"More historical Dublin" Ireland Travelogue by Lochlainn
Ireland Travel Guide: 15,539 reviews and 34,427 photos
As we ended up in St Stephens Green in the last travelogue let's start this walk by looking around the park itself, kindly redeemed from its private status by Lord Ardilaun (aka Arthur Guinness - but not <i>the</i> original, his great grandson) in 1880 and given back to the public. Since then it has become a repository of many busts and statues depicting famous Irish personages (famous British personages were either removed by the Corporation or helpfully blown up by impatient republicans in the early years of the Irish Free State). One of these erected in the 60s depicts the United Irishmens' leader Wolfe Tone, standing proudly before a backdrop of giant rectangular granite slabs. Hours after its unveiling the Dubs had already christened it "Tone Henge"! The pond, fed by water from the Grand Canal, is home to quite a few ducks. Back in the 1980s for a few years Dubliners were entertained by the sight of a mother duck, who had taken to making her nest in the grounds of the nearby parliament buildings. When her ducklings hatched she would walk them in single file across the busy roads, through the railings and into the pond every morning and do the return trek every evening. This mini-parade was effected safely thanks to a police escort demanded by the public and authorised by the then taoiseach! If one leaves the park by the Wolfe Tone statue exit one finds oneself face to face with one of Dublin's more prestigious hotels - The Shelbourne, down the left of which runs Dublin's street of parliament (as opposed to Dublin's Parliament Street which is over a mile away from here! - Find out why later).
As mentioned earlier this was all once land belonging to the townhouse of the Earl of Leinster and Kildare - hence the street name. His old townhouse is now surrounded by two almost symmetrically designed edifices, one housing the National Museum and the other the National Library. Both are free to enter, and the museum hosts a magnificent display of Celtic Irish gold artefacts amongst its many displays. The grand entrances to these buildings are obscured from the street by a curtain wall, originally intended to be demolished to make Kildare Place an open plaza but retained for security reasons once the Irish government took up residence. As you can imagine this street has seen some lively anti-government demonstrations over the years - the most entertaining in recent times being when the farmers descended on Dublin driving hundreds of sheep into the headquarters of the Department of Agriculture next door to the museum. Dubliners wryly debated at the time whether the department's productivity actually improved with their influx of new 'staff'!
Turn right at the end of Kildare Street and proceed a short way up Nassau Street until you arrive at a crossroads. You are now very much in Wilde territory - Oscar that is, though his father, Sir William, who lived in the house diagonally opposite to you, was very much locally renowned before him as a notorious womaniser and surgeon (in Dublin that order would be deemed correct!). The park facing you is Merrion Square and in the corner there is now a statue depicting a young Oscar reclining on a rock and gazing into his father's love nest. What either would make of this particular juxtaposition is anyone's guess! The square itself, though run by the Corporation, is owned by the catholic church, who purchased the site with a view in the 1960s to building a giant (and unnecessary) cathedral there. Given the era of atrocious architectural follies in which it would have been built we can only thank heaven the plans came to nought. A pointer to the park's landlords is a sign inside the main gate declaring it to be Archbishop Dermot Ryan's Park, though there would be few Dubs who would have heard of - or indeed acknowledge - such a title. To us it's Merrion Square and a grand spot for a ramble round. By all means do so and exit by the childrens' playground back onto Merrion Street.
Across the road you will see the National Art Gallery - in the process of being enlarged and well worth a trip round. It flanks one side of the parliament (Dail Eireann), the other is flanked by the Natural History Museum. To discourage people from assuming they had entered the wrong building when the Dail set up next door, the museum curators moved the stuffed gorillas that once faced you as you entered to a new location upstairs. In their place is a magnificent skeleton of the now extinct Irish Elk. To the left of the museum stretches a long Victorian edifice - now called Government Buildings but once the old department of Agriculture and Science. This reflects the fact that the Royal Dublin Society, established for the furthering of science and agricultural technology, were once the landlords of Leinster House. The Dublin Horse Show - their flagship event and still a popular attraction at their Ballsbridge headquarters every year - was held for many years on the lawns where the museum and art gallery now stand. Pause at the archway looking into government buildings and marvel at the grandiose spectacle inside. Then take stock of the fact that this restoration was conducted to the tune of millions of pounds worth of taxpayers money in the economically lean 1980s by the then taoiseach Charles Haughey as his own personal headquarters. The man has been described as either a fiscal genius or crook depending on who you talk to (sometimes the same person!). It was inevitable that such an act of lavish expenditure be marked by a Dub epithet - to all and sundry this architectural marvel is now known as the Chas Mahal!
