A tale of two towers

An Irishman’s Diary about the contrasting fates of a pair of Dublin neighbours

The former Anglican church of St James in Dublin, now deconsecrated and set to become a distillery. In the distance and to the right is St Patrick’s Tower. Photograph: Frank McNally

The former Anglican church of St James in Dublin, now deconsecrated and set to become a distillery. In the distance and to the right is St Patrick’s Tower. Photograph: Frank McNally

Fri, Mar 7, 2014, 01:01

The fate of the sail-less windmill on Dublin’s Thomas Street, mentioned earlier in the week, makes for a rather interesting contrast these days with one of its neighbours.

Although long associated with the profane business of distilling, the mill is officially known as St Patrick’s Tower. Presumably, back in the 18th century when Roe’s Distillery was being built, the company saw fit to invoke the guidance of the Apostle of Ireland, and appointed him as a sort of non-executive director. Or at any rate, they had an effigy of him placed on top of the mill, where it remains today.

In the intervening centuries, the saint has overseen what was once the largest distillery in Europe. He has also looked down on its decline and closure. How the actual Patrick might have felt about either development is a moot point. But an indirect effect of Roe’s demise was the decommissioning of the windmill which, stripped of its sails, now does look like just a tower.

Thus, belatedly, its quasi-ecclesiastical title also seems apt, because the structure does little else these days than elevate the saint’s likeness. Mind you, altitude is achieved at the expense of grandeur. Being only four feet tall – about one thirty-fifth the height of the tower – the miniature figure with cross and mitre does not look exactly heroic. He could easily be mistaken for a weather vane.

Meanwhile, a short distance westwards on St James’s Street, is another, smaller tower, whose history is almost a mirror image of the windmill’s. Resembling a sawn-off spire, it’s part of the former Anglican church of St James, now retired from religion and, deconsecrated, forced to operate in the world of commerce.

The church had a fairly gentle introduction to civilian life when, for a number of years, it served the cause of enlightenment, as a retailer of illuminant electrical fittings. But that business ceased to trade some time ago and the building was sold again, whereupon it took a dramatic change of direction.

Bought by a Dundalk-born businessman, Pearse Lyons, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and made his fortune in the agri-food industry, the former church is now fated to become a distillery, and in the process to be the subject of multiple punning news headlines on the theme of unholy spirits.

There are big plans for the former church’s cemetery too, although that at least will remain the preserve of one kind of spirit only. Dublin City Council hopes to recast the historic graveyard as a city park, with an entrance pavilion on James’s Street and an elevated walkway overlooking the old headstones, which include that of Lyons’s grandfather. The latter, at least, could hardly have objected to the church’s new lease of life. Nor could another of the cemetery’s residents, the aptly named William H Porter.

Porter was a Belfast Presbyterian whose long and varied career involved spells as a lawyer, journalist, and – for most of his working life – civil servant.

In the latter role, he founded what became the British Immigration Service. But only for so long could he resist the pull of nominative determinism. This is the unprovable but entertaining theory that a person’s name influences his or her vocation. In Porter’s case, it dictated that he would end up working for Guinness.

And sure enough, he did, when appointed assistant managing director at the brewery in the 1930s. As such, he lived on St James’s Street and died there too, before making the short journey to the local cemetery.

But getting back to two towers, there may yet be other twists in their contrasting tales. Both are on what is known as the “Dubline” – a designated tourist route that starts in College Green and heads west past Christchurch, Guinness’s, and Kilmainham Gaol, to the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge.

Much of Irish history is illustrated along the way. So, by way of adding visitor value, there has even been talk of putting the sails back on the windmill at some point- although if they were to turn as they once did, noise might be an issue for the neighbours.

In the meantime, many of the tourists in town for next week’s St Patrick’s Festival will make the Dubline trek at least as far west as the Guinness Storehouse.

Most probably they won’t even notice the tiny effigy of the man himself looking down on them from the defunct whiskey mill. Yet there he will be, as usual – high and (in one sense of the term anyway) dry.

@FrankmcnallyIT

@fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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