Ghost Light – Old Dublin Signs

The website for Dublin Ghost Signs is well worth a visit. It is cataloguing signs that still exist on Dublin buildings for businesses long gone. Many of the signs are fading slowly, and in time will disappear.

A century earlier, another cataloguing project was prompted by Henry Berry. He compiled a list of House and Shop Signs from the seventeenth and eighteenth century recorded in a variety of sources. Signs, in the sense meant here, were not merely the text above a shopfront, but usually an actual sign or representation. Berry opens his article with a quote from Swift, about the ubiquity of Punch Bowls in signs for Dublin Taverns in 1732:

I have not observed the wit and fancy of this town so much employed in any one article as the variety of signs to hang over houses where punch is to be sold. The bowl is represented full of punch, the ladle stand erect in the middle, supported by one, and sometimes by two animals, whose feet rest upon the edge of the bowl. The animals are sometimes one black lion, sometimes a couple; sometimes a single eagle, and sometimes a spread one, and we often meet a crow, a swan, a bear, or a cock, in the same posture…

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The Sign of the Ship, 35 Back Lane, location of Richard Campsie, a linen draper.

Berry lists an impressively large catalogue of signs, arranged by street. The oldest shop sign was the Blue Bell, in Cook St, dating from 1600. Winetavern St had The Three Cups since 1613 and Castle St had a Bear and Ragged Staff since 1668. The latter was the premises of Richard Edwards, Tailor, in 1668 and William North, girdler, 1669.

The variety of animals Swift describes are well represented, but some unusual signs are also present. These include a Golden Stocking, for Anderson’s Stocking Shop on Castle St (1750 – 1760), a Merry Shepherd on Clarendon Market for a shop selling firewood (also 1750 – 1760), and Corelli’s Head for Neal & Mainwaring, music publishers on College Green (1737). Bibles or heads were popular for publishers or book-sellers, like the bible on Patrick Campbell’s, a bookseller, on Skinner’s Row (1696).

Private houses also had signs. The townhouse of the Earl of Kildare, also on Skinner’s Row had the name on it: Carbrie House (Carberry House) – this being the oldest recorded sign in the city. More unusual signs included a Wandering Jew on Castle St, belonging to Cassandra Fyan, widow, in 1669.

For all of his excellent recording, Berry doesn’t show us any signs. He mentions (writing in 1910) that residents of the 60s and 70s would remember a sign outside the Bleeding Horse on Camden St, which was erected on a post on the roadway between Camden St and the now disappeared Charlotte St (more on that story here). But for a glimpse of what these signs might look like, we have to turn to a much shorter article by the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger. His sketches are used in this article, and one can only praise the work behind the Dublin Ghost Signs website, which is continuing this work of illustrating old signs of the city before they disappear forever.

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Left: The Old Turkey Cock, sign for John Palmer, Haberdasher at 12 Cut-Purse Row; Right: The Cock, sign for Laurence Johnston, a curtain lace, fringe and tassel maker at 5, Nicholas St.

Notes

Francis Joseph Bigger (1909) Old Dublin Signs, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 39(4), 400-401.
Henry F. Berry (1910) House and Shop Signs in Dublin in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 40(2), 81-98.

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The Post Box at Castle Gate

The idea of postboxes, according to Stephen Ferguson’s wonderful The Irish Postbox, may have come from the seventeenth century denunciation boxes common in Italian city states such as Florence and Venice. Citizens were encouraged to post anonymous reports of criminal activity. The situation of this postbox, outside Dublin Castle may carry some resonances then, through misty-eyed glasses. This one bears the relatively unusual insignia of Edward VII, with the gorgeous large swirling ‘E’, and has thankfully been spared of an appendage, so far.

Dame St itself was the scene of a postal dispute in the 1850s. The Commercial Buildings on College Green were threatened with the replacement of their postal collection room (and man to bring the post up to the GPO) with a mere post-box on the street, collection time: 5 pm. Members wrote to The Freeman’s Journal:

It is preposterous to expect that a pillar letter-box in the street, to be emptied in all sorts of weather, will be entrusted with the valuable correspondence of mercantile firms.

The dispute lasted three years and the postal room was eventually reinstated.  photo 1 (1)

Reference:

Stephen Ferguson (2009) The Irish Postbox: Silent servant and symbol of the state, Dublin.