Peter Sirr writes: Thomas Street manages to be both within the city and outside it at the same time, as if the walls were still in place and this stretch of the highway outside the city still a distinct suburb. A stone’s throw from Christchurch, a brisk five-minute walk to the front gate of Trinity College, yet the air is different, the light is different, and the smell is different. On this cold February day I cross the wide trafficky expanse of High Street and Cornmarket towards Thomas Street. The traffic acts as a kind of wall, funnelling cars out to the south and into the centre and north of the city, increasing the sense of a passage from one district to another. As you pass St Audoen’s, the limit of the old city, and stare down the sharp incline of Bridge Street where the sun hits the pale brick of Cook Street flats, you realise that you are walking across a high ridge above the river, and this again reinforces the sense of exiting one kind of space and entering another.
There are other signs. In spite of the tiny distance, fashion has never made the crossing. The city has never bothered much with Thomas Street; it seems to exist in permanent neglect, many of its fine old buildings on the brink of collapse, torn down, altered, eternally endangered, at the mercy of the dreams of developers and the chaos of the markets. The street survives, tough, resolute, working class, with a bohemian sprinkle of cafés near the art college like a daub of icing on a crumbling cake. Here is the suit hire shop, the communion shop with the tailor overhead; here is Chadwick’s builders’ supplies with its arched gateway like the entrance to another domain; here are the discount shops, the pawnbrokers, the stalls with stacked toilet papers and chocolate bars; here is Manning’s bakery and what used to be Frawley’s department store, now an outsize clothes shop and soon to be a student accommodation block. For years it was the central shopping anchor of the street, drawing shoppers in from outlying areas, and spawning market stalls outside it to serve the crowds on their way in and out. It was, effectively, a department store for the poor. If you were the kind of person who shopped in Switzer’s or Brown Thomas you didn’t go to Frawley’s; you’d probably never even heard of the place. After a century of trading it ended up in the hands of a now broke developer who intended to demolish it and erect a retail and office complex on the site and has since been bought from the receiver by another developer. In the end, part of the physical structure of Frawley’s was saved by history; it turned out that its hardly imposing exterior hides a mansion in the form of twin “Dutch Billies” built in 1710 and once owned by Joseph Fade, a banker and one of Dublin’s first developers, who lived here with his twenty-one children. The site is also within the grounds of the medieval Augustinian friary that gave the street its name, and who knows what treasures lie underneath its foundations.
The whole street is like that, a brooding, dark-eyed presence living on the ghosts of lost or forgotten riches. A great deal of it is derelict, particularly the western stretch from St Catherine’s Church to the fountain. Weeds grow out of the brickwork, windows are broken, shops and pubs boarded up and shuttered, as if desolation must always be the default mode here. It’s as if the city has never quite forgotten or forgiven the district’s heritage of disaffection. This was always the mob’s city, the seething, lawless under-city that could be counted on for riots or murder. In the midst of the dereliction, the great squat bulk of St Catherine’s Church, with its Doric columns and pediment – “the finest façade of any church in Dublin” according to Maurice Craig – looms vividly. Until recently it was one of the most miserable sights in the street, its beautiful mountain granite darkened by centuries of grime, the interior falling asunder after long neglect. I remember I used to pause here years ago in the darkness of 6 am on bleak December mornings on my way to work in James Street Post Office as a Christmas postman. The building then seemed the epitome of gloom; it seemed entirely appropriate that Robert Emmet should have been hanged and beheaded outside it – the forbidding building might have been constructed for no other reason than to have someone butchered in front of its facade. Things have improved since then. The exterior has been cleaned up so that it now looks much as it must have done when it was built in the 1760s to the design of John Smith, who was also responsible for St Thomas’s Church, on Marlborough Street, and the spire of St Werburgh’s, both of which have vanished.
A spire was planned for St Catherine’s too, but, like so many others in this city of missing spires, never left the drawing board for lack of funds. I’m here today not just for the building but for James Whitelaw, one of the first rectors of St Catherine’s. Inside there’s a monument to him. Outside, maybe, his spirit prowls the district and inspects the populace. If we double back to September 1803, we might find him standing outside his church watching the oddly makeshift arrangements for Emmet’s execution, the planks set on top of barrels borrowed from a local brewery for the platform, the table and cleaver borrowed from a butcher’s, maybe the shop that supplies his own table. No doubt his well-organised and meticulous mind is offended by the slipshod arrangements. You expect the state to be grander in its judicial killings, to accord them the pomp of its judges and law courts and highly wrought language of condemnation. I think of the elaborate rhetoric of Emmet’s speech from the dock, or the extraordinary letter to the chief secretary, in which he begged permission to return to his cell to write as he was being led to his death. The casual set design is either part of the punishment – the contempt meted out to the body will also be accorded to the machinery of its destruction – or sheer messy improvisation. An order is passed down, time is short. Is a contingent of soldiery despatched afterwards to return the bloody table and cleaver, or does the butcher have to sue the Corporation for compensation? Do the barrels go back to Manders’ brewery to be filled with beer? In Iran they borrow cranes from building sites to hang the condemned, after which the cranes are driven back to the building sites for the rest of the day’s work. Manders goes out of business not long after the execution – it may be that the customers don’t want beer from its tainted barrels. Or maybe their beer is just no good.
