How Dublin’s oldest suburbs lost – then rediscovered – their identities

Most of the city's early suburbs were subsumed into municipal Dublin in 1900

Rathmines Road, looking north, with the Town Hall on the right and tram in the foreground, c1910 (National Library of Ireland)

Rathmines Road, looking north, with the Town Hall on the right and tram in the foreground, c1910 (National Library of Ireland)

 

One of the more enduring images of recreation during recent lockdowns was of walkers and cyclists teeming on the promenade at Clontarf. Restricted to an exercise limit of 5km from home, residents took to exploring, take-away coffee in hand, parkland and seaside such as St Anne’s park and North Bull Island at Dollymount, and the streets, lanes and architecture of their district.

In the process of rediscovery of the walkable inner suburbs of Rathmines, Kilmainham/Inchicore, Drumcondra and Clontarf (all featuring in the Royal Irish Academy’s Irish Historic Towns Atlas Dublin Suburbs series), these enclaves have revealed their old village hubs anew, and kindled a keen sense of locality.

Dublin’s inner suburbs were originally rural villages within the hinterland of the metropolis. These small settlements were advantaged by their suitable location and topography from medieval times. Most were readily accessible on routes to and from the city, such as the Great North Road through what is now Drumcondra, along which people and goods travelled, supplying food and labour for the urban economy.

North suburbs of Drumcondra and Clontarf, 1760, from John Rocque’s Actual survey of the county of Dublin (Royal Irish Academy).
North suburbs of Drumcondra and Clontarf, 1760, from John Rocque’s Actual survey of the county of Dublin (Royal Irish Academy).

Villages had their distinctive topographical features, including local rivers, such as the Tolka in Drumcondra, Liffey and Camac in Kilmainham/Inchicore or Dodder and Swan in Rathmines, and the sea coast at Clontarf, which facilitated local production and manufactures in the form of fisheries or milling, for example. Old seats or castles of landlords as at Clontarf and monastic houses like Kilmainham hospital formed hubs of local administration and nucleation.

Rocque’s County Dublin map of 1760 shows the largely rural character of Dublin’s immediate vicinity, but in the 19th century the phenomenon of suburbanisation took hold in the neighbourhood of the city. Driven by social and economic factors was an exodus of large numbers who hoped to escape from poverty and crowded housing conditions in a city ruled by an increasingly factionalised urban corporation.

Besides the availability of employment opportunities outside the canals, as at Kilmainham/Inchicore’s railway works, new settlers in suburbia were drawn from near and far to the villages and communities on the periphery by the promise of residential comfort in a salubrious country setting with developing urban amenities.

While each suburb evolved at its own pace and in its own style, there were certain features in common across the evolving suburban landscape, most notably in local administration, the role of developers in building new roads and housing, and connectivity with the city centre through public transport.

Townships were established in all four suburbs in the Victorian period. These local authorities, independent of Dublin corporation, and with devolved powers of taxation, were agents of change through the provision of services, such as water supply, drainage, lighting and paving. Township boards comprised estate-owning, professional and business interests, some of which were highly sensitive to development regarded as detrimental to the pastoral quality of life enjoyed by residents as of, say, Glasnevin, who feared having to pay for Drumcondra’s “improvement”!

Dublin from the railway bridge at Hollybrook, Clontarf, looking southwest, c1850, by Edward Radclyffe (National Library of Ireland)
Dublin from the railway bridge at Hollybrook, Clontarf, looking southwest, c1850, by Edward Radclyffe (National Library of Ireland)

Developers such as Frederick Stokes in Rathmines, James Lombard in Drumcondra and Graham Tickell in Clontarf combined township board membership with their commercial and property interests. Building schemes included speculative ribbon development of terraces, later subsumed in key arterial avenues such as Rathmines Road, or the newly-opened Clonliffe and St Lawrence Roads in Drumcondra and Clontarf, with subsequent cutting of cross-roads and infilling of green-field sites.

Common to all these suburban settlements were new forms of transport under private management that facilitated commuting to the city centre. Unlike the outer “railway” suburbs such as Kingstown, trains played little part in inner suburban transportation, residents benefitting instead from frequent tram services, first horse-drawn and then electric, plying the routes for reasonable fares.

Influenced by topography as well as administrative, social and cultural foundations, each suburb developed its unique character, attracting a preponderance or mixture of residents from the differing social groups, whether upper middle-class professionals, artisanal classes or lower middle-class clerical workers and civil servants.

As seen below, the town lords in Rathmines, including the earl of Meath and Lord Palmerston, presided over “Dublin’s Belgravia” with its squares and fine roads, successfully preventing the incursion of the municipality into their administration of civic affairs (symbolised by a splendid town hall).

Clontarf’s attractions as a “seaside place” and residential suburb were balanced down to 1900, despite the resistance of its largest landed proprietors, the Vernons and Guinnesses, to “excursionists” and their holding out against plans to expand the new rail system. Clontarf had housing ranging from cottages for tramway workers to large red-bricked residences for professionals and higher civil servants.

Despite its aspirations to becoming another Rathmines, Kilmainham/Inchicore’s standing as an artisanal suburb was sealed by the installation of major industrial works, which built housing schemes for workers, as well as a county gaol and military barracks within its bounds. Meanwhile, new religious institutions and associations, such as the Oblate mission, helped to create social capital.

In Drumcondra, where older aristocratic houses were changed to religious and educational institutional uses, the new suburb developed through multiple builders a diversity in the size and style of its housing stock, ranging from large residences set in generous grounds, through less affluent terraces to smaller houses. Its property market was generally attractive to the lower middle-classes, clerical and skilled artisans.

As new environments and identities were thus formed in the suburbs, cross-cutting older boundaries of manor, parish and townland, frustrations mounted in the adjacent city at the disproportionate burden falling on urban rate-payers for funding major sanitation and water schemes and social policies in health and housing. Proposals for extending the city limits eventually led to the absorption of Kilmainham, Clontarf and Drumcondra townships within the municipal area in 1900, with Rathmines holding onto its independence until 1930.

Despite the annexations, expansion of the inner suburbs continued in the 20th century. The localities retained their individual character, partly due to populist notions of recreated village centres but also due to the growth of community through religious, leisure and sporting culture. These distinctive suburban identities were asserted strongly in the recent past in the gravitational pull of old village hubs. The inner suburbs have successfully retained a balance between proximity to the city centre and their rus in urbe ambience.
Prof Colm Lennon is editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Irish Historic Towns Atlas Dublin Suburbs series and author of No. 1 Clontarf. No. 2 Rathminesby Séamas Ó Maitiú has just been published.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.