No doubting Thomas Street
Irishman’s Diary on the comeback of a Dublin thoroughfare steeped – and steepled – in history
‘Encouragingly, no fewer than 50 people signed up for part-time diplomacy, representing multiple nationalities, but united by a common interest in reviving the beleaguered street (Thomas Street, Dublin, above).’
I’m delighted to see Thomas Street, that once great Dublin thoroughfare now fallen on hard times, has acquired diplomatic representation. Cycling along it yesterday, I spotted two purple-bibbed “ambassadors” inviting passers-by to ask questions. So I did ask, and learned they were among the results of a “90-day plan to save the street” announced earlier this year.
Encouragingly, no fewer than 50 people signed up for part-time diplomacy, representing multiple nationalities, but united by a common interest in reviving the beleaguered street. Reports of the death of volunteerism, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated.
In one way, the ambassadors have their work cut out, because thanks to a combination of old-fashioned dereliction and new-fashioned Nama, the surrounding area looks rather grim these days. On the great spine of Dublin cultural attractions that stretches westwards from Trinity College and Christ Church to Kilmainham Gaol, the latter-day Thomas Street represents a painfully slipped disc.
Its neglect has been all the more shameful because the street is on most pathways to the biggest tourist attraction in the capital – the Guinness Storehouse – maximising viewership for its current indignities. On the other hand, few Dublin neighbourhoods can boast as much history as this one. Alongside the faded glories, a few unfaded ones are well worth trumpeting.
It had somehow passed me by until recently – even though I had passed it a thousand times – that Thomas Street contains Dublin’s highest steeple. This is only one of the Augustinian church’s claims to fame, another of which was being described by the writer and artist John Ruskin as a “poem in stone”. Unfortunately the building’s poetry, and indeed the steeple, can be missed from ground level. Both are probably best appreciated from across the street, ideally from just inside the yard of Chadwicks Building Supplies (although the security man may ask you for a docket on the way out).
While this house of God marks the eastern end of Thomas Street, the house of Arthur Guinness – No 1, where the man himself lived – marks the western extreme. And the plaque on that terraced mansion is echoed by one just opposite on the Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society building, noting that this was where Lord Edward Fitzgerald was arrested in 1798.
But Thomas Street’s patriotic connections don’t end there. It is also home to St Catherine’s Church, outside which Robert Emmet’s doomed rebellion took place and where, as a monument records, he subsequently paid a grisly price.
By complete contrast, one of the street’s more exotic attractions is a defunct windmill, known officially as St Patrick’s Tower. Like the steeple, it too can boast an altitude record, and not just for Dublin. According to a plaque, this is or was the tallest “smock” windmill in Europe, although its sails are long decommissioned.
The redundant mill perhaps symbolises the street’s general decline. It was built, some time around 1757, as part of a now forgotten whiskey company. Yet George Roe distillers would grow by the early 20th century to be one of world’s largest.
The firm once rivalled neighbouring Guinness’s for power and prestige. Indeed, just as the brewery funded the 19th-century restoration of St Patrick’s Cathedral, so the distiller did for the other local cathedral, Christ Church.
Furthermore, Roe’s was part of a “golden triangle” of whiskey houses, two points of which were on Thomas Street (the other was Power’s, while Jameson’s on Marrowbone Lane completed the trio). And a poignant hint of its former glories is contained in Maurice Curtis’s recent book, The Liberties: a History.
Curtis quotes a visitor, circa 1890, who described Roe’s Thomas Street entrance as resembling a “French château with its ivy-covered walls and flowerbeds”. From this, the distillery spread down to the Liffey, covering 17 acres. But – sic transit gloria mundi – this great business closed in 1926 and was promptly swallowed by the brewery. Now only the arm-less windmill remains to proclaim its former greatness.
The fate of Roe’s is, as I say, a metaphor for Thomas Street in general. But there appears to be hope for the latter, at least. Given the enthusiasm of its diplomatic corps, then – to paraphrase one former local – it might be premature yet to write the street’s epitaph. I look forward to it throwing off the shackles of Namaland, in time, and once more taking its rightful place among the stations of the tour-bus routes.