Ghost signs on Dublin’s walls

Dublin contains hundreds of ‘ghost signs’, preserved on the facades of old shops and factories that are now occupied by food outlets, shoe shops or pubs. What were these businesses, and who were the Elverys, Combridges and Kapps who owned them?

 Bolands Mill at Grand Canal Dock, which figured in the 1916 Rising, was built by the Pim brothers in 1837

Bolands Mill at Grand Canal Dock, which figured in the 1916 Rising, was built by the Pim brothers in 1837

 

The history of Dublin falls into familiar categories, packaged for the convenience of the secondary-school curriculum, popular history and the tourist market. We’re used to thinking of Viking Dublin, Georgian Dublin, literary Dublin, tenement Dublin, Dublin in rebellion. It has been, and is, all of these.

But what propelled Dubliners through all these identities were daily trade and commerce. The city was built on hard work, on growing businesses started by people with good ideas.

Dublin is a city with a history of commerce, of people rising early, rummaging for their cleanest dirty shirt, and making their way to work in shops and cafes. Behind counters they measured sweets into paper bags, counted out cigarettes, filled teapots and milk jugs, let customers finger fabrics and try on hats.

Business owners dreamed up exhibition stands and ways of keeping biscuits fresh, and brought in tea, coffee and tobacco from other continents. They fretted in the small hours over account books, weighed up whether a Sackville Street rent might finally be justifiable, prayed that a bale of silk would sell.

The physical remnants of these business and shop names, the traces of the people who managed and worked in them, are the “ghost signs” written across Dublin as they are across every city. They are signs that have survived long after the businesses they once represented have closed down or moved away.

They aren’t necessarily architecturally interesting, and some of them aren’t even especially old. For the most part they aren’t deliberately preserved, unless it’s by chance, along with an architecturally interesting or a historically significant facade. Retention is frequently more luck than judgment.

Some, however, are kept deliberately. In the case of two well-known signs, the Finn’s Hotel and Lennox Chemicals signs on South Leinster Street, Trinity College Dublin, which owns the buildings they’re on, sealed them for preservation recently, during works at Dublin Dental University Hospital.

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Nostalgia vs pragmatics

Westmoreland

Many hundreds more are gradually weathered away, removed by new business owners or demolished as old buildings make way for new. These are necessary changes in a living city. You can’t retain every element of the past just because it’s old.

But, knowing that things change, you ought to take a snapshot every now and then. We’ve photographed the city centre – and, through its ghost signs, Dublin’s past commercial life and the people who lived it have revealed themselves.

In our handful of ghost-signed businesses we see members of the cast reappear wearing different hats against different backdrops: a man leaves one firm of waterproofers to found another; a successful tobacconist chairs the board of a department store; the owner of a drapery business witnesses the marriage settlement of a fellow draper.

Buildings are used, reused and remade, and one sign is painted over another. Jessop’s vacates to Ruskell, Ruskell to Cox & Bailey, Cox & Bailey to Elvery’s. A tobacconist moves into the London & Lancashire Fire Insurance building; Kapp & Peterson places its pipemakers’ sign over the bullet-riddled Gunpowder Office. Switzers gradually colonises the surrounding six shops until it is itself colonised by Brown Thomas, which has already subsumed Combridges.

Change and civic disturbances notwithstanding, some of the ghost signs reveal on the parts of the business owners an expectation of, or a desire for, permanence in the city. This can perhaps be explained in part by the fact that so many of the businesses were owned by people who, even if they were not Dubliners themselves, were making their lives in the city.

Home and away

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O’Connell Street today is coloured by the livery of international firms such as Footlocker, Schuh, Burger King and McDonald’s, for which a presence in Dublin is fundamentally no different from, and is designed to appear identical to, a presence in Leeds or New York.

They mingle with a few Irish-owned firms, such as Eason, Clerys, Kylemore, McDowell’s Happy Ring House and the Gresham Hotel, but you have to look twice in a country where products that were once Irish, like Siúcra and Guinness, are now brand names operated by international conglomerates.

These city-centre ghost signs are Irish businesses, many of them retail, reflecting the nature of the city streets. In some well-known cases, such as Bewley’s, Switzers and Jacob’s, company histories have already been written. Others seem to have been barely written about at all, and are traceable mainly through contemporary advertising and newspaper reports.

There are easily 100 more of these signs in the few square kilometres between the Royal and Grand Canals, so the Greater Dublin Area must contain several hundred, and the whole of Ireland perhaps several thousand. The figures rise and fall almost daily as buildings decay, are stripped back or demolished.

Text by Antonia Hart and images by Lynn Nalty appear in the book Ghost Signs of Dublin, published by the History Press of Ireland

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