The 17th Annual Sir John T. Gilbert Lecture - Transcript

Printer-friendly version

The following is a transcript of the seventeenth Sir John T. Gilbert Commemorative Lecture "Alleys, annals and anecdotes: a new look at Gilbert's History of Dublin", given by Séamas Ó Maitiú, on Thursday 23rd January 2014 at 6.00pm, in the Dublin City Library & Archive.


Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast.  In this episode, "Alleys, annals and anecdotes", Séamus Ó Maitiú re-examines John Gilbert’s three volume, History of Dublin and looks at the 19th century Dublin that inspired Gilbert. The 17th Annual Sir John T. Gilbert Lecture

Thank-you very much Lord Mayor. John T. Gilbert, echoing the famous first sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, announced in his new history of his native city thus: ‘that there has not been hitherto any Work at all deserving the title A HISTORY OF THE CITY OF DUBLIN has been universally admitted’.

Gilbert attempted to redress this need in three volumes, the first at the end of 1854 and the other two in 1859. According to Rosa Mulholland, Gilbert’s wife, it all began fairly early for her future husband:

As a small schoolboy, on his way to and from Bective College, he lingered to scan the faces of the houses, and to make excursions down streets which were not on his route, pondering the questions of how they came to be there, who built them, by whom they had been inhabited, how many scenes of history they had witnessed, what memorable spirits had once lived this earthly life behind certain walls and windows. ‘I wanted to’, he has said, ‘to know something of the past of the city I had been born into’.

Fairly sophisticated ruminations for a schoolboy. Now Gilbert was living, at this stage in Jervis Street where he was born and he attended, as I said, or as his wife said, Bective College. This was a school run by a John Lardner Burke in Rutland now Parnell Square. This was only one street, Great Britain Street now Parnell Street, away from his home. However, in fact , he never wrote in his history about the environs of Jervis Street or Rutland Square, or even about the North side at all, so not only did he visit on his way to school streets not on his route but whole areas of the city on the other side of the river. It is a wonder he got to school at all.

Now Gilbert the man has been well covered by talks in this series. My presentation this evening will fall into two halves; firstly I will look at the work Gilbert’s history, the three volumes - it came out in three volumes and how it was created. Then I will look at the place what we might call Gilbert’s Dublin. Now Gilbert’s history first actually saw the light of day - there’s the man himself - in a series of eight anonymous articles under the title ‘The Streets of Dublin’ in the Irish Quarterly Review, the first appearing in March 1852 and in every subsequent quarterly issue until the last number of the periodical which came out in December 1853. The Irish Quarterly Review had begun in 1851, and Gilbert had a hand in its inception and, according to F. E. Dixon, had contributions of essays and reviews in every number except the first, although this is hard to quantify, as pieces tended to be anonymous.

Now elaborating on his view that there was no work available deserving the name of a Dublin history, Gilbert dismissed the only serious attempt at such, that of the compilation of Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh, printed in London in 1818, as being ‘long condemned as replete with the grossest inaccuracies, and so defective that it does not furnish a reliable account of any portion of the city’.

Strangely, the first instalment of ‘The Streets of Dublin’ appeared under a notice for the following work, and you’ll see the notice there: A Short Guide through Dublin, containing Practical Directions for the easy Perambulations of the City, and for the Inspection of its Public Buildings, Institutions, and Establishments – a fairly long title and this was under which Gilbert introduced his series on the streets of Dublin. Now this is strange because it would appear to introduce a review of this book, but absolutely no mention is made of it in the subsequent work. He just went on to write his own streets of Dublin.

Was there a model for the street-by-street work which Gilbert produced? Now the example he alludes to in his preface does not fit the bill. This is Peter Cunningham Handbook of London: past and present, which had been published in 1849, with a second edition in 1850. It is more a gazetteer of contemporary London with not much history in it.

Gilbert also alludes to a work entitled Les anecdotes des rues de Paris. The title is certainly a very good description of what Gilbert offers readers. But the work itself has proved elusive and even the powerful tool of the World Wide Web has failed to track it down. So I’m not sure if that was his model either.

