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!

%d bloggers like this: