Dublin's southside: The dark secrets of Merrion and Booterstown

A new book by Hugh Oram shines a light on these southside Dublin suburbs

 Author Hugh Oram outside the Old Punch Bowl pub in  Booterstown. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Author Hugh Oram outside the Old Punch Bowl pub in Booterstown. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

It could be any crossroads. There is nothing now to mark the place where Kevin O’Higgins, the then minister for justice and vice-president of the Irish Free State, was gunned down on a quiet Sunday morning in July 1927.

The gunmen intercepted O’Higgins by chance, where Cross Avenue intersects with Booterstown Avenue in this affluent Dublin suburb, while on their way to a football match.

“That particular morning O’Higgins sent his detective bodyguard off to Blackrock to buy cigarettes. He was on his way to the Church of the Assumption on Booterstown Avenue when the three anti-treaty IRA men passed by him and realised this was their opportunity,” explains author Hugh Oram.

O’Higgins was found lying by a lamppost outside the gates of Sans Souci Park which directly faces up Cross Avenue.

There’s a green Dart sign and an array of flowers in colourful bloom by the spot today but passersby would never know that such a political assassination took place here.

A plaque marking the spot where the murder occurred was unveiled by former taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2012 but was apparently vandalised a few weeks later and eventually removed.

The details of the killing, which sent shockwaves across the country, are recalled in Hugh Oram’s latest book, his 86th, entitled The Little Book of Merrion and Booterstown.

Smuggling

It offers a snapshot of the past and present explaining how the two suburbs evolved into centres of academia, finance and influence down through the centuries. And it’s peppered with intriguing nuggets of information and memories.

In the Old Punch Bowl pub Oram explains how tunnels were used to smuggle forbidden goods from Merrion Strand.

“The tunnels would travel just under us here and emerge right next to the old police station. The smugglers were doing a roaring trade right under the noses of the authorities.”

The pub on the Rock Road is one of the oldest in the country, dating back to 1779, and it maintains something of an old-world charm.

And standing at the doorway, through which so many icons of Irish history would have passed over the years, Oram tells how this vista wouldn’t have changed since the day the drinking house first opened.

“Well, the Rock Road here in front of us is around 2,000 years old, one of the oldest in the country. It started off as an ancient road, the Slíghe Chualann, and ran from the Hill of Tara to present-day Bray.”

Once the boundary of the Pale, Merrion and Booterstown, originally known as Butterstown, evolved from the rural playground of the aristocracy to become two of the most influential parishes in the nation.

While Merrion’s development was more laboured, Booterstown’s growth was accelerated from the middle of the 19th century.

Blackrock College

And the establishment of the French school in 1860, which would become Blackrock College, transformed the area and the small, all but forgotten, village of Williamstown.

The establishment of the French school in 1860, which would become Blackrock College, transformed the area.
The establishment of the French school in 1860, which would become Blackrock College, transformed the area.

“To cater for the development of Blackrock College it was decided to move all the shops and buildings from one side of the street in Williamstown to the other. So, the college paid for the buildings to be demolished and then rebuilt in exactly the same style across the road,” says Oram.

Though born in Plymouth, Oram knows these streets intimately, storing special affection for the little laneways off Merrion Road.

“In some ways Merrion and Booterstown have changed so much, and in other ways so little. Like the laneways are the same as they would have been 150 years ago.”

Gathering information for at least six months Oram, who has contributed to The Irish Times for the past 40 years, found local historians and “those in the know” to point him in the right direction. It’s a tried and trusted formula which worked as he wrote similar Little Books on the areas of Stillorgan, Dundrum and Ballsbridge where he lives today with his wife, Bernadette.

Brutal murder

One such direction leads us to the gateway of a non-descript detached two-storey home at 23 St Helen’s Road in Booterstown. It was here in 1936 that Edward Ball, a part-time actor and son of a doctor, brutally murdered his mother, Lavena, with a hatchet before bundling her lifeless body into the back of his motor car and driving to Shankill to dispose of her body in the sea.

It would transpire that the cause of his ire was his mother’s refusal to give him £60 to go on a foreign tour with the Gate Theatre company.

“The façade of the house would have changed very little since the day of the killing in February 1936,” says Oram as we stop to ponder the scene. “Apparently when they brought Ball back here to interrogate him he tried to jump out one of the upstairs windows. I doubt many on this street today even know the story though at the time it was huge news nationally. And you won’t find any blue plaque up on the wall here,” he explains.

Not far away we pass a majestic house named “Glena” and do find a plaque of sorts.

It reads: “Tenor John McCormack, Count of the Papal Court lived here.”

Built in 1888 the last home of one of Ireland’s most famous sons looks out over Dublin Bay. A corner tower, with a large window and cone-shaped roof, remains intact and it’s easy to imagine an elderly McCormack gazing out across the Irish Sea as war raged beyond. He died here in 1945.

“There’s a story that McCormack used to pop into the Old Punch Bowl some evenings and sing a few ditties for the locals . . . but I’m not really sure how true that is,” says Oram.

Famous residents

Others, etched into the fabric of the Irish identity, walked these streets. Eamon de Valera won a scholarship to Blackrock College studying there between 1898 and 1900. He would return to teach mathematics and lived on Cross Avenue with his wife, Sinead, and their seven children.

Count John McCormack, grandson of the great tenor: Built in 1888 the last home of one of Ireland’s most famous sons looks out over Dublin Bay. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Count John McCormack, grandson of the great tenor: Built in 1888 the last home of one of Ireland’s most famous sons looks out over Dublin Bay. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

And Séamus Heaney lived on Strand Road in Merrion though he always referred to his home as being in Sandymount.

As Little Books go, this one has a big story to tell. A pathway illuminated by secrets and insights, it leads us through Merrion and Booterstown and documents so much of the area’s history which might otherwise have been lost and forgotten.

The Little Book of Merrion and Booterstown by Hugh Oram is out now.

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