Now whatever about his purported peregrinations as a schoolboy, certainly from a young age Gilbert was ransacking the archives for historical material, an aspect of his career well covered by previous speakers in this series again. He was a precocious twenty-four year old when the first instalment of ‘The Streets of Dublin’ appeared.

However his antiquarian researches were not just confined to the dusty archives; he rummaged among the even more dusty detritus of the past. This is evident from a letter to him from P. Robert Webb then undertaking research in the west of Ireland. He writes

I was thinking just before of writing you a few lines descriptive of my pursuits here, which have been such as you conjecture, and I have several times wished for your company, as I don’t forget the effective aid you rendered me at St. Audoen’s. We have been taking rubbings in the cathedral here, some of which I hope to show you, and among them one of the Galwey monument, older than, or as old as that of Portlester.

This is the Portlester monument in St. Audoen’s and it is obvious from that letter that it had been examined by this man Robert Webb under the guidance of Gilbert. So he was actually going out to visit buildings, visit places he was not just confining himself to the ivory towers of the archives.

Now the manner in which the work originally appeared, in quarterly instalments, gave Gilbert the opportunity to follow up suggestions and include extra material put before him by numerous correspondents. As Rosa says:

The first papers attracted much attention, and letters poured in on the editor of the Irish Quarterly Review from all sides asking questions concerning historical details of localities, of houses in or about the city, and of the identity and circumstances of certain of their inhabitants.

Indeed, as Rosa points out, Gilbert indulged in a certain amount of what we might call today oral history: ‘the pains taken by the young author to extend his own resources, not only by the discovery of every scrap of written record of the dead, but by drawing from the source of the memories of those still living, are suggested by the great number of letters which remain relating to the work as it progressed in the Irish Quarterly Review’.

For instance, Denis Florence McCarthy, poet, Young Irelander, Dublin man, in fact he was born in what is now O’Connell Street, and a close friend, asked: ‘Do you know Alderman Fleming of the old corporation? He lives somewhere in Camden Street, at an apothecary’s and knows more about the recent history of ‘Daly’s’ than probably any man living’. This refers to Daly’s Club, College Green. Also a Mr. Miot added, from his personal experiences, some extra information about ‘the interior of Leinster House in the old days’ So Gilbert, he was not just relying on archives, relying on monuments and the detritus of the past if you like, he was also talking to people and writing down their personal experiences, what we call today oral history.

Now as far as the written records are concerned Gilbert left no stone unturned, from the top down, to ferret out material. He wrote to Thomas Larcom in Dublin Castle in relation to records there and indeed went further: in June 1854 he wrote to the Prime Minister, George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th earl of Aberdeen, seeking permission to consult material in state care in Dublin and the keeper was instructed to grant him permission to examine and copy material.

He wrote seeking material in the Wandesforde estate in Castlecomer and entered into correspondence with the Rev. James Graves, secretary of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, seeking records in Kilkenny Castle relating to the history of a building known as ‘Carbery House’, close to the old Tholsell on Skinner’s Row, in Dublin. This was the great town house of the Kildares and on their attainder it was granted to Sir Piers Butler, ninth earl of Ormond, who renamed it Ormond Hall.

Now nothing appears to have turned up in Kilkenny at the time because he doesn’t go into it in any great detail in his published work. But it was there in fact and almost coincidentally a deed of 1614 giving a good description of Carbery House and its furnishings was found by the medieval historian, Edmund Curtis, and passed on to the Old Dublin Society, who meet here and was published posthumously in the Dublin Historical Record in 1944. So he did miss out on a few things.

Now a number of interleaved copies of ‘The Streets of Dublin’, this was the series of articles in the Quarterly Review and then the consequent ‘History’ that he wrote based on that material exist. Now these interleaved copies they have blank pages between the printed pages in which Gilbert added notes at various times – a kind of Victorian word processing, if you like. Now interleaved copies in the National Library show two things: number one, that additional material was gathered by Gilbert after ‘the Streets’, that is, the periodical version came out, and some of these were then incorporated into the actual three volume ‘History of Dublin’. A simple example will suffice. In the ‘Streets’ he records that in 1767 John La Touche contested the parliamentary seat of the city of Dublin with the Marquis of Kildare. In the interleaved copy the word ‘unsuccessfully’ is written in and this is included then in the ‘History’. So there are other examples with much more detailed additions. So the work was kind of accumulating if you like as it developed.

