The ‘back lane of no importance’ in Dublin that excelled in the 1970s
The Times We Lived In: Published Thursday, September 9th, 1971
Spend a few months – or even weeks – outside Dublin city centre these days and returning to walk the streets can be a head-spinning exercise. The development of office blocks, large restaurants, hotels, student accommodation and retail units is perhaps even more discombobulating than the time-lapse-speed-building of the Celtic Tiger throw-em-up years.
The fabric of things that once felt familiar in Dublin 2 – Dawson Street, Molesworth Street, Chatham Street, Andrew’s Lane, not to mention the colossus of the Central Bank plaza soon to dominate Dame Street – is being recut and drawn.
Yet one of the under-utilised aspects of Dublin street life is the network of lanes and alleys that link larger streets. This brings us to September 1971, when the journalist Gabriele Williams wrote an advertisement feature about a lane in Dublin that was excelling – Duke Lane, the small lane that links Duke Street and South Anne Street in the blocks between Dawson Street and Grafton Street.
“Duke Lane 12 years ago,” Williams began, “A back lane of no importance, a laundry putting out hot steam, a garage repair shop, a paint store, a potato man delivering his goods to the kitchen door of the Hibernian Hotel. An area largely unused, with many of the old buildings growing mildewed and losing slates.”
Duke Lane, Williams wrote, “was never distinguished for its architecture, its activities or its contributions to Dublin’s life” but as a “quiet backwater of artisans and craftsman – the Irish State Coach, still used on State occasions by the English monarch, was built here at the old coach works”.
Bianconi coaches were kept on Duke Lane “in gleaming rows”. Charles Bianconi, who left northern Italy to live in Ireland in 1802, worked as an engraver in Dublin city centre before moving to Clonmel. His Bianconi coaches became the foundation of public transport in Ireland.
So what happened to reinvigorate this part of town? The renaissance of Duke Lane began, according to the reporter, in 1959, with the opening of Weaver’s Shed by weaver Noreen Kennedy, who learned the craft from Douglas McNeilis of Donegal. She set up her looms on Duke Lane in a premises that, at the time, had a cobbled floor and no roof. By 1970, the shop, dark and cottage-like, was turning out “marvellous multi-coloured tweeds in rich textures”.
A meeting of interested parties yielded plenty of ideas for the lane; closing it off to traffic, putting up decent street lighting (at the time, the council was pulling down the iron Victorian-era streetlights across the city centre, a tragedy of the capital’s streetscape), and decorating the lane with coloured lights at Christmas. “One wonders why the Dublin City Council have not shown more interest in the modest plans and requests,” the article mused.
Despite the occasional hiccup (such as a car going through the window of Madam Boyer’s shopwindow Un Coin de Paris), the lane was on the up. There was Miss Fusco’s cake shop, with freshly made cakes, pies and pizzas delivered daily from Fusco’s bakery in Stillorgan. There was Conor Holohan’s Armstrong and Smith, and the shops Chapeau and West Wicklow Crafts had frontage on the lane from Creation Arcade.
Nigel and Florence Vincent owned the shop Oh What a Beautiful Day, decorated in black, aluminium and Perspex, selling “more expensive and sophisticated gear . . . The noise of pop and the sound of pinball tables made the sedateness of Grafton Street seem another world away.”
The shop Adam was owned by Des Hickey and Alan Morris – “I wish all older men would try out some of the beautifully coloured shirts and ties, the fine husky belts, the well-tailored jackets,” Williams said of the clothes, most of which were made from Irish fabrics.
Jeffson – “every fashion-conscious young man’s haven” – was owned by the talented designer Jeff Stokes. The future looked bright for Duke Lane, “There is even heady talk of the Hibernian laundry being turned into an area of five or six small shops,” Williams forecast.