Some important works of Irish literature from the early twentieth century give the impression of Dublin as a fairly grim place. But of course, even if this was the majority experience, it can’t have been like that for everyone. For some, Dublin around the turn of the century was quite blissful. At a meeting of the Old Dublin Society in 1947 Edgar F Keatinge gave his memories of life as an eight-year-old in the Rathmines area around 1900.
The young Edgar was quite untroubled by the political questions of the time but found endless excitement in the world of horses, particularly fast horses, and in the uniforms and ceremonies of the military. The horse-drawn fire brigade was particularly memorable:
There is always a thrill about a fire brigade engine dashing by, but to my mind the modern motor-engine cannot compare with the galloping horses and the clanging bell of 50 years ago; and to watch the driver being firmly held by the belt by two of his comrades to prevent his being dragged from his seat by the straining horses, was a sight to be remembered.
Edgar was in no doubt of his preference for the horse over the motor car:
Beautiful horses often a pair, drawing the … smart brougham … in which ladies were driven on shopping and calling expeditions, were certainly more romantic and colourful, though perhaps less speedy, than the modern motor … I remember a certain Doctor Haden who practised from Castlewood Avenue Rathmines and numbered many of the residents of Palmerston Road and its neighbourhood amongst his patients, he drove a very smart outside car and fast horse, complete with groom in livery, cockaded hat and high boots. Arrayed in a tall silk hat, frock coat, striped trousers and yellow gloves, he always managed to drive down Palmerston Park and Palmerston Road at the precise time when these roads were full of people from Holy Trinity Church, Belgrave Road walking home to their Sunday dinners. And he would bow and raise his hat to everyone, almost like royalty.
And there were others:
Do you recall Mr. Lambert the well known “Vet” of 50 years ago driving a very high gig with enormous wheels enamelled a bright yellow- and always something very sporty, very high stepping and very speedy between the shafts … when Mr and Mrs. Lambert were bowling along Rathmines road I can assure you that every eye was turned in their direction.
Officers added their own splash of colour:
At about that time, the regiments of 5th royal Irish lancers and the 7th dragoon guards were stationed in Dublin and many, I should say most, of the officers were very wealthy men and used to vie with each other in producing and personally driving the smartest or most striking coaches procurable. These were generally employed in driving to race meeting and pic-nics and I well remember watching these very exotic coaches as they dashed by filled with gaily dressed officers and their colourful lady friends.
The soldiers from Portobello barracks were a permanent feature of Edgar’s life:
The various troops in Dublin formed a very colourful addition to the light and movement of the street; there seemed to always be old regiments going away and new ones coming in, with a vast amount of playing of bands, both infantry and cavalry. This was, of course, in pre-Khaki days, when the red coats and picturesque uniforms were still worn for every day parade. We children used to haunt the barracks at Portobello; as the barrack yard stretched from Portobello bridge up to Grosvenor Square, very close to our home, we became quite expert in the names and characteristics of the regiments quartered there. We could for instance knowingly distinguish the quick step of the rifle brigade from the more measured tread of the Surreys … a great thrill was the cavalry regiment and our joy was complete when the mounted bands struck up. The drummers were the most striking feature, and the great kettle-drums slung on each side of the beautiful horses, often with a leopard skin thrown over the horse made a brilliant show. The leopard, and perhaps tiger skins were frequently worn by the big drummer in the infantry regiments, and another very appealing site to us was the mascot goat of the Welsh Fusiliers, and the great wolf hound of the Faugh-a-ballaghs. We frequently went down to the bank of Ireland, College Green to watch the ten a.m ceremony of changing the guard, another very colourful incident in the life of Dublin.
Thrills and excitement were not entirely confined to the children of prosperous Rathmines families. Indeed in some cases poor children seemed to have more fun:
… in those days there was much more of a hill leading up to Portobello bridge and it was a fascinating sight for me to watch the Hitch-boys as they stood waiting with an extra hitch horse or “cock” horse ready to hitch to the next tram and help the other two horses to pull their load over the hill. My earliest memory was that these boys were in the habit of riding their horse ‑ postilian fashion ‑ in front of the regular horses … how I longed to be one of those boys.