The second point is that much of the interleaved version has numbered footnotes written in. Now you might not be able to see it there but there are actually numbers written in by Gilbert and then he has the references at the bottom of the page. Now it seems clear that this was intended in the printed ‘History’ but for some reason, after much meticulous work on the part of Gilbert, this was not done. In other words there are not detailed numbered footnotes in the published ‘History’ and this lead to some criticism, as we shall see.

So, Gilbert’s new and improved version came out in three volumes between 1854 and 1859. The first volume was published by McGlashan and the other two by McGlashan and Gill. They were unadorned by illustrations except by a copy of John Speed’s famous map of Dublin of 1610.

Now there was an index, but not a great one. John Gilbert seemed blessed by the women in his life, this is Rosa, and some of these women became active collaborators. The case of Rosa Mulholland is well documented. However his sister, Mary, took an interest in his Dublin history and transcribed for him and he himself inscribed her name in one of the first volumes to come from the printer under the date December 1854. Mary also worked on an index to the work while on holidays in 1861. Now if it is the one which was published in 1859 it has all the appearance of one done on a rather a short holiday, in fact it is quite poor. However, the index to the 1978 Gill and McMillan edition by Diarmuid Breathnach is a model of its kind and greatly enhances the usefulness of the work. Many local historians they read books from the back, they read books backwards. They look at the index first to see if there is a reference to the place they are interested in, so this Diarmuid Breathnach index is really a wonderful production.

Now a blurb in volume three announced that the fourth volume was in the press and would be published shortly. However it never appeared. The demise of the Irish Quarterly Review in 1853 put a premature end to the original work and Gilbert never managed to have a more complete version published.

Now it seems also that sales of the three volumes were slow – perhaps the half guinea per volume was too much for many. According to F.E. Dixon, the publisher ‘lost interest’ and passed the remaining unbound sheets to James Duffy, the publisher, who had them bound and printed with a new title in 1861, at the reduced price of seven shillings per volume, one guinea for the lot. The new price of three for the price of two seems quite modern.

Now a rather strange one-volume edition came out in 1903 and Rosa in her introduction states that it was the history ‘shortened and put together for readers who would wish to know something of the origin and growth of our city but who are shy of great books’.

Now Gilbert had been working on this volume at his death. According to Rosa ‘it was one of the last pieces of work touched by his hand, and is composed of portions, selected and condensed, from the History of the city of Dublin’. Although again it was intended that more volumes would follow, it is very strange, strange volume, it only covers the College Green area, and it includes the history of the parliament which was already well-covered by Gilbert in a book that he wrote himself earlier in 1896 on the parliament. So it is very strange that she brought out this or he worked even on that.

Now the best known edition of Gilbert’s work is the 1978 Gill & MacMillan ‘Sackville Library’ reprint. And this is the one we’re most familiar with as local historians – if you like ‘the boxed set’ you might call it. This is my well-thumbed, my well-thumbed volume.

Now Rosa claims that the first volume of 1854 was reviewed in London, Dublin, Edinburgh and on the continent. A review in The Nation sums up the general reaction:

He has taken up our squalidest streets and dingiest alleys, filled them with life and movement and clothed them with the meaning and beauty of their prime, and he has peopled the fair and prosperous city with her men of rank, her men of substance, and her men of genius.

Now all men I notice and men of genius.

Some were moved to verse. Taking his cue, no doubt, from Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, Gilbert’s friend, Denis Florence MacCarthy, wrote:

(Written after reading Gilbert’s History of Dublin)

Long have I loved the beauty of thy streets,
Fair Dublin; long, with unavailing vows,
Sigh’d to all guardian deities who rouse
The spirits of dead nations to new heats
Of life and triumph: - vain the fond conceits,
Nestling like eaves-warmed doves ’neath patriot brows!

