Thursday 18 January 2018

City of empire and a dirty old town - two faces of Dublin

HISTORY: New book documents the capital as it looked in the 1840s, and much of our current city has roots in its old maps

DUBLIN today is a city of contrasts, but I suspect that modern newspaper editors (especially property editors) would be somewhat more circumspect when commenting on those contrasts than the United Services Journal in 1837 which succinctly summed up Barracks Street (where the Luas now halts at the stop named Museum) as "a line of brothels and low public houses . . . filled with the most abandoned crew of rogues and prostitutes which even all Dublin . . . can produce".

But if ever a time existed when a spade was called a spade and the name of a building made no effort to soften its intended use, the chaotic and disease-ridden streets of mid-19th Century Dublin was that time.

The blunt names of institutions such as the North Dublin Union Workhouse, the Richmond Lunatic Asylum or the Richmond Female Penitentiary did little to conceal the grim realities of life inside them.

These institutions of confinement were clustered together in the once rural suburb of Grangegorman into which prosperous people needed rarely to venture, but the affluent residents of huge houses on Merrion Square and Mount Street didn't have to look far to find squalor, degradation and poverty.

Honeycombs of laneways beside such fine streets were filled with squalid tenements like Verschoyle Court - its grand name being in direct contrast to the destitution of its inhabitants: with 98 dwellings drawing water from one fountain.

If it is hard for us today to get a sense of what that teeming city was like, it was equally hard for the authorities back then to get a handle on it.

They had a vested interest in doing so, however, as local authorities had a creaking system of charging inhabitants of rateable properties a tax based on their value. It's not a popular idea now, and 19th Century Dubliners were not enamoured with it either, but it was further complicated by the fact that no standard map of the country existed to base these valuations on.

In this era of Google Maps we can type in any street name and immediately getting a direct sense of its scale.

However, in the 1830s nobody possessed a master plan to the labyrinth that was Dublin, a streetscape sometimes constructed on a grand scale by commissions but more built piecemeal by speculators.

When the Ordnance Survey was established in Ireland, it aimed to map the whole country at a scale of six inches to one mile. But Dublin was so intricate that it drew up an extraordinarily detailed map, to a scale of five foot to one mile. This needed to be published on 33 separate large sheets in 1947, after surveyors and engravers had spent 12 years working on this vast enterprise.

It was so detailed that it not only showed wells in private gardens but also the arrangement of flower beds. It even peered through the roofs of large buildings like the famed Music Hall on Abbey Street.

Although previous maps of Dublin existed, this was the first time that Dublin was truly laid bare for authorities to conjure rateable valuations and inquisitive neighbours to metaphorically peer over garden walls and compare adjoining properties with theirs.

It is one thing for old maps to exist, but another for us to understand them.

This is why it is a cause of celebration that next Tuesday sees the publication of Frank Cullen's labour of love, Dublin 1847: City of the Ordnance Survey.

Cullen is editorial Assistant with the Irish Historical Town Atlas project at the Royal Irish Academy. His book is a brilliant addition to the previous volumes in this Historical Town Atlas series.

Cullen reproduces 45 extracts from this map. He guides the modern reader through their exquisite detail, which includes water mains, fountains and the pumps used by ordinary citizens alongside the grandeur of pleasure gardens such as Rutland Square, where the Rotunda Hospital is now located.


Back then it was a favoured spot for wealthy citizens to promenade in the evenings, resplendent with bowling green and a grand terrace for orchestral performance to raise money for the new laying-in hospital.

Nearby Mountjoy Square was equally elaborate and grand: a favoured location for the upper echelons of the medical profession who - with the Irish parliament merged into Westminister - became the new elite in this city of contrasts.

Just how extreme these contrasts were is encapsulated in Cullen's story of how one surveyor died from fever contracted when trying to measure the dwellings in the slums of St Catherine's parish.

Cullen captures the grandeur of College Green and the wide frontage of the newly-built GPO. But his real achievement is how he brilliantly interprets these drawings made 17 decades ago, so that we don't just see the mapped buildings but gain an evocative sense of how, for example, "the massive seventeen-bay, three-storey facade" of the Richmond Female Penitentiary . . . was designed with one effect in mind: to intimidate.

Whether describing such institutions designed to intimidate and incarcerate, great houses like Aldborough House (now a forlorn ruin) in Portland Row once designed to impress, or vanished wonders such as the floating bridge of the Aqueduct that once linked Broadstone station to the canal, Frank Cullen has done all lovers of Dublin a huge favour in this fascinating, highly accessible work of scholarship.

*Dublin 1847: City of the Ordnance Survey, is published by the Royal Irish Academy at €15

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