If he is horrified by the events in front of his church, or by the violence on Thomas Street the previous July, the Rev James Whitelaw is unlikely to be too surprised. The rebellion that degenerated into a murderous riot must have involved at least some people he knows from his wanderings in his own parish and further afield. In many ways, he knows more about his city than anyone else alive …
1798: the year of the United Irishmen rebellion that sees between 15,000 and 30,000 killed. Most of the events take place outside Dublin, due largely to the authorities discovering and raiding the planned assembly points, but the city is alive with the currents of conspiracy and counter-insurgency. In the Castle, Major Sirr briefs his spies. In May he surprises Lord Edward Fitzgerald in the feather-dealer’s house in Thomas Street, and shoots him in the shoulder. He is taken to the Castle in an open sedan chair, and thence to Newgate, where he dies of his wounds. In the unusual heat of that summer James Whitelaw is busy with his own plans. He meets with his assistants and they pour over John Rocque’s map of the city. It’s time to start the great work that has been preoccupying him for some years: to count the citizens of Dublin and establish at last the population of this city. Is this work part of the government’s intelligence-gathering? Is it directed by Major Sirr as a means of keeping tabs on the disaffected? Whitelaw has in fact obtained the government’s permission and approval, but the project is his own initiative and he will pay for it himself. The troubles, he realises, will actually make his job easier. The lord mayor of Dublin has issued an order requiring a list of all residents to be affixed to the door of every house in the city, making enumeration a straightforward exercise at least in the better-regulated and better-off areas of the city. It doesn’t quite work in his own parish and surrounding districts, where the lists, when legible, are rarely accurate. This means that he will have to investigate each house for himself. And his assistants will have to go back and double-check. It has to be an accurate survey, otherwise there is no point. And so they set out. Surprisingly, maybe, they meet little resistance. One of his assistants, less than diplomatic, questions a butcher in Ormond market about the number of occupants in his building. There appears to be some discrepancy here. The list states clearly. . . The butcher has had enough; he lifts a bucket of blood and offal and throws the contents over the assistant, who slinks off, humiliated. Other than that, the work goes smoothly.
Order is everything. It is necessary to know how the numbers are distributed among the various classes: upper class, middle class, servants, lower class. How many servants there are in this city. One in ten serves master or mistress. But when you leave the fine houses and come to examine the parish of St Catherine’s … Unless you have seen them, it is difficult to believe the conditions these people are living in. Whitelaw trudges through the dark alleys and stinking lanes, thinking of himself as a historian of wretchedness. He gets up early and often finds himself in a room less than fifteen foot square where between ten and sixteen people lie stretched on a wad of filthy straw, crawling with vermin, not a blanket between them. Nor is it any surprise to encounter between thirty and fifty in a single house. In a house in Braithwaite Street, he counts a hundred and eight occupants. The exact numbers are important. Perhaps, he thinks, when the facts have been irrefutably established, the way will lie open to properly administered charity and educational opportunity. After all, it is in no one’s interest to breed disaffection. Surely it is evident that misery is an impediment to governance?
Joseph’s Lane, near Castle Market. A sudden rainstorm beating down. It is not always easy to gain entry to these houses. As he steps across the threshold, he is suddenly halted by a bloody mess, alive with maggots, which has burst in through the back door from the slaughterhouse adjoining the house. The hall is buried under the stinking flood. There is no way he can get in. But the job must be done somehow, so he retreats back into the lane and finds an old plank and some stones. Having constructed his bridge, he makes for the stairs, attracting interest from the residents who simply wade through the blood. As he climbs the stairs he sees water pouring through the house. The roof in disrepair, as so often in these houses, and he knows it will remain in that condition as long as the house is standing, just as he knows that the rent will continue to be collected punctually. He stops at each room and takes his count. He can barely endure the stench now. No one remarks on it. Can it be that they don’t smell it? In the garret he finds a shoemaker and his family, seven in all. The room has no door. They explain to him that because the shoemaker couldn’t pay the week’s rent, the enraged landlord has taken the door away in hopes that they will quit the building. This house holds thirty-seven people. Whitelaw does a quick calculation and concludes that out of this ruin the landlord gets more than thirty pounds a year, coldly extracted every Saturday night.