And it goes on. However there is a nice bit at the end, I like the ending of it there where he says:

Look! look!, what life is in these quaint old shops –
The loneliest lanes are rattling with the roar
Of coach and chair: fans, feathers, flambeaux, fops
Flutter and flicker through yon open door,
Where Handel’s hand moves the great organ stops

That’s quite a nice part of it.

Now there were quibbles about the work. It was repeatedly pointed out that it was incomplete. The Rev. C.T. McCready, compiler of Dublin’s Street names, dated and explained puts it well: ‘this history, very full as far as it goes, is (as is well known) incomplete. It does not touch upon the north side of our City, - nor does it at all exhaust the history of the south side’.

Now the area covered is quite restricted – basically the area within the walls together with College Green, Grafton Street and Dawson Street areas. This is, as far as the History is concerned ‘Gilbert’s Dublin’. I have sort of just mapped it there. You can see more or less the inner city area here and this extension covering the South side, South of Trinity College, Dawson Street, Grafton Street, Kildare Street and that area and that’s it, he doesn’t cover any other part of the city.

Now Rosa countered this criticism by blaming Gilbert’s fellow-countrymen, she says:

the fact that most Irishmen prefer horses to books - theatres, racecourses, and platforms to libraries - denied to the author a practical encouragement which might have resulted in an extension of the history over areas still untouched, and to its enrichment with pictorial illustrations, in themselves historic records.

And she goes on to say enigmatically:

The ‘History of Dublin’ was never completed, a large portion of the city having been left untouched by the author, who had serious reasons, besides lack of encouragement from his fellow-countrymen, for quitting this interesting field for higher and wider ranges of Ireland’s history.

She acknowledges that, for instance, the castle was not adequately covered. His geographical method of working is he kind of starts with the area around the castle, you know the sort of medieval idea of the streets huddling around the castle and then kind of works out; but he doesn’t cover the castle at all. And she says that some English reviewers noted this, but she pointed out that material he had on this important building was incorporated in his later history of the viceroys. So he obviously had material gathered and he used it later in other publications.

Dr. I. G. Abeltshauser of Trinity College brought up another point: ‘Some of our college men find fault with the placing of the references at the end of the volume. I do not, for 99 out of a 100, like me, will read the book without verification’. As we have seen Gilbert wrote in numbered footnotes in the interleaved version but they were never printed.

Now Rosa alludes to this and she makes the point that the book would have been too long if footnotes were included but I think the type of footnote she meant was the old version of footnotes where you used a footnote to actually expand on material in the text. We’ve all seen old books where the footnotes were even longer than the text on the page. I think she had that in mind rather than citations, you know references and all of that.

Now the following remark found in volume four of the Georgian Society Records published in 1912 I think is unduly harsh about Gilbert. E. MacDowel Cosgrave and Page L. Dickenson in their article on Tailor’s Hall quote Gilbert in relation to a Jesuit house in Back Lane. Here’s the quote: ‘Gilbert’s statement, given of course with concealment of his authority, as was his vile fashion, is that it was turned into a military hospital, and so used till the end of Charles II’s reign’. That’s very harsh I think on Gilbert.

Now John Pentland Mahaffy, the famous Provost of Trinity, supervised this volume of the Georgian Society Records and perhaps his hand may be seen here as he elsewhere made critical sideswipes at Gilbert. A random check in fact if you look at the end of each volume of Gilbert, shows that he was scrupulous in accuracy of citation and fidelity to the original. The problem is that you know they are just listed, they are not numbered, and it can be difficult to match the reference with the information given.

Also it must be stated that Gilbert’s writing style could be long-winded, as Frederick Dixon points out he was ‘reluctant to edit or condense, believing that anything worth quoting should be quoted verbatim, in extenso. Also Lady Wilde, Oscar’s mother, seems to hint at the same thing, but is reluctant to offend, she states, claiming that ‘that difficult chapter on the Parliament House is admirably done’. She does admit it is difficult and it is difficult, it’s a difficult chapter.

Now the publisher, McGlashan, reported that the antiquarian, Lord Talbot de Malahide, believed that it would add to the book if ‘representations of old buildings now removed, or any odds and ends of old Dublin’ had been included. Rosa stated that Gilbert did in fact collect prints and engravings of parts of the city ‘no longer to be seen’ and his lists, Gilbert’s own lists in the book of paintings and prints especially in the appendices show his interest in art. So it is kind of strange that illustrations were not included. Now however some prints from his collection were later used in a number of other works such as the Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin.

