The Main Street of Dublin

The street from Castle St to Thomas St first swirls one way as it wraps around Christchurch and along High St, and then swirls the other, as curves around Cornmarket and joins Thomas St at the junction of Francis St.

Ordnance Survey of Ireland Map showing area that was once Main Street, Dublin

Ordnance Survey of Ireland Map showing area that was once Main Street, Dublin

In the medieval city (1200-1500), this street was known as the Main Street of Dublin. The eastern end at Christchurch was called Skinner’s Row. Of course Lord Edward St is a recent addition, so what now is a rather awkward arrangement makes more sense in that context; Skinner’s Row continued on from Castle St, and led along the side of Christchurch; the alignment of the Lord Edward public house giving a hint as to the original flow. The “Row” of Skinner’s Row indicates that there was only buildings lining one side—indeed as it is today, with the medieval buildings replaced by Jury’s Inn. While the Dublin historian Sir John Gilbert has proposed that the Row was “a narrow and sombre alley” at just seventeen feet wide, this has been disputed. Hughes has suggested with some confidence that Gilbert has his time periods mixed up, and considers it improbable that the one area of the walled city that was to handle sizeable gatherings of citizens would not have been larger. As well as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Christchurch), there was a Pillory at the eastern end of Skinner’s Row at its junction with Castle St., and High Market Cross at the western end at the junction with High St. Here, it was customary to read out royal proclamations and other public announcements (Hughes, 1941).

The Pillory was a place for public punishment. Even seemingly trivial events could lead to punishment. Bakers who were caught for a third time with a load lighter than stated were subjected to a stint in the pillory, a punishment which along with severe discomfort, carried with it “a degree of odium and degradation”. The punishment was restricted to the crime of perjury during the reign of George III, and finally abolished in 1837 (Frazer, 1886).

Extract of Speed's Map of Dublin (1610)

Extract of Speed’s Map of Dublin (1610)

All of this detail is visible on Speed’s Map of Dublin (1610). Main St runs from the east at Castle St (38 on map) through Skinner’s Row (42), High St (48) to the city wall at the junction of Thomas St at Newgate (50). The High Market Cross is visible to the right of No. 47 (St. Nicholas’ Church), and the little symbol next to No. 42 probably marks the location of the Pillory (Andrews, 1983).

Fishamble St (24 on Speed’s Map) is on the eastern end of the Main St. The steep slope of this street, best appreciated by walking or cycling up it, linked the walled city to its port below at the river. In medieval times, it was uninhabited and it served as a location for  fish markets which were brought to shore at the river below. The western end of Main Street was marked by Newgate, which merits its own article.

Before we leave the medieval era, it’s worth noting that rentals of the time giving names and occupations of the tenants demonstrate the city had a high proportion of well-to-do people within it walls. Hughes argues that while there were of course poor people, a reputation of a filthy and neglected city with pigs running through the streets is unfair.

Detail from The Tholsel, Dublin (James Malton)

Detail from The Tholsel, Dublin (James Malton)

In another age, the area is beautifully captured in some of Malton’s Views of Dublin (ca. 1791). These are discussed in some detail in Edward McParland’s gorgeous essay on their use as a historical source (McParland, 1994). Especially relevant are two of the Views: St Catherine’s Church and The Tholsel. In the latter, the street sign for Skinner’s Row is clear, as is the shopfront of Robert Thomas, Tallow Chandler. McParland has done the detective work to show that Thomas was indeed a tallow chandler at 1 Skinner Row in both 1791 and 1792, but not 1793. Sadly it appears that this accuracy does not extend to all of Malton’s prints; Patrick O’Murphy’s name on a bar has nothing to correlate with in business records. Nevertheless, the prints give us a beautiful representation of how these streets, which derived from the original Main Street of Dublin, looked in the city’s golden age.

Extract of St. Catherine's Church (James Malton)

Extract of St. Catherine’s Church (James Malton)

Notes

  • J. H. Andrews (1983) The Oldest Map of Dublin, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature
    83C, 205-237
  • William Frazer (1879) On the Dublin Stocks and Pillory, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Polite Literature and Antiquities, 2, 456-460.
  • James L Hughes (1941) Main Street, Dublin, Dublin Historical Record, 3(3), 67-77.
  • Edward McParland (1994) Malton’s Views of Dublin: Too Good to be True?, in Ireland: Art into History, Raymond Gillespie and Brian P Kennedy (eds), 15-25.
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A house on Cork Hill

It’s easy to miss Cork Hill, a short street connecting Lord Edward Street and Dame St at City Hall. I measure its length at 35 paces, and although I am tall, I reckon it must be one of the shortest streets in Dublin. Cartophiles will correctly argue that it is a little longer, as the hill officially includes the plaza to the right of City Hall, connecting Castle St. Whatever its length, this short dog-leg joining Lord Edward, Dame, Castle, and Parliament streets is packed full of history; no surprise given its location adjacent to the Castle. As Maurice Craig puts it, it was very much at the centre of things.