Merrion Street emerges into Baggot Street Lower and you will instantly notice how both the former and latter streets narrow suddenly at this junction. This was not meant to be the case - but the powerful Wide Streets Commission in the late 18th century met fierce resistance from local traders and house owners who refused to allow their premises to be demolished. This resistance lasted right up to to 1800 when the Act of Union effectively ended all plans to 'improve' Dublin so the half-finished streetscape plans are evident to this day. Tourists (if not motorists) may be grateful for this particular bit of perseverance on their part as two of Dublin's most visited pubs, O'Donoghues and Doheny&Nesbitt's, occupy some of these reprieved buildings. To your left the street runs up to Baggot Bridge, where the road crosses the Grand Canal. In the 13th century a small castle lay just beyond that again - Bagoth Rath - and it was from this that the thoroughfare was named. The site of the bridge also marks a spot where felons were publicly hanged for centuries and some would say the same fate should be reserved for the architects responsible for destroying much of this Georgian terracing in the 60s and 70s to create the hideous office blocks that mar this once beautiful street. Close your eyes as you pass them and proceed to the bridge however. The view up the canal is quite picturesque, and is famous now also for its association with the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Patrick spent much of his time around here, broke, abusive and inebriated, but struck a chord with many people with his poems evocative of rural Irish life in his native Monaghan. One can admire the view sitting beside the man himself - or at least a life size statue of him!
Proceed down the canal path and you will pass the top of Lower Mount Street where the 1916 rebels scored their single most effective military success, the gunning down of two British army battallions rather stupidly marching down the middle of the street in broad daylight to the city centre hot spots. The IRA brigade that carried out this ambush had detached from their main company stationed in a strongpoint on Grand Canal Street, Bolands Bread Mills, which can be seen from the next bridge. Their leader there was Eamon DeValera, later to serve Ireland for years as both taoiseach and president. The site itself has been transformed in recent years into a financial centre - as has most of this street indeed, a line of unbroken office blocks, apartments and hotels now lead down to Lincoln Place. Turn right at the end and you are onto Westland Row, the site of the world's second commercially run railway - that of Dublin to Dun Laoghaire and opened in 1834. Its first passenger carrying vehicle, the Hibernia, rocketed the length of the line at dizzying speeds approaching 10 miles per hour! In the first few months of its operation a combination of floods and bad engineering necessitated the reconstruction of some of its bridges and a lot of its tracks (being pioneers more or less in railway engineering they had tried using granite sleepers, not a successful experiment at all!). Despite this and a lot of local opposition to the whole idea the railway survived. The ornate bridge you see linking the station entrance to Trinity college is a much more recent addition, built when the northern and southern railways were linked by the controversial loop-line in the 1890s. Continue beneath this bridge and straight through the intersection with Pearse Steet ahead, then proceed down Lombard Street to the City Quay and prepare for a visual feast.
From where you emerge on the river you have arguably the finest view available across the river of arguably the most beautiful of Dublin's Georgian buildings designed by James Gandon. Built on a bend on the river so it could be viewed from as far uptown as the Four Courts (another great building Gandon helped create), the whole visual effect was destroyed when the infamous loop-line railway bridge was built right next to it in 1892. Further aesthetic insult was added to this injury in the early 1960s when the 'skyscraper' of Liberty Hall was erected next to the bridge and Gandon's intentional horizontal linear design, echoing the flow of the Liffey itself, was negated by this perpendicular glass and concrete concoction. The building of the Custom House was not without controversy itself. It's construction was a concerted effort by Luke Gardiner and his crony John Beresford, head of the revenue department, to wrest the commercial centre of Dublin from its existing location on the Capel Street axis upriver to this reclaimed section adjacent to Gardiner's new Georgian developments, a move which understandably was not to the liking of the centre's traders. The old custom house (the site is now U2's Clarence Hotel) was proving difficult for ships to reach in any case, and the parliament, then meeting at College Green, also fancied another part of the same plan - a new bridge called Carlisle Bridge (now O'Connell Bridge) that would link them handily to their new swanky residences on the north side of the river. The plan therefore got the go ahead but this initial opposition proved to have been the least of Gandon's problems. Foundation after foundation seemed to find yet another underwater spring upon being dug and the site seemed destined to return to the river from where it had been reclaimed! Dubliners took to calling the place Beresford's Baths and proved their point during a summer heatwave when hundreds of them broke down the scaffolds and availed of the flooded foundations to swim in one Sunday morning! It was then Gandon struck upon the novel notion of building the foundations on 'floating' rafts of timber, with layers of silk between each brick course to allow the water to flow through the foundations rather than erode them. Much to everyone's surprise it worked, and the building is still afloat to this day! When the traders saw that their dreaded nemesis was finally rearing its head above water level they took action. Led by a corporation clerk (and later general) called Napper Tandy a mob descended on the site and proceeded to attack the wooden ramparts shoring up the building. Their attempt failed and the building proceeded under guard and at great haste. It is all the more wonder therefore that the end result is not only so beautiful but gained immediate respect and admiration from the Dubliners, who saw their city centre move downriver along with Gandon's masterpiece. It has survived being aesthetically assaulted by the railway engineers and even more calamitously, being burned to the ground by the IRA - damage which eventually required a major structural renovation as recently as the 1980s. Its restored interior, now accessible to the public, is as much a tribute to the renovation team as is its beautiful exterior. Its function as a custom house may have died with the Act of Union but its symbolism to the Dublin people has never diminished. Cross at Butt Bridge and enjoy.
