Dublin in the medium-to-rare oul’ times

An Irishman’s Diary about the latest work from the Historic Towns Atlas project

A view of Dublin, circa 1818, by SF Brocas (National Library of Ireland). From Irish Historic Towns Atlas: Dublin, part III, 1756 to 1847

A view of Dublin, circa 1818, by SF Brocas (National Library of Ireland). From Irish Historic Towns Atlas: Dublin, part III, 1756 to 1847


The Irish Historic Town Atlas project is approaching middle age now, having begun in 1981. But its latest production, a survey of Dublin from 1756 to the Famine, has a topical sub-theme – the importance of water in a fast-expanding, ever-thirstier city.

Among other things, the atlas’s fascinating maps help explain certain water-related place names that might otherwise mystify a modern viewer, including Basin Street in Dublin 8, which did indeed have a basin once – the old city reservoir – but is now high and dry.

Then there’s Rialto, an historic joke that lost its punchline back in the 1970s, when the local bridge (which gave its name to the area, rather than vice versa) lost the extension of the Grand Canal that used to run underneath.

Even the original bridge, replaced in 1931, didn’t look much like the one in Venice, apparently. But the mocking wit of the name must be lost on most of the travellers who now pass under its arch, transported by that modern-day gondola, the Luas.

The same former canal spur also explains why there is still a Grand Canal Place at the back of Guinness’s, and a “Harbour Bar” on one of its corners, even though the harbour is now a warehouse complex.

The contents of the old basin had been pumped up from the Liffey, but it wasn’t enough for the growing city’s needs and a costly expansion was considered before the Grand Canal finally reached a grateful Dublin in the 1780s, bailing it out with clean water from the midlands.

It was no coincidence that so much hydration converged on what is now Dublin 8. The surrounding streets had some of the city’s most intensive industry, much of it engaged in the miracle of turning water into wine, or – more usually – beer and spirits.

Dublin was a thirsty place then, in more ways than one. Beer being safer than water, there were about 40 breweries circa 1750, mostly in and around the Liberties

No such excuse existed for drinking whiskey, but there were almost 30 distilleries by the 1780s – displacing breweries in some cases, but not Guinness’s, even though that was still a minnow in 1847.

Its need for a drink aside, the Dublin of that period must also have been in dire need of a wash. It wasn’t just dirty, it was smelly too. Poring over the old maps and sketches, you can almost see the fumes.

Such sewage pipes as existed in the 1700s dealt only with rainwater. The stable lanes behind terraces houses were a conduit for manual removal of human and animal waste, a job devolving to “scavengers”, who sold it on to farms.

The better class of streets had stable lanes without stables, for discreet waste removal. Less discreet were some of the names. Behind the handsome facade of the houses on Usher’s Island, for example, lurked a “Dunghill Lane”.

The coming of the “water closet” improved conditions inside the homes that had them, but only made things worse outside. Water-borne waste removal was bad news for Dublin’s rivers, especially the main one. In most of the older maps, it was given its full, poetic title, Anna Liffey. But it certainly wasn’t treated like a lady.

As Malton’s portraits (some included here) remind us, however, the late 1700s were also an architectural glory era in Dublin – in part because the local parliament was careful to ensure that none of the revenues then flowing freely ended up in Westminster.

In order to avoid budget surpluses that would be payable to London, politicians invested in such projects as Parliament Street (named accordingly) and Parliament Square, the handsome front quadrangle of Trinity College.

But the improvements only went so far. Dublin’s fringes remained much less salubrious. City maps in the late 1700s included both a “Cut-Throat Lane East” and a “Cut-Throat Lane West”. Indeed the latter was still there in the 1840s, although it has since disappeared into St James’s Hospital. That must have been an especially atmospheric area in the 19th century. Just opposite Cut Throat Lane West was a steep alleyway that, then as now, overlooked the river Camac. A modern estate agent would call it Camac View or River Prospect, or something similar.

But the public relations industry had yet to take off in the Dublin of this atlas (which is published by the Royal Irish Academy and on sale for €35). So there were no references to the view. Instead, in all maps of the period, the alley is described as plain old “Murdering Lane”.