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)


  • 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.

Book Lovers at Kevin St Library, 1918

For all of my librarian and library-loving friends… The following is recorded in The Irish Book Lover in 1918.

Bibliographical Society of Ireland

(National Library of Ireland)

(National Library of Ireland)

The Society visited the Public Library, Lower Kevin Street, Dublin, on Saturday, the 22nd June, 1918, and were heartily welcomed by Mr. J. P. Whelan, the librarian; who showed them a number of rare works at present in the Library, including a volume of Malton’s views of Dublin, old catalogues, rare pamphlets, manuscripts, maps, etc.

Mr. Dix, the Chairman of the Society, warmly thanked Mr. Whelan for the very kind reception he had given them at their visit, and pointed out what valuable material the Library contained for Students of Irish History, Antiquities, etc, and stated that Mr. Whelan had for years welcomed additions to the Library of that kind, had carefully preserved them, and fully appreciated the value of even the smallest pamphlet dealing with Dublin or Irish subjects generally. In commemoration of the visit he presented an old map of Ireland, and said he hoped the members of the Society would, from time to time, visit this Library and make use of its resources, and added that he was sure that Mr. Whelan would welcome gifts to the Library.

Mr Whelan suitably replied, acknowledging with pleasure what had been said, and gave some particulars of the foundation and development of the Library, which now contains some 10,000 volumes, but owing to limited resources at present available to the Corporation for the purpose; and the necessary expense of upkeep of five Municipal Libraries and Art Galleries in Harcourt Street, further progress was at present slow. He hoped that the Members would come again to visit the Library, where they would be always welcome. He then took Members of the Deputation around the Library, pointing out the classes of books and stated that the system of classification followed what was known as the “Dewey” system.

He then brought he deputation into the fine large Reference Room, where they examined the case of specimens of Dublin book-binding, etc, and views, etc, round the wall. Mr Whelan also opened the presses along the length of the room and showed the members some of the rare books useful to Students, both relating to Ireland and other places. Here are kept the books not only on antiquity but also on Irish music, Irish language, Irish magazines, etc. The members of the Society enjoyed a most pleasant afternoon, and hope that their visit will testify to their appreciation of Mr. Whelan’s work and efforts in developing this Library and also make it better known to students of various Irish subjects. It is hoped that the next visit of the Society will be to the Royal Irish Academy.”

The Irish Book Lover is available to read in the National Library of Ireland and Trinity College Library Early Books collection. I’ll be revisiting Kevin Street Library, currently undergoing extensive restoration, soon.