If anything lends Dublin its unique character to me it's the city quays and the buildings of varying heights and design along their length. This pattern of development was disrupted somewhat in the last few decades but in recent years a concerted effort has been made to get new buildings to conform to the old dimensions. Like many medieval cities, Dublin originally turned its back on the river - gardens ran down to the river's edge. Then, as land was reclaimed and the river was greatly narrowed, the city planners seized on the opportunity to create a continuous thoroughfare alongs its banks. The result was the commission in two main stages of the erection of a river wall on both banks - a wall that extends well out into the port area and was incorporated into the port development supervised by none other than Captain William Bligh - he of Mutiny On The Bounty fame. For all his good work he didn't manage to get his name on any of the quays - that privilege was extended mostly to cronies of the property developers who financed the operation. Eden Quay, for example, connecting the Custom House to O'Connell Bridge was named after a friend of John Beresford, while, further on, Bachelors Walk commemorates the man who bought up all the lots on that site and built his own piece of the jigsaw (though many Dubs will try to convince you it's so named as this was the spot where young dandies strutted their stuff!). To help finance the development and upkeep of the quays a toll bridge was erected for pedestrians who were asked to pay a half penny to cross. The Ha'penny Bridge still stands and is as much an emblem of Dublin these days as the river it traverses!<p><a><center><img src="/p/.73965/v@4_a-8-2-179.jpg"></a><p><font color=red>A view from the Ha'penny Bridge - Essex bridge at dusk.</font></center>
We'll continue on up the quays without crossing however, if only to test drive Dublin's new boardwalk along Ormond Quay (the jury is still out on this one - especially if a recent engineer's assessment is correct and the wall can't support the weight of it for long!). This Quay is named after the then Duke of Ormond (a very illustrious family who's ancestral home is Kilkenny Castle and who included in their ancestry one Rollo of Norway - alias the first Duke of Normandy - and a certain Thomas A Beckett) and it was the good Duke in fact who passed the ordinance that all houses on the north side of the river must face the river, thereby setting the trend that all other developers followed and gave the quays both their character and their thoroughfares. The boardwalk re-emerges at Essex Bridge. To your right runs the old commercial centre of Dublin, Capel Street, and to your left runs Parliament Street, up a hill and ending in front of the City Hall. Across the bridge on the corner of Parliament Street and the quays stands a building worth a second look. This is Sunlight Chambers, built as a headquarters for the Lever Soap Company and upon which coloured relief sculptures represent all the trades and activities connected historically with the manufacture of soap! The building was reviled when first erected but by the time it was scheduled for demolition some years ago, enough generations of Dubs had been entertained by its frescoes over the years that the resultant outcry ensured not only its survival, but its restoration too.
Many visitors to Dublin must wonder why this street is called Parliament Street when it's near neither the old parliament on College Green or the new one in Leinster House! In the mid 1700s tentative plans had been made to erect a purpose built home for the Irish parliament which up to then had been very much an itinerant assembly and an Act of Parliament was passed by this body placing a compulsory demolition order on several premises near the river, thereby creating a thoroughfare extending Capel Street up to Dame Street, terminating in front of a suitably impressive house of representatives. While this was going on however two things happened - the parliament was reconstituted on the English model thereby making it a larger and more prestigious body, and another site became available to house this new assembly in the 'grander' area of College Green. So Dublin found itself with a swanky new Parliament Street but no Parliament at the end of it! The merchants saved the day by deciding to erect a new Royal Exchange on the site instead and for once James Gandon was a runner up. His design finished second to Thomas Cooley and in 1776 the new exchange opened for business. The decline of Dublin in the 1800s saw the grand new exchange fall idle however so Dublin Corporation purchased the building in 1852, renamed it City Hall and set about methodically destroying the interior by partitioning it up into clerks' offices. The round room on the ground floor has played a large role in Dublin's (and Ireland's) history. A meeting here in 1800 saw Daniel O'Connell's impassioned plea to reject the Act Of Union fall on deaf ears and it was here that the bodies of Charles Stewart Parnell and later, Michael Collins, lay in state prior to their hugely attended funerals. In recent years the building has been beautifully restored to its early design and now contains a very good multi-media exhibition devoted to Dublin's history. So it is here I will leave you in the hands of the experts who can fill in all the bits I've left out! :o)<p><a><center><img src="/p/.73965/v@4_a-8-6-3382.jpg"</center></a><p><font color=red>Having left City Hall, Michael Collins' funeral cortege makes its way down O'Connell Street en route to Glasnevin Cemetery.</font>
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