What lies beneath: an armchair excursion under Dublin’s streets.

by Ciarán Wallace, Deputy Director, Beyond 2022.



1: Church Street, between the Bridewell and the quays.  Google street view 2020.

When I give a paper on Beyond 2022 and the Public Record Office of Ireland destroyed in 1922, I like to display a photograph of the premises, taken in 1915, showing the Record House which survived and the Record Treasury to the rear which did not. To conclude my talk I put up an image of the location today, along the left side of Church Street in Dublin, as you cross the tram tracks heading south towards the river. People know the unremarkable modern building but they do not usually know its back-story. As a historian with a strong interest in Dublin and its built environment this got me thinking – the vaults of the old PROI lie beneath the modern offices, but what lay beneath those vaults?

2: PROI Mills Album

3: The restored Four Courts complex (1949).  Britainfromabove.org   XAW027118 IRELAND (1949). Courts of Justice, Dublin.

First let’s fill in the gap between the destruction in 1922 and the modern office block we see today. This image looks south and shows the Four Courts complex in 1949. The OPW have finished their admirable reconstruction work on the neo-classical buildings, originally completed at the turn of the nineteenth century. The stonework and paved areas look bright and new, but to the right of the courts we see a huddle of older buildings facing onto the Fr Matthew Bridge.  Just below them in the image the broad temporary flat roof covering the exposed PROI vaults is clearly visible. Beside it, Dublin Corporations’ efforts to widen Church Street are briefly evident as you move towards the river before the street narrows again to its older, poorer, span.

 4: A bird’s-eye view of Dublin H W Brewer (1890)

Moving back in time to 1890, H.W. Brewer’s bird’s-eye view of the city gives a somewhat romantic view of Inn’s Quay in front of the Four Courts, but the sense of jumbled roofs and smoking chimneys in this picture is echoed by the more precise Ordnance Survey map of the same era.  We can also see that the jumble of buildings on the corner of Church Street and the quays included the Four Courts Hotel, while a match factory, and two foundries sat alarmingly close to the records stored in the PROI. This 1888 map shows how narrow Church Street was for its much of its length, it also gives the old, full name of King’s Inns Quay, dethroned after independence to just Inns Quay.

5:  Ordnance Survey Ireland, Historic 25 inch map (1888 – 1913)

Compare that map with this fascinating OPW plan from 1865 showing the proposed site of the PROI and another extension to the rear of the Four Courts. Suddenly a lost world of small alleys and back courts appears – all cleared away by the expanding boundary of the courts. Morgan Place, which had been a street outside the perimeter was now absorbed into the complex, most of Pill Lane to the northern edge and all of Mountrath Street at the north-eastern corner disappeared along with their shopkeepers, merchants and residents.

6: NAI 01-OPW5-HC-1-42 (1865) 

7: Dublin City Sheet 13 (1864 revised). UCD Digital Library, Ordnance Survey Ireland 19th century Historical Maps.  https://digital.ucd.ie/view/ucdlib:40834 

The OS map of 1864 shows the interior layout of the (as yet unbuilt) Record Treasury building, and a new court house north of the Four Courts across the Pill Lane, straightened, diverted and renamed as Chancery Street. This map is a revision of an earlier version from 1847 where the tighter, curved perimeter of the Four Courts is clearly visible.

8: Dublin City Sheets 13 + 20 (1847). UCD Digital Library, Ordnance Survey Ireland 19th century Historical Maps.

Another bird’s-eye view of the same period (1846), this time from the Illustrated London News, suggests the crowded nature of the district as houses, shops and factories all huddle around the courts.

9: City of Dublin Illustrated London News (1846)

10: Wide Streets Commissioners’ Map of ground in Pill Lane (1833), Dublin City Library and Archive.

Today building development in Dublin can take years to work its way through the planning and appeals system, but it seems that this is nothing new. This 1833 map of the land along Pill Lane and Mountrath Street plots thirty individual premises including the New (and Old) White Cross Inn, all of them firmly in the sights of those most prolific of urban developers – the Wide Streets Commissioners. Yet it appears to have taken forty years for the entire clearance and rebuilding process to go through, allowing the boundary of the courts to expand. The plots on the 1833 map are also marked for development on this attractive map from 1825, four decade before the PROI was eventually built.

11:  Wide Streets Commissioners’ map of Pill Lane and Four Courts (1825), Dublin City Library and Archive.

Seventy years before that, John Rocque’s absorbingly detailed map of Dublin (1756) shows a very different street plan around Church Street and King’s Inns Quay. Thomas Cooley and James Gandon have not yet begun their neo-classical domed court building facing the river, instead a vacant site occupies the space where the Four Courts will arise. Unlike today, buildings sit immediately beside the river, the quay fronts are irregular on both banks of the Liffey and the buttresses of the Old Bridge give it a spikey appearance on the map.

12:  John Rocque’s map (1756) BnF Gallica  https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b5967586q 

However the street name still reflects the King’s Inns. The legal profession were already in residence for more than a century, as illustrated on John Speed’s map of 1610. Situated beside the only dry crossing point on the river, this had long been a prime location. 

13:  John Speede’s map (1610). No. 3 = The King’s Inns. No. 5 = The Bridge. Dublin City Library and Archive.

Bounded by Church Street and Pill Lane, the Honorable Society of King’s Inns had been providing legal training here since 1541 when Henry VIII granted them the lands of Saint Saviour’s Priory. The Dominicans founded this monastery in the thirteenth century, on the north shore of the Liffey across from the medieval walled city, as H.B. Clarke’s wonderful composite map shows.

14: The past mapped onto the present. Irish Historic Towns Atlas no. 11 Dublin, part I, to 1610 by H.B. Clarke Locator B8 = Saint Saviour’s Priory (Dominican) and F4 = Kings Inns.

So as this one small patch of Dublin reveals, the past also has a past, and the landscape of one person’s ‘rare auld times’ was probably an earlier generation’s ‘dreaded modernity’. The persistence of some streets and the disappearance of others can make us lose our bearings, but surviving records and the widespread and free availability of so many digital maps of Dublin’s streets, means that we can take our time, enjoy some armchair archaeology and find out what lies beneath.

Useful sources:

https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/assets.ria.ie/ihta/ihta-digital/towns-in-18th-century/dublin+part+II/IHTA_19_Dublinpart2_Map4_low.pdf

https://www.ria.ie/irish-historic-towns-atlas-online-dublin-part-ii-1610-1756

https://www.dublincity.ie/image/libraries/dcr001-speed%E2%80%99s-map-1610

https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b5967586q

https://www.dublincity.ie/story/wide-street-commission-map-collection

http://map.geohive.ie/mapviewer.html

https://digital.ucd.ie/view/ucdlib:40377

Britainfromabove.org