An Irishwoman's Diary
A lot has changed since 1989, when we moved up here to the leafy village of Rathgar. Some of these changes are good, more are not. But the air is still sweet and clean from the mountains and despite the best efforts of demon developers and the application of eccentric planning laws, much of the village’s mediaeval heart still beats to the rhythm of metal workers, though they are panel beaters and car mechanics rather than the armourers, swordmakers, wheelwrights and farriers who once occupied the bustling workshops along Harrison’s Row.
Rathgar was built around its castle, the middle rath in a line of defensive raths, stretching from Rathmines Castle below to Rathfarnham Castle, higher up in the hills and still extant.
It was a slow, picturesque village in 1989, with intriguing old buildings set among later 19th and early 20th century architecture.
Several of the most interesting buildings have since been demolished, including an early stuccoed lodge (probably part of the castle’s keep), latterly called Rose Cottage. All that remains of the cottage is a red paeony rose I rescued and some vast, beautifully aged, black limestone flags that PJ, the indispensable local builder, had the wit to salvage.
Several bits of our castle survive. The bits I know are a square, rendered tower, some high walls, a few blocked up windows and an old locked yard where a deep, dark basement gives access to an underground passage running under the main village road and coming up somewhere behind the big gray Presbyterian church. These bits of castle are mostly at the back of a row of shops and in particular, at the back of The 108 pub, a landmark corner at the crossroads.
In early January 2010 this fine, three-storey, early commercial building, with its elegant seven-windowed side onto Rathgar Avenue, was razed to the ground and replaced by a bland concoction of wood, glass and patinated carbuncles plonked on the rooftop.
We all knew the old 108 had dreadful bits of cladding and other tat glued to its facade and was in need of restoration, but in a 1910 photograph of Rathgar village in the Irish Architectural Archives, you can see just how handsome a corner building it was and how important it was to the character and structure of the village. To the rear of this building is the yard I mentioned, with the basement and underground passage.
I know that Michael Collins had more safe houses than hot dinners when he was staying one or two steps ahead of the posse, but this is yet another, as far as I know undocumented, and perhaps the safest of them all because he was being hidden in the bosom of family, his O’Donovan cousins from west Cork, who had a butcher’s shop there (hopefully they gave him hot dinners), and a house on Airfield Road, where he attended a family wedding in 1922. He lived in the basement and used the underground passage when coming and going. One of the granite windowsills in our own workshop is said to be from the Michael Collins safe house.
In 1989 the now defunct 47A bus came down from the mountains to wind its way along Rathgar Avenue and around the back roads before heading for town, much to everyone’s great convenience. It would have passed a substantial Arts Crafts house on the left, at the corner of the Row, where the writer and poet Susan Mitchell lived and entertained WB Yeats, Padraic Colum, George Moore and of course George (AE) Russell, who was a neighbour and her editor at The Irish Homestead and The Irish Statesman.
That sturdy house, whose last inhabitant was the gentleman conductor of the Army Band Col Jim Doyle, was built of two deep layers of Dublin-made brick; it took big wrecking machines days to break its bones. Gone too are its green swards, 20th-century tea roses and the garden. Now there is a car park and a block of flats.
Nor is Rathgar quite as leafy now that some of its mature trees have been felled for no obvious reason and so many of its other gardens have disappeared under concrete. But one rare medicinal plant, the white Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum “Album”), which occurs in very few places in Ireland, is still profuse in a certain small area of Rathgar and, so far, has refused to die, despite being sprayed with weedkiller every year at the height of summer.