It is a double city, one visible and regulated, the other hidden and ignored, and utterly wild. He finds himself getting angry, not just at the conditions he encounters but at the maddening passivity of the occupants. As long as they can fill their bellies they don’t seem to care where or how they live. If there is filth and mess, no one shifts to move it. “Why should I? Who will pay me to remove it?” In July he visits a house in Schoolhouse Lane almost comical in its desolation. The side of the four-storey building has collapsed and fallen into the adjoining yard, killing an entire dairy of cows. The tenants are still here, continuing to live just as before, and the landlord comes as usual every Saturday for his rent. Money-grubbing, grasping wretches, living comfortably in the best parts of the city, who would still come for their rent were the whole district to collapse. “What, do you think the air is free?” There should be legislation to make them answerable for the conditions of their buildings.
As he patrols his parish he frets about the number of brothels, soap factories, slaughterhouses, glass-houses, lime-kilns, distilleries and dram-shops. Thomas Street, he notes, contains a hundred and ninety houses, and fifty-two of those are licensed to sell spirits and are open at every hour of the day and night, providing a spectacle of unceasing profaneness and intemperance. Misery, irreligion and drunkenness – no wonder the rebellion found its focus here. The district is so crowded even the dead find themselves evicted from their graves and flung anywhere to pollute the neighbourhood.
James Whitelaw stands with his feet firmly planted in his seething parish. He has spent two years meticulously tabulating the results of his survey; it will be another five before his Essay on the Population of Dublin is published. He continues with his parochial work, lobbying hard for relief, promoting subscriptions to allay distress. These are hard times in St Catherine’s. In the wake of the Act of Union many businesses have failed, many families been reduced to starvation. Tirelessly, he works for the establishment of relief committees. There is more trouble afoot; in a depot nearby, muskets, pikes, grenades are stored. Beams of wood are hollowed out to conceal them. The conspirators go over the plans, discuss the signals that will be used. The spies take note and report back to Sirr. Whitelaw also finds the time to write his highly-prized “Parental Solicitude”, and A Map of the Grand and Royal Canals of Ireland. And what is the result of his great survey? Will it make a difference? The authorities take his figures and examine them. He has corrected the vanity of the metropolis, which imagined itself to be inhabited by above 300,000 souls. He and his assistants have found 182,370, of which a fifth might be considered of the upper and middle class. Major Sirr goes through the lists. The authorities realise the importance of decent statistics. They take down their maps and with sharpened pencils divide the city into wards, to be inspected by Conservators. That should make things easier. They are less concerned with the living conditions of the mob. One question they would surely like to have answered was the one that Whitelaw didn’t feel able to ask. He too had been keen to establish how many belonged to each religious sect but found that “the temper of the times seemed to discourage enquiry”, and he had to give up the idea. He satisfied himself with establishing the number of Protestants in each of the parishes surveyed; a simple deduction from the gross population figures would provide the number of Catholics. In his own parish of St Catherine’s, out of a total population of 20,000 about a tenth were Protestant, and the rest were Catholics. Within forty years, another census would reveal that that the Protestant population of the city was twenty-seven per cent, down from fifty per cent in 1730. Even if his statistician’s mind would have appreciated the figures, Whitelaw, unlike many others, shows no particular preoccupation with the religious question. There are more pressing concerns in this city of gross inequalities. Life goes on. Whitelaw’s dangerous daily round to the homes and bedsides of his parishioners continues. A biographical dictionary published in 1822 tells us: “On every occurrence of epidemic distress, he was always the first to promote a subscription, and apply it judiciously to the relief of the afflicted.” It gives an example of one occasion where due to “a stagnation of business 2643 families were reduced to starvation”, but through his perseverance relief committees were established in the various districts (from the Biographia Hibernica, 629/630 (A Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Written and Compiled by Richard Ryan, Sherwood, Neely and Jones,1822). He was to be found at all hours “moving from one miserable abode to another; at the side of the sick, however contagious the disease”. In the end it is his charity that undoes him. He goes to offer comfort to a parishioner in the Fever Hospital and catches the infection which causes his death in 1813, at the age of sixty-five.
His church is still there, its century and a half of slow decline now arrested. It was closed in 1966 and deconsecrated the following year, but after its refurbishment in the 1990s it was reconsecrated and is now “an evangelical and charismatic expression of worship within the Church of Ireland” in a city more diverse than Whitelaw might have imagined, and which we can imagine his curious, meticulous ghost quietly surveying.
Illustration: an 1883 image of the execution of Robert Emmet. US Library of Congress