The strange little laneway that runs by the front of the Westbury Hotel is called Balfe Street. I didn’t know that either, but on Clarendon St, at the back of the Westbury, there is a plaque commemorating Michael Balfe, composer, which says that he grew up on a house nearby on Pitt St. Pitt St is now Balfe St in his honour—though exactly why this plaque is on Clarendon St is anyone’s guess.
The evolution from a street remembering the Prime Minister who saw through the Act of Union to a street recognising one of Ireland’s great composers (I’m told) happened after a resolution was passed by Dublin Corporation in January 1917, having been proposed (and unopposed) by a Unionist member of council. A letter writer to The Freeman’s Journal remarked a few days later:
I, as a ratepayer, and speaking for all the other ratepayers, hasten to say how pleased we are. Balfe, to whose honour the street will now be dedicated, is a very appropriate name. Although the street is not much either in length or respectability, still it is the best we can do at present for the great Balfe. The street, just like Pitt himself and his foul work, the Union, has gone into decay and rottenness.
Balfe the House
No. 10, Pitt Street, by Flora H Mitchell (National Gallery of Ireland)
The Corporation’s resolution was the latest effort to honour Michael William Balfe. After his death in 1870, there appears to have been a flurry of activity. A bust was unveiled in the National Gallery in July 1878. The delay appears to be due to the fact that a stature was desired, but the £2000 required for that could not be raised. In any case, the bust, by Thomas Farrell RHA, was presented to the Gallery by the Lord Mayor. That same month, Mr William Logan, a contrabasso performer wrote to the Irish Builder wishing it to be known that:
I am the owner of the house, 10 Pitt-street, in which Balfe was born. I take a pride in living in that house… May I take the liberty of asking you to make public the fact that “Balfe’s House” is in the possession of a Dublin musician… who will place a medallion of Balfe on the front of the house, at his own expense.
Thanks to Mr Logan, a marble plaque was placed on the front of the house, as can be seen on Mitchell’s painting.
Balfe the Street
Extract from Roque’s map of Dublin City, 1756
Rocque’s map of Dublin City (1756), as reproduced in Lennon and Montague’s Dublin, shows a tantalising glimpse of the area of interest. Harry St runs southwest on a diagonal from Grafton St, through what appears to be open ground. By 1797 though, the orientation of the street was set as we now know it today, with just a component of the diagonal remaining. Pitt, yet to unleash his damage on Dublin and Ireland, is honoured with the new street name.
1797 Map of the area showing Pitt St
Its proximity to Grafton St means that it gets more mention than it might expect otherwise. No. 12 housed the “First Irish Lithographic Establishment“, mentioned in 1824—the first suggesting that the process had just been introduced to Dublin (MacDowel Cosgrave, 1907). Balfe was not the first musician on the street. John Field took lessons here as a boy from the pianist Giordani (de Valera, 1986).
Pettigrew & Oulton’s Dublin Directory 1842
Dublin Street Directory
The street was also home to the Opthalmic Hospital from 1829 to 1834, founded by Arthur Jacob, housed at No 8 and 9. It closed after the opening of an eye-ward at the Royal Dublin Hosptial, and No 8 and 9 were rebuilt. The Institute for Sick Children, fore-runner to the National Children’s Hospital at Harcourt St was also on the street. (Somerville-Large, 1964). A survey of a house plan from the records of the Wide Street Commissioners also exists for Pitt St in 1840, for the holding of James Hanan.
Pitt St, from the 25″ OSi map (www.osi.ie)
The street must gone into decline towards the end of the 19th century, as suggested by our first letter writer. By 1901, despite its length, about 250 people were crammed into its buildings. The 1911 Census recorded about half that number. We can get a sense of how many houses were there both from the Census and from the 1890 OS 25″ map. I count nine houses on the western side, of which only Sheehan’s pub on the corner is likely to be the only remnant. On the eastern side, there were fewer buildings, the block dominated by one large central building (the site of the former hospital or lithographic works, perhaps?). What is now No. 4, Harry St, directly opposite Westbury entrance/Bruxelles was built in 1880 by Dublin Corporation as a Weights and Measures Office, and is captured by this map (Casey, 2005). It looks like the remaining buildings were cleared in the 1920s; there are two relevant entries in the DIA for Balfe St, construction of a school for the sisters of the Holy Faith in 1921 and construction of a factory in 1923 for HAP Taylor. The dominant presence on the street is now the Westbury Hotel.
Perhaps we could re-instate the latest memento to Balfe back to its home on Balfe St?
- Christine Casey,2005, The Buildings of Dublin, Yale University Press.
- Terry de Valera, 1986, Grafton Street: A Collage of Time and People, Dublin Historical Record, 39(4), 122-131.
- Colm Lennon and John Montague, 2010, John Rocque’s Dublin: A Guide to the Georgian City, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.
- Birthplace of Michael Balfe, The Irish Builder, July 1878, Vol. XX, no. 446, p. 202.
- E. MacDowel Cosgrave, 1907, A Contribution Towards a Catalogue of Nineteenth-Century Engravings of Dublin, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 37(1), 41 – 60.
- John O’Gahan, Letter to The Freeman’s Journal, Jan 11, 1917.
- L. B. Somerville-Large, 1964, Dublin’s Eye Hospitals in the 19th Century, Dublin Historical Record, 20(1), 19 – 28.