The Wide Streets Commission was founded in 1757 and transformed Dublin from a bustling and overcrowded medieval mishmash of narrow streets and alleys into the very model of a modern city, suitable for a new time where carriages would pass without difficulty and where sewage would be discreetly removed from the rear of buildings by specialists rather than tossed into the street. The commission continued its work into the early decades of the nineteenth century and by any measure the results were spectacular.
As the name suggests, the commission was set up to lay down wide modern streets which leading citizens felt were essential to a modern and prestigious city. It also regulated and often designed the buildings which lined the new streets. While the effects were impressive, in one very important sense the transformation of the city was a massive failure since unfortunately, by the time the commission had finished its work, Dublin had ceased to be a prestigious city. Indeed it was entering a period of long and painful decline.
The next century and a half saw the citizens of Dublin occupy a city centre which was little more than a decaying mausoleum of Georgian grandeur. Many buildings were sub-divided, serving as tenements, flats, solicitors’ offices and the like. Some fell down (usually on the poor) others were dramatically propped up by the Corporation. The jewel in the crown, the parliament on College Green, which in its time was far in advance of the Westminster parliament, was given over to usury. Until the 1970s it was black with Victorian soot.
When, finally and after a very long wait, a few shillings started to appear in the 1960s it became clear that there was a passionate desire among the political class and many more besides to tear down as much of Georgian Dublin as possible. “You can’t stop progress” was the common cry as the new go-ahead Irish shook off history’s nightmare.
The present writer was among the minority who thought Georgian Dublin should be protected. For some in favour of preservation it was a question of: “Won’t someone for God’s sake think of the tourists.” For myself, when as a teenager I dragged myself out of bed early one Sunday morning on hearing that wrecking crews had descended on Hume street, it was something to do with the idea (half-baked perhaps) that the city’s historic fabric, no matter what politics it reflected, should be protected.
As we shouted our objections to the mercenary labourers who were tearing the roofs off, I inquired from a distinguished-looking gentleman beside me whether it would be alright to shout the word bastards at the despoilers. He reflected for a moment and told me that it could have legal implications but that it would be entirely safe to shout up words to the effect that one imagines it might be difficult to locate their fathers. Armed with this knowledge I began to do just that but, even at that early age when my grasp of what was real and what was absurd was dramatically imperfect, I desisted feeling something punchier was required. In due course the redoubtable Máirín de Burca of the Dublin Housing action Committee settled the matter. Somehow she got up to the roof and sat on a beam the wreckers were sawing. In the crowd below I shouted and screamed my support liberally employing the noun I had been warned against.
Of course we lost. The place was levelled, along with its unique staircase, or was it a fireplace? In time a sort of Irish solution to the problem emerged. Demolished Georgian buildings were replaced by Georgian pastiche: “Sure the tourists will never know.” How true! And the point could be extended to include the locals; today the most popular Georgian building in Dublin is an office block on Leeson Street with a mock Georgian facade.
Returning to the work of the Wide Streets Commission, the population of Dublin had increased rapidly in the latter half of the eighteenth century leaving the old medieval city congested and crowded. Ireland and Dublin were growing in prosperity on the back of good prices for agricultural produce, a growing manufacturing sector and a prosperous merchant class. The eighteenth century also saw widespread confidence in the permanence of the colonial settlement following what was understood as final victory over Gaelic Ireland and the emergence of a stable and productive agriculture.
The gathering of profits and the accumulation of capital was facilitated by a strong disinclination to share with the rural poor the fruits of their labour. Rural labourers and peasantry not only lived in abject poverty but were also the object of steady criticism from landowners, who argued that their laziness, religion and peculiar cultural habits were the main problem affecting rural Ireland. Notwithstanding the moral deficiencies of the rural poor, cumulative rental incomes allowed for the building of spectacular Palladian mansions and in many cases the laying out of elaborate rolling parklands comparable to anything celebrated in the works of Jane Austen. A great deal of money was borrowed by landowners who believed the good times would last indefinitely. It seems likely that the debts of some estates which fifty years later ended up in the encumbered estates courts originated in this period of exuberance.
Meanwhile, in Dublin, something of a property bubble developed. It is reported that at one point an acre of land in the city was four times more expensive than an acre in London. What could possibly go wrong? Well quite a lot actually: The1798 rebellion, the act of Union and the ending of the Napoleonic wars, to mention a few game-changing “events”.
By the early years of the nineteenth century the signs were pretty clear that the days of the Georgian Tiger were numbered. Luxury goods and services went into a rapid decline after the Union of 1800. In voting for the Union, Irish Georgian grandees resembled nothing so much as the turkeys who voted for Christmas. Dublin’s prosperity was entirely caught up with the limited Protestant Home Rule, which ended with the Union. The effects were somewhat disguised by continuing high prices paid for agricultural produce during the Napoleonic wars. But with the end of French blockade and the victory of 1815, prices plummeted. Ireland began its long and uneven decline.
One early result of decline was that the work of the Wide Streets Commission was curtailed and delayed. In 1799 and 1800 Henry Aaron Baker’s designs for D’Olier Street and Westmoreland Street were approved but building did not begin for some years after that. The streets were designed as a shopping precinct which, with innovative and extensive use of glass, predated similar developments in England by about fifteen years.
The laying down of D’Olier Street and Westmoreland Street followed inevitably from the construction of Carlisle Bridge. Streets were needed to service the bridge on the South side. Westmoreland Street had formerly been a laneway leading from the river to the university with a ferry transferring people across the river, where the bridge was built.
This was clearly inadequate to the needs of citizens travelling to the university, or Dublin Castle, or the parliament, from the Custom House, The Four Courts or the mansions built to the northeast of the city. The bridge and the elegant new streets knitted together both sides of the river.
Today the west side of D’Olier Street largely resembles the original. We can still see original decorated granite pillars and facias though they have been patched in many places. Quite a bit of restoration work was done around 1990 by The Irish Times. The new pieces of granite are easy to identify as they are machine-cut. Some of them also lack the wonderful warm yellow hue of the granite from Golden Hill quarry in the Dublin hills. It seems it is cheaper and easier to import granite from the Far East now than to quarry it locally. The tanning shop towards the river end on the west side has some of the original granite work. It’s worth taking a look. One assumes the granite is still beneath the temporary Facia. The granite pillars are worth examining as they carry multiple small scars from two hundred years of retailers’ signage.
The new whitish granite was not the first thing to be hauled across the world to D’Olier Street. Before the street was laid out The Sugar House, a very large building, ran right across the space which is now the mouth of D’Olier Street at the river end. Sugar lane ran from half way down Hawkins Street across to the lane which is now Westmoreland Street. Molasses and sugar crystal would have been unloaded from the river, having come from the Caribbean plantations, this being one of the many tangential links the city had with the slave trade and slave colonies.
Drinking tea and coffee became widespread in eighteenth century Dublin. Both drinks are bitter and people liked to sweeten them with sugar, a commodity previously unknown except to the very wealthy. Fortunes were made in the sugar business and there was not a whisper of any ill effects as far as I can tell. At the other end of the street stands Trinity College, founded by Elizabeth I, whose teeth were said to have been black owing to the monarch’s warm attachment to the white crystal, which at that time was very expensive and was imported into Europe from the east in small quantities for the very rich and powerful.