Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Local history books round-up, featuring Zozimus, Bang Bang and other Dublin characters

Through Streets Broad and Narrow by Declan Collinge; Lives Less Ordinary: Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square by Andrew Hughes; Spectral Mansions: The Making of a Dublin Tenement by Timothy Murtagh; a history of Dublin Castle; and Dublin City Council’s History on your Doorstep collection

Surprises jump out from every chapter of Declan Collinge’s engaging ramble Through Streets Broad and Narrow: Voices of Dublin (Beehive Books, €29.99). While the usual writerly suspects feature with extracts of their work, they sit alongside stories of characters such as the wandering minstrel Zozimus. Known as “the last of the gleemen”, Zozimus was born Michael Moran in Faddle Alley in the Liberties and became blind due to illness. In the 1790s he cut a strange figure wandering the streets but developed an exceptional memory, quoting verse at will. Although the public loved him, Zozimus had brushes with the Dublin Metropolitan Police, who disliked ballad singers and outdoor performers.

Another flamboyant character, Thomas Dudley, aka Bang Bang, was born in the inner city in 1906. Travelling on the trams and buses he carried a large silver key that he used as a “revolver”. He pointed this at the conductor or passengers, shouting “Bang bang”, hence his nickname. In the 1930s the beggar Johnny Fortycoats, whose real name was PJ Marlow, was well known. He was often seen begging outside churches on Sunday and admitted doing well financially on these occasions.

The author’s grandfather, Lennie Collinge, was a projectionist at the Volta Cinema, which was set up by James Joyce in Mary Street in 1909. Collinge described Joyce as “a tall, thin young man, quiet spoken, who was never to the forefront of cinema business”. There is much more to enjoy, such as amusing examples of Dublinspeak, old street games, the swinging 1960s and the modern city when the Celtic Tiger prowled.

On the south side of Dublin, one of its main squares is the location for a cast of a characters in Andrew Hughes’ Lives Less Ordinary: Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, 1798-1922 (Liffey Press, €19.95). Individual chapters examine how the lives of those in this Georgian square of 69 houses affected not only the history of Dublin but also the wider world. The author follows the stories of residents – politicians, academics, soldiers, sailors – who played a role in disparate sides of Irish life during the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Tales of duels, ghosts, political and personal scandals are sprinkled through the pages. Sketches and caricatures reveal intriguing portraits, presenting an overview of Irish life at a particular place and time. The central garden, unchanged in 200 years, was a play area for the square’s children, supervised by “gossiping nannies”. But the garden is most notable for hosting the entertaining spectacle of the initial Irish tennis open championships in the late 19th century. The first open champion in 1879 was Vere Thomas St Leger Goold, who subsequently retired from the game, fell into alcoholism and married a French widow, winding up in Monte Carlo. She was later convicted of murder.

Across on the city’s north side, the Georgian tenements on Henrietta Street have been the focus of several books considering the area from the perspective of upper-class cultural refinement. A new volume, Spectral Mansions: The Making of a Dublin Tenement, 1800-1914 (Four Courts Press, €27) by Timothy Murtagh, chronicles the street’s dramatic transformation from its cultivated and decorous lifestyle to an overcrowded place of poverty and dereliction.

At one time Henrietta Street was the home of six titled residents, two military generals, three archbishops and two speakers of the Irish House of Commons. By 1911, some 900 people lived in 19 buildings on the street, with several containing more than 100 under one roof. The appalling social conditions were the worst slums in what was then a part of the United Kingdom.

Many of the houses were taken over by the landlord Thomas Vance, and by a popular lord mayor, Joseph Meade, who turned them into flats. These successful public figures profited from the tenements, although at the time owning them was not necessarily seen as disreputable. But as Murtagh states, “both men reflected the unsavoury and hypocritical nature of Victorian capitalism”.

This revealing study is illustrated with satirical caricatures from the Lepracaun Cartoon Monthly, maps, photographs and particularly John Cooke’s seminal picture, a haunting image of the tenements in Chancery Lane, off Bride Street. It is an important contribution to the historiography of an overlooked subject and to the tenement residents who, as the author observes, were invisible to historians for much of the 19th century.

Dublin Castle: From Fortress to Palace, Volume 1 (National Monuments Service, OPW, €50) by Seán Duffy, John Montague, Kevin Mulligan and Michael O’Neill, is dedicated to a history of the castle, its architecture as well as archaeological excavations. This handsomely produced volume – the first of a large-format trilogy – covers the period from the Viking settlement on the site in the ninth century up to 1850. The castle was the centre of English and later British royal government in Ireland from the 1170s until it was handed over to the Irish Provisional Government in 1922.

The book is embellished with portraits, maps, drawings and engravings. And while the emphasis is on the physical development of the castle and its environs, it also contains general history looking at the political, social and administrative background. It is the first extended history of Dublin Castle to have been published and the series is intended to provide a comprehensive historical background to the results of excavations carried out between 1961 and 1987, which will appear in subsequent volumes.

Dublin City Council has produced five volumes in the History on Your Doorstep series, freely available from libraries across the city. The books, which reflect specific events, people and places, are part of the Decade of Commemorations programme. The bite-size volumes are multi-authored by the council’s historians in residence: James Curry, Cormac Moore, Mary Muldowney, Catherine Scuffil, and historian in residence for children Dervilla Roche.

The diversity of stories includes the painting of pillar boxes from red to green, the history of Lemon’s pure sweets, and the transformation of market gardens and allotments into the Free State’s first public housing scheme, the Tenters, in Dublin 8. There is an outstanding profile of Séamus Ennis, the renowned musician, singer, folklorist and broadcaster who left behind, to quote from one obituary notice, “a priceless heritage of Irish tradition to the nation”. A special commemorative volume is also dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday at Croke Park on November 21st, 1920.

Paul Clements

Paul Clements is a contributor to The Irish Times