Nothing radical: the rebuilding of Dublin

After the 1916 Rising it took just 11 years to reconstruct O’Connell Street – a year less than the Luas Cross City line – but the architecture was safe and unimaginative


A hundred years ago, at the end of May 1916, what was then called Sackville Street lay in smouldering ruins. Intensive shelling had left the street – now O’Connell Street – and surrounding area in a state that must have seemed apocalyptic to all who saw it, although it would become grimly familiar later in the century, when industrialised warfare flattened cities from Coventry and Warsaw to Dresden and Hiroshima.

The scale of damage in Dublin was a small fraction of what others would suffer, but nevertheless it represented the obliteration of Ireland’s most recognisable urban landscape, with 80 buildings either fully or partially destroyed. It also marked a rupture in the architectural as well as the political history of Dublin, with the War of Independence and Civil War going on to leave their own wounds, and sovereignty ultimately shifting from London to Dublin.

James Connolly had believed that the GPO’s location, in the commercial heart of the city, would offer protection against an all-out assault, on the basis that the capitalist British government would not damage property with military force.

That calculation may have proved naive, but it was nonetheless an unprecedented shock to see the British army shelling the commercial district of one of its own cities. Fire had spread rapidly through the wood-framed 18th- and 19th-century buildings of the area, and, with no possibility of emergency services getting near while hostilities were still ongoing, what was left after Easter Week was a vista of destruction.

The damage resulted in significant material loss for the citizens and property owners of Dublin, and, even before the executions of the leaders of the Rising had concluded, public attention had swung to the question of restitution.

Whether from embarrassment or pragmatic calculation, the British government quickly accepted liability for the loss of property of all kinds, paying £1.8 million in compensation. Planning and rebuilding were soon under way, and, although further damage would be done during the Civil War, work was completed by 1927. (Consider in comparison the current Luas Cross City line, which will have taken more than 12 years from consultation to its scheduled completion, in late 2017.)

A conference at Liberty Hall next week will explore the impact of the Rising and its aftermath on the fabric of early 20th-century Dublin, looking at how the repair and reconstruction were undertaken and completed so quickly despite the surrounding turmoil. Other themes include the latent tension between early modernism and more traditional architectural styles in the rebuilding process, which are still visible on the street. The experience of other cities that have experienced violent destruction will also be addressed.

Architectural endeavour

Next week also sees the publication of the first volume of More Than Concrete Blocks, a three-part series unpacking the history of Dublin’s 20th-century architecture.

O'Connell Street: in 1916 and 2016

A city destroyed: the view across Carlisle Bridge, later renamed after Daniel O'Connell, shows some of the destruction in the city. Now another type of destruction is invading the city centre
O’Connell Street: Ireland’s main street destroyed by the Rising – and disrupted by roadworks in 2016
O’Connell Street: The Metropole Hotel, now the site of Eason’s and Penney’s, with more roadworks
O'Connell Bridge: The 2016 photograph shows some of the rebuilt blocks

This first volume includes essays on building culture in Dublin from 1900 to 1939, plus a range of case studies, including the O’Connell Street rebuilding. The handsomely illustrated book presents an overview, in guidebook style, of about 90 sites in a survey of the city’s buildings in the first four decades of the 20th century, not as a best-of but as a representation of architectural endeavour at the time.

Grainne Shaffrey is a conservation architect and urban designer who has had several architectural involvements with O’Connell Street. Her contribution to the conference will look at the street’s reconstruction and at how the dictates of the architectural and business communities were brought together by Dublin Corporation’s reconstruction committee.

Shaffrey agrees that the process of rebuilding got under way remarkably quickly. “The property owners wanted to get up and running as soon as possible,” she says. “The chemist Hamilton Young even put up a single-storey temporary structure so it could resume trading.”

But there was also a widespread feeling that the destruction offered an opportunity to restore some of the grandeur that it was felt the street had lost over the 19th century. “The focus was very much on presentation,” says Shaffrey. “What architectural language was appropriate? What materials should be used?”

The earlier work, focused on the southern, more intensively commercial end of the street, from the riverfront to Clerys department store, was characterised by modern building techniques, including steel frames and concrete, but also by traditional architecture in a range of eclectic styles.

The later development of the northeast side of the street, which suffered further damage during the Civil War, saw a more unified, identifiably 20th-century idiom in buildings such as the Gresham Hotel and Savoy Cinema, and also included the carving out of the brand new Cathal Brugha Street.

As Shaffrey observes, there was a reluctance to try anything too radical; proposals to relocate Nelson Pillar or to build a new cathedral at the northern end of the street were quietly shelved. None of the recommendations of the prewar Abercrombie Plan, which had proposed a radical reimagining of Dublin’s layout, found their way into the new O’Connell Street. (The street was renamed in 1924.) “Maybe there was a certain conservatism there, and a desire just to get back to business,” she says.

What of the broader picture? The period between 1916 and 1922 forms a breakpoint in the architectural and planning history of Dublin. The years from 1900 to 1915 had seen the construction of a number of notable buildings that are landmarks to this day: the university block at Earlsfort Terrace (now the National Concert Hall); the College of Science on Merrion Street (now Government Buildings) and the Guinness Storehouse. Each of these in its own way had a monumental quality that expressed the imperial confidence of the Edwardian era. What they shared with other buildings of the period, such as the Italianate fire station at Tara Street and the cod-medieval Pearse Street police station, was a combination of new steel-and-concrete-based building technologies with facades that harked back to earlier eras.

Once the Free State came into being its energy and resources, such as they were, were directed more towards the construction of infrastructure projects, such as the power station at Ardnacrusha, and the development of new forms of housing, to address the city’s greatest social problem: its overcrowded tenement slums.

Before independence there had been some efforts towards slum relief, such as the Iveagh Trust complex on Bull Alley. In the 1930s, under the direction of the city’s visionary chief architect, Herbert Simms, a range of well-designed flat complexes were built across the city, including Marrowbone Lane and Townsend Street, and new housing schemes were initiated, first in Marino, then in Cabra and Crumlin.

Attractive new libraries were built in suburban locations such as Drumcondra. But, with a couple of exceptions, such as the Gas Building on D’Olier Street, there were few significant new buildings in the city centre.

Monumental structures

The other challenge in the early years of the Free State was what to do about the three historical monumental structures that had been damaged or nearly destroyed. At Tuesday’s conference Dr Ellen Rowley will discuss the approach taken by the Office of Public Works in reconstructing the GPO, the Custom House and the Four Courts, the materials used, and what the projects tell us about the ideology and philosophy of the newly independent state.

Rowley is also the editor of the first volume of More Than Concrete Blocks, which she describes as the first stage in trying to disseminate a long-term project looking at Dublin from 1900 to 1999. The project is based on mapping, selecting case studies and offering insights into the stories, people and philosophies that lie behind many of our most familiar buildings.

“It’s founded on the idea that 20th-century architecture in Dublin was unloved,” says Rowley, a cultural and architectural historian. “We wanted to shift perceptions of it. Part of doing that is through knowledge; if you know what this building is about, who built it and how they did it, you’ll probably think differently about it.”

More Than Concrete Blocks is published by Dublin City Council with University College Dublin and Four Courts Press. The Conflict and the City conference takes place at Liberty Hall, Dublin, on May 31st and June 1st;

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