The street itself takes its name from the Earl of Cork, after he built Cork House there in the early 1600s on the site of the present City Hall. Cork House was itself located on the site of the church St Mary del Dam, from which we get the name of Dame St.  Also known as the Great Earl, Richard Boyle was a self-made man who took advantage of the plantation of Munster to make his fortune. Having secured the favour of Elizabeth I, he collected political titles, becoming Privy Councillor for Ireland in 1612, and Member of Parliament for Lismore in 1614. The Irish Parliament was held in Dublin Castle at the time.

The area around Cork Hill as captured by Rocque on his map of 1757.

The area around Cork Hill as captured by Rocque on his map of 1757.

Tempting as this short commute might have been, it doesn’t appear that Boyle lived in Cork House. The building was occupied by the Royal Exchange until 1683, when that operation moved to the Tholsel nearby (just visible on Rocque’s map, above). It subsequently became home to a variety of traders; most notably printers and coffee houses. Lucas’s Coffee House, one of the most fashionable places to loiter in the city, was one of the last occupiers.

Fashion could not save the house or the area from the Wide Street Commissioners. Cork House was demolished in 1768 in a grand plan to widen Parliament St. Parliament St—which doesn’t exist on Rocque’s map—was to be the new grand wide and convenient street linking City Hall to the planned construction of Essex Bridge. Walking from the right on Rocque’s map shown, we can see Cork Hill following on from Dame St, but neither Parliament nor Lord Edward St are extant; Castle St is the main thoroughfare. The entire area was a bit chaotic.  The narrow network of streets meant that maintaining law and order was difficult. At Cork Hill, a contemporary account recorded that:

pedestrians passing Cork Hill after dark were frequently insulted and maltreated by the numerous chairmen surrounding the entrances to Lucas’s Coffee House and the Eagle Tavern, the waiters of which establishments supported them in those engagements by pouring pails full of foul water upon their opponents.

Changes were needed. Trinity College Dublin led the charge at the other end of Dame St by demolishing the Jacobean frontage of college, itself less than 70 years old, and installing the present frontage. Copious plans of the area exist for around 1766 in the Wide Street Commissioners’ archives, lovingly cared for by Dublin City Archives. But before we look at those, an earlier glimpse is available. A pair of maps of the area dated 1751 (showing the alignment at the time) and 1753 (showing planned changes) are described by MacDowel Cosgrave (1918). A section of interest is shown. In this Survey of the present streets leading to His Majesty’s Royal Pallace or Castle of Dublin. Novr 9th, 1751, Cork Hill is clearly visible. 

Extract of a survey of the present streets leading to His Majesty's Royal Pallace or Castle of Dublin. Novr 9th, 1751

Extract of a survey of the present streets leading to His Majesty’s Royal Pallace or Castle of Dublin. Novr 9th, 1751

Gloriously, this map has the building locations annotated, and inspecting the legend, one finds that Cork House is located at position number 34, sandwiched between Mr Butler, printer (33), and Mr Mear’s mercers shop (35).

Proposal for new street linking Dame St to river. Point a marks proposed location of statue of George I

Proposal for new street (between the two ‘C’s) linking Dame St to river. Point a marks proposed location of statue of George I

More exciting is the proposal of 1753. In this we see that the new alignment of what would become Parliament St is proposed – 46 feet wide, running from the river south to Dame St. At the junction, a large square on the south side was planned. This was to be named Bedford Square after the Lord Lieutenant of the time, and there is even an annotation to include a statue in the centre. This was to be of George I, relocated from the old Essex Bridge. Losing out were buildings number 25 (Mr D’Olier, Goldsmith), 26 (Mr John Ross), and 27 (Mr Fords, Print Shop), and one presumes, the buildings around the new square, including Cork House.

Extract of the Wide Street Commissioners map of the area around Cork Hill (click to link to Dublin City Library source)

Extract of the Wide Street Commissioners map (No. 499) of the area around Cork Hill (click to link to Dublin City Library source). ‘A‘ marks the proposed location of the statue.

There is a significant number of maps available in the Dublin City Library image collection documenting the Wide Street Commissoners plans for the area, but perhaps the one to select to continue our story here is Map No. 499, shown. This shows Dame Street, Castle Lane (now Palace Street), Swan Alley (now Exchange Court), Parliament Street, Cork Hill, Castle Street, Castle Yard and vicinity. The site of Cork House is now annotated as “Lot from Swan Alley to Cork Hill”, and it is evident that plans for a square and statue of George I were still being considered by the Commissioners.

Rocque's map of 1756 showing the proposed Bedford Square

Rocque’s map of 1756 showing the proposed Bedford Square

The letter A on the map marks “a pedestal for the Statue of his Majesty George I which faces Parliament St and Castle St.” Parliament St is now shown, with “New Buildings” lining either side. The intention to complete the square obviously convinced Rocque, who in his 1756 map showed the square, to the south of Cork Hill, complete with statue. The square itself looks like Rocque rubbed out previous engravings of existing buildings. His 1757 map shown at the top of the article corrected the prediction.

As we now know, the square was never built, but Cork House was demolished in 1768, and City Hall construction began the following year. The infamous approach of the Wide Street Commissioners on Parliament St is well documented, when “public consultation” was replaced by unroofing houses in the middle of the night to get people to leave. While it would be some time (and a national rebellion) before Lord Edward St would appear, the area was beginning to take the form we recognise today.