It was one of the great residential suburbs of the British empire. Its lofty terraces lined the long spine that is Rathmines Road and its great leafy squares gained it the title of “the Dublin Belgravia” in the 19th century.
By the time that I was growing up there in the 1950s and 1960s much of its area, in particular the part closest to the city, had become “flatland”, inhabited by a small army of civil servants, office workers, teachers and others seeking relatively cheap accommodation in flats and bedsits close to their places of work.
Having pored over old maps and documents for the last few years preparing Rathmines for the Irish Historic Towns Atlas two facts which I had been vaguely aware of became crystal clear: what is Rathmines today was not Rathmines in the past and its present landscape, apparently waterless, was shaped by watercourses.
Old maps show that the area considered the heart of Rathmines today, around the Swan Shopping Centre, town hall and public library was invariably labelled “the road to Rathmines”. So where was Rathmines? As a boy I was aware of the fact that many older people referred to Rathmines Road Upper heading towards Dartry as “Old Rathmines”. In fact the original settlement was some 2km away.
It was centred on a castle, built around 1636 and probably incorporating a medieval structure which was demolished in the 1840s. This was found on the fringes of the present Palmerston Park (the public park). This was also the likely site of the ancient rath or ringfort which gives the area its name. The distinctive curved southern boundary of Palmerston Park may be a vestige of this ringfort. It came into the hands of the De Meones family between 1279 and 1284. They were highfliers in the Dublin administration originating in the village of East Meon in Hampshire. So Rathmines takes part of its name from a village in England.
This little settlement not far from the Dodder River failed to thrive and by the early 19th century the name Rathmines had shifted northwards and referred to a small village on the banks of the Swan River which took a sharp turn here close to the present Slattery’s pub. The area was known as “The Chains” after a protective feature fronting the river. One of the bollards of this structure miraculously survives. This river and its tributaries, now hidden underground and remembered in the name of the Swan Shopping Centre, determined the layout of Rathmines Road, Rathgar Road, Richmond Hill and other thoroughfares.
Lower Rathmines has always had a lopsided look to it. From its traditional boundary with the city at the Grand Canal at Portobello to the junction of Rathgar Road practically all the grand terraces of houses are on the east side (the side of the Catholic church). This was because the Swan River and its tributaries ran along the west side. It was prone to flooding and later became an open sewer and was eventually culverted by 1858. Any buildings erected on that side, for example Lark Hill, a house which formed the nucleus of St Mary’s College, were built well back from the watercourse with long gardens in front.
The suburbanisation of the area was greatly facilitated by the creation of the Rathmines Township Board in 1847, a body which oversaw the development of new streets and squares and provided various services like a water supply, sewerage, paving and cleansing of the streets, public lighting and others.
The township acquired a small house as a town hall on Rathmines Road Lower and this became the new centre of gravity of the district – the third incarnation of Rathmines. This developed into a very interesting civic nucleus which had, besides a new town hall opened in 1898, in close proximity to each other a large service yard, fire station, library, technical school, morgue, artisans’ dwellings, electricity generating station and “refuse destructor” – an early recycling plant. A number of these still exist in the present core of Rathmines.
The flight of the middle classes from the city, which greatly impoverished the area within the canals, led to an attempt to create an exclusively middle-class residential suburb. Such developments are often referred to rather grandly by geographers as “bourgeois utopias”. In 1867 the township board decreed that all the remaining thatched houses in the area be removed, indicating their intent. But of course the poor were needed, as domestic servants, coachmen, gardeners, building and maintenance employees and so on. Small houses and cottages had to be built and they were squeezed into alleyways and lanes behind the big houses – out of sight, out of mind.
I grew up in a development of little cottages known as Gulistan behind the town hall originally inhabited by the township firemen and others. My grandfather was a fireman for the township and there was a by-then defunct electric bell in my bedroom which would have at one time called him to a fire in the night.
The complexion of Rathmines was predominately Protestant and unionist. When it achieved the status of a self-governing township in 1847, the enabling act of parliament reserved one-third of its seats for Catholics. However, when the first election came around all the Catholics were “thrown out”, in the words of the township chairman. They found it difficult for many years to get back in. On the political front the unionists controlled the board until the local government elections of 1920, when they were narrowly defeated. A vestige of those times remained up to the early 1960s when as a boy I had an early morning paper round on some of the most affluent streets. The Irish Times headed the list by a long shot. The Irish Press was largely unheard of.
The valiant efforts by some in recent years to reverse the trend and turn the fine Victorian houses back to single-family use, a cause championed by the late activist, Deirdre Kelly, is to be admired. Rathmines today is characterised for me both by scenes of domestic family life, as of old, in its fine leafy avenues and squares, and the cosmopolitan vibrancy of its nightlife enjoyed by people from all over the world who now inhabit some of the houses in Lower Rathmines, once the homes of the worthy Victorian suburbanites who created the built environment they now inhabit.
Dr Séamas Ó Maitiú is author of Irish Historic Towns Atlas, Dublin Suburbs, No. 2 Rathmines, recently published by the Royal Irish Academy