O’Connell Street & Environs

O’Connell Street and the North Ward in which it is situated are relatively late in date, having been reclaimed from tidal flats from the 17th Century onwards. In the following centuries city development moved eastwards downriver, where a formal Georgian city emerged, incorporating key public buildings, residential squares and imposing streetscapes. The Georgian period also witnessed the Wide Streets Commissioners develop the powerful civic and commercial streets in the city centre, including Dame Street, Westmoreland Street and Parliament Street. In terms of layout, O’Connell Street is also part of this heritage.

The upper end of O’Connell Street was first laid out and developed towards the end of the 17th Century. Because the new street was built on land owned by Henry Moore, 3rd Earl of Drogheda, it received the name Drogheda Street. The Earl of Drogheda’s name survives today in Henry Street, Moore Street and North Earl Street, all of which were called after him. In the late 1740s, Luke Gardiner demolished Drogheda Street and rebuilt what is now Upper O’Connell Street, making it 160 feet wide and containing a planted mall 48 feet wide, forming an elongated residential square that was called Sackville Mall. In 1784, Sackville Street (now Lower O’Connell Street) was formed by extending Sackville Mall to the River Liffey. Carlisle Bridge, later to become O’Connell Bridge, was built in 1790.

While the residential Georgian areas north of the River Liffey were initially successful, the 1801 Act of Union, which spelt economic decline for the city as a whole, was particularly severe in terms of its impact on the north side. The quality residential areas began to decline, and the key administration and social life of the city consolidated on the south side of the river. The erection of Nelson’s Pillar in 1808 and the completion of the General Post Office in 1818 gave two famous landmarks to the street.

Nelson’s Pillar was erected, in 1808, to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar. The Doric column was designed by the architect Francis Johnston (1760-1829), the architect of the Board of Works, and the statue, in Portland stone, of Admiral Nelson, was by the Cork sculptor Thomas Kirk RHA (1781-1845). The original entrance was underground, but in 1894, a porch designed by G. P. Baxter was added to allow direct access from the street. At 2am on March 8, 1966, an explosion destroyed the upper half of the pillar, throwing the statue of Nelson into the street. Two days later, Army Engineers blew up the rest of the pillar. The rubble from the monument was taken to the East Wall dump, and the lettering from the plinth moved to the gardens of Butler House, Kilkenny. The area was then simply paved over. The Nelson Pillar Bill was passed in 1967, transferring responsibility for the site of the monument from the Nelson Pillar Trustees to Dublin Corporation.

Opened in 1818, the General Post Office on O’Connell Street was designed by Francis Johnston and quickly became one of the most important landmarks in the city. In 1916 Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, leaders of the Easter Rising, proclaimed an Irish republic from the steps of the GPO. In the ensuing siege the Volunteers sheltered in and fought from the building, under heavy fire from an English gunboat. A fire broke out, destroying most of the interior and the GPO remained closed until 1929, when renovation work was completed. The fine fluted pillars at the front of the building still bear the shell marks of 1916.

For the 100 years since the 1880s, suburbanisation resulted in the loss of almost all the middle-income population from the north inner city. Rationalisation and modernisation saw the much of the traditional industrial base either close or move out. By the mid-1980s, despite a focused investment in the Henry Street retail area, the hinterland of O’Connell Street suffered from extensive physical decay and pervasive social and economic problems. In this context, one can appreciate why the street found it difficult to prosper.

Up until the 1960s the three most impressive structures on the street were the General Post Office and Clery’s Department Store - sited on an axis running transversely across the street and Nelson’s Column sited on the Henry / Talbot Street axis. The vertical emphasis of the Column was a contrast to the width and almost overwhelming length of the street.

By the 1990s The North Inner City area had been in decline for many years. O’Connell Street was perceived as the centre of Dublin city but had increasingly became a problematic area after dark, due to drugs and street violence, which in turn led to economic problems for local business interests. The adjoining residential area, centred around Sean MacDermott Street, had a history of problems related to poverty, congestion and crime dating back to the mid 19th Century. Something had to be down to arrest this downward spiral. To this end, Dublin City Council launched two adjoining Integrated Area Plans (IAPs) in 1998 – The O’Connell Street IAP and the North Inner City IAP.

The objective of these plans was to reclaim a better, more secure and prosperous future for the area within a thriving, modern, cultural capital. The vision for O’Connell Street included a broad-based commitment to create the kind of quality environment, range of uses, and powerful sense of place that can live up to its unequivocal role as the main street of Ireland’s capital city.

Posted by Reflecting City Team on Wednesday, December 17, 2008
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