Now we must keep in mind that Gilbert was working very much in the antiquarian tradition. He links the street or building with its archival accretion and long hours were spent culling reference after reference and piling them on the page. Very little attempt is made at analysis or interpretation. There can be so much a wealth of detail that the wood is not seen for the trees - or perhaps to use an urban version of the same the city is lost for the towers and steeples. There is no sense of the city in toto. But of course Gilbert was writing when modern scientific history was only in its infancy. Now it is fascinating to think that, as Brendan Twomey pointed out in his Gilbert lecture here two years ago, that Gilbert may have met the great exponent of this new history, Leopold Von Ranke when he visited Ireland.

However what Gilbert achieved was a huge step forward in its own right. The scrupulous presentation of the primary sources had been lacking in histories of the city until then. However such industry was not quite unique there were attempts before. For instance John D’Alton’s work on the County of Dublin, Dublin County in 1830 is a similarly very impressive work.

Gilbert was anxious that his work be brought to the attention of the great and the good. He sent a copy to John Henry Newman, who wrote thanking him and is said to have made good use of it when he later resided in Dublin.

Gilbert had been proposed and rejected for election to the Royal Irish Academy in 1852. But his ongoing work on the History of Dublin clinched it. In 1855 he was elected and in 1862 awarded the prestigious Cunningham medal for the history. At the award of the medal William Reeves said ‘he has produced a work which has been, and will continue to be, read with interest, and referred to as an authority, not only by partial friends and fellow Academicians, but by all who may, in our own time, and in future generations, study the history and antiquities of the city of Dublin’. Now the truth of this is borne out and Gilbert’s history has been constantly cited in hundreds of essays, articles and books on the city. The articles in the Dublin Historical Record appearing between 1938 and 2009, in those Gilbert is cited no less than 212 times. I didn’t count them but I used the web. (Laughter)

Now the awarding ceremony for the Cunningham Medal for his history of Dublin had more than a touch of the Pickwick Club about it. Immediately afterwards, the Rev. Samuel Haughton read a paper on experiments to determine the velocities of rifle bullets ‘commonly used’, giving the impression of a trigger-happy, if scholarly, lot. (laughter) So it must have been some evening.

Now interleaving, as I’ve pointed out, was a compulsive activity of Gilbert. Now I would like to interleave the topics and themes of Gilbert with some of my own particular reflections on inner-city Dublin, Gilbert’s Dublin if you like, especially discoveries made since Gilbert’s time and how the past lives in the present. I will occasionally dart down alleys of my own, riding a few personal hobbyhorses. (Laughter)

Now much has been unearthed about the story of the confined area covered by Gilbert in his history since he laid down his pen. He largely ignored the Vikings and their enormous impact. Now he was writing long before the famous mid-twentieth century Dublin excavations, of course. But another scholar was researching the Viking impact more or less at the same time Gilbert was undergoing his researches.

This was Charles Haliday, who in the very year in which Gilbert’s first Dublin volume appeared, 1854, had a paper on ‘the ancient name of Dublin’ published in the proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy based on a paper which he had read to the society some time before.

Haliday continued his researches on Viking Dublin in Irish and Scandinavian sources. This was posthumously published as The Scandinavian Kingdom of Dublin in 1882, edited by Haliday’s and Gilbert’s mutual acquaintance, John P. Prendergast. Charles Haliday and John Gilbert had much in common. Both had business backgrounds - wine-importing in the case of Gilbert, and banking in the case of Haliday. Both inhabited villas on Dublin’s south coast, Villa Nova, Blackrock in Gilbert’s case and Haliday’s Monkstown Park.

Both were scholars and avid collectors of Irish books and pamphlets, Gilbert’s forming the collection housed in this building and Haliday’s forming important collections in the Royal Irish Academy, the National Library of Ireland and Farmleigh.

A possible explanation for Gilbert’s neglect of the Viking past in his history may have been deference to the on-going work of his senior colleague.

Haliday delved almost as deeply into the archives as Gilbert did. But much of the story of Viking Dublin would be found not in the archives but below ground. Scientific archaeology was only beginning in Haliday’s and Gilbert’s day. The story of Gilbert’s Dublin, you know that inner city area has been transformed by the work of archaeologists in the intervening period, beginning with the excavations undertaken in the Christchurch Place/Wood Quay area.

Now I am sure you’ll be glad to hear that I am not going to re-visit the Wood Quay/Civic Buildings saga. However, a glimpse of what might have been is experienced when I walk students through the trace of the Viking house on Winetavern Street. In fact I was just there this afternoon with a group of American university students. Or when I show them perhaps the exquisite Viking ship found on civic buildings site. Seamus Heaney’s lines I think capture this whole area well, and its Viking past. Although Seamus was writing of a related artefact, in fact an incised ship, but I think his lines just capture it extremely well:

magnified on display
so that the nostril
is a migrant prow
sniffing the Liffey,
swanning it up to the ford,
dissembling itself
in antler combs, bone pins,
coins, weights, scale-pans.

Like a long sword
sheathed in its moisting
burial clays,
the keel stuck fast
in the slip of the bank,
its clinker-built hull
spined and plosive
as Dublin.

(Seamus Heaney ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces', North, 1975).

Now Viking Dublin has been well-raked over by others now but from the medieval period Gilbert’s Dublin was replete with ecclesiastical sites and he discusses in his work most of them. From Howard Clarke, Sarah Dent and Ruth Johnson’s book Dublinia: the story of Medieval Dublin, it’s a good overview of the many ecclesiastical sites that were in existence from medieval times in Dublin. Now in relation to these it is a story of contradictions, of destruction, rediscovery, belated conservation and reuse.

This one here, just outside that area of what I have called Gilbert’s Dublin, has great personal resonance for me. It is St. Nicholas Without and St. Luke’s off the Coombe. I visited this site on one of my very first local history outings - I was barely out of my teens, in the last century, in the last millennium in fact (laughter). Now to enter its gateway was to enter a different world - a long country lane - just off the Coombe now - long country lane leading to a simple yet dignified church. Somebody asked St. Nicholas without what? A congregation was the answer (laughter). But of course it’s St. Nicholas Without the Walls as opposed to St. Nicholas Within the walls. It made a deep impression on me and I meant to go back - but I left it too late. This is it. It was dismembered to make way for the new Coombe bypass, but it’s a pity it could not have been done some other way. I am not going to go into all of these conservation issues but it’s a pity it couldn’t have been done some other way.

I mean a site like this to me is a portal to the past - a time capsule if you like: a touchstone to stimulate our historical imagination. Having taught local history for many years now I have come across many students for which, either as adults or as children, a site like this has been that catalyst for a journey of historical discovery which has led to works of research of considerable accomplishment and also a deep sense of personal fulfilment, and that’s the true purpose I suppose of education.

Although the ensemble of entrance, almshouse, laneway, churchyard and place of worship is dismembered and like Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again, the church survives in a sorry state, some of you might know it, awaiting an uncertain future. A belated conservation plan was commissioned by the City Council and published in 2005. So there it is now - St. Nicholas without a purpose, without dignity, without a friend.

However, the destruction of churches is nothing new and a number have disappeared without any trace above ground, perhaps awaiting the archaeologist’s trowel. Gilbert himself quotes Richard Stanihurst, he was mentioned earlier this evening, writing of St. George’s – this was just off George’s Street - in 1586, so this is a report of Stanihurst from 1586, he believed that the church of St. George had been built by some garter knight of St. George and here’s what Stanihurst says:

This chapel hath been of late razed, and the stones thereof by consent of the Assembly, turned to a common oven, converting the ancient monument of a doughty, adventurous, and holy knight to the coal-rake sweeping of a puff-loaf baker


Other churches mentioned by Gilbert but now lost, at least above ground, include St. Martin’s, St. Mary Del Dam, St. Olaf’s also known as St. Tullock’s; all gone when Gilbert was writing about them. However St John’s, at the top of Fishamble Street was still standing. It was demolished in 1884. However gravestones from its former graveyard lie on the doorstep of the Civic Buildings. So it has a certain presence today.

Now when the little graveyard off Kevin Street known as the Cabbage Garden was dedicated in 1685 the following prayer was intoned:

Accept, we beseech Thee the small offering which we this day presumed to dedicate to the honour of Thy Holy Name, preserve it from all human violations and barbarism that the bones of Thy servants which be gathered here may lie quiet and undisturbed.

This is it today – well you know, it’s kind of still there as a small little park. I don’t know whether you would regard that as the bones being undisturbed but anyway.

Most of the burials in the Cabbage Garden were of Huguenots. The fate of their co-religionists in nearby French Peters was more disturbing. The small graveyard was taken over by the growing Jacob’s biscuit factory. Their remains were removed to Mount Jerome in 1968 and the little recreation garden that Jacob’s had made was built over and this is some Jacob’s workers enjoying their break in that little graveyard. However it was completely built over. It required in fact an act of the Oireachtas to do this. In the course of my research of the history of Jacob’s an ex-employee told me that the street traders in Camden Street had their own take on this. One of them says: ‘Ah, the oul’ Protestans, they took them up to Mount Jerome in biscuit tins!’ (laughter) [see W. & R. Jacob: celebrating 150 years of Irish biscuit making by Séamus Ó Maitiú]

By the way, the nearby Church of St. Peter’s - Church of Ireland St. Peter’s, there was the French Peter’s, the Huguenot St. Peter’s, the Church of Ireland Peter’s suffered the same fate, completely gone, despite it being a possible burial place of Robert Emmet. But I won’t open that can of worms – sorry excuse the pun (laughter).

Anyway look I’m going off on a hobbyhorse, a bit far from Gilbert’s Dublin. Anyway at least many of the tombstones within Gilbert’s Dublin area have been recorded, for instance, those of St. John’s, in volume vii of the Journal of the Society for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead and those of St. Anne’s on Dawson Street which Gilbert also mentions, they are in volume iv of that same journal and that burial ground is gone as well. Now in the case of St. John’s, the vestry book has survived and has been edited so not only the parish’s dead, but its living, worshipping community can be recreated at least in our historical imagination. So all is not lost, if you like.

The vestiges of other religious sites hang on in remnants and fragments: the ancient effigies found in St. Werburgh’s for instance, and of course medieval St. Audeon’s itself with its memorials and tombs and of course it is still in use for public worship.

Other sacred sites are still in use but for less than sacred purposes. It can be a little unsettling downing a pint of Guinness, as I recently did, in front of this inscription in old St. Mary’s, now the pub known as The Church, a stone’s throw from Gilbert’s birthplace. Very strange drinking a pint of Guinness reading this staring at you: ‘The members of the association for discountenancing vice and promoting the knowledge and practice of the Christian religion have raised this last tribute to William Watson.’ So poor William Watson, whoever he was, as the Dublin man would say, “If he was alive today he’d be turning in his grave.” (laughter)

Now in some case the churchyards have disappeared and maybe the churches remain and vice versa.

Most interesting of all has been the almost miraculous re-discovery of the past, religious and secular, by superb archaeology over the past half-century or so. That of Isolde’s Tower is well-known. The Augustinian friar’s house in Cecilia Street was rediscovered by Linzi Simpson, the archaeologist. You can see walls there and part of the arches at the bases of the walls were uncovered. It might surprise you that can also raise a glass contemplating this as well. There it is today. It is part of Luigi Malone’s restaurant and it has been reconstructed more or less in situ. And in all fairness to them they have a wonderful display in the basement there and you can go in there and have a meal and whatever you like and they have a wonderful display of matters you know relating to the archaeology of the area. So all is not lost.

Sometimes despite our best efforts the past intrudes – and it can be dramatic. St. Martin’s church was just off Werburgh Street and according to Gilbert it disappeared in the early part of the sixteenth-century. But in 1785 part of the pavement in Darby Square, now gone gave way to reveal a cavern forty feet deep revealing a great quantity of coffins and bones – ‘probