Merchant's Arch Published on January 13th, 1965

 

THE TIMES WE LIVED IN: IT WAS A quiet news day. The lead story on the front page of The Irish Times was devoted to sirloin steak, selling for eight shillings a pound, where a mere 12 months earlier it could be had for six - tops. 'Over the past year the housewife has tried to offset the higher beef prices by eating more mutton and pork,' the report explained. Clearly, in 1965, vegetarianism was not an option.

Elsewhere on the front page, 23 people have been invited to become shareholders at the Abbey Theatre. And there are worries that Queen's University, Belfast might - might! - disaffiliate itself from the Union of Students in Ireland.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps if war had broken out in West Cork, or a tsunami had engulfed Leitrim in the night, readers would not have been treated to this tranquil study by an unknown photographer.

It's captioned 'Sun and shadows at Merchant's Arch, Dublin'. And a low, January sun at that, lighting the stones on the wall on the left to a gleaming brightness while casting lengthy shadows in front of the two main protagonists in the picture, a woman wrapped in winter coat and boots and a nun in full head-to-toe rig-out, including wimple.

The narrow alleyway of Merchant's Arch runs alongside Merchant's Hall, built in 1821 as a meeting house for the Guild of Merchant Tailors. Within 20 years, this medieval organisation was disbanded: in 1841 the Municipal Reform Act set up the elected body which would be known as Dublin Corporation.

From 1908 until the 1980s, Merchant's Hall housed a poplin and shirt factory. A watercolour of the arch by the painter William Orpen, at the National Gallery of Ireland, shows the alley festooned with loaded washing lines.

Was the photographer just passing through, on his way to somewhere else, when he spotted this enigmatic pair? Or did he wait for the light and the composition to be just right?

Where, come to think of it, were the women heading? We'll never know. Nowadays - if the number of images which turn up online is an accurate indication - the arch has to be one of the most photographed locations in Dublin. It may even appear on the front page of this newspaper on a quiet news day 50 years from now.

Arminta Wallace

Irishtimes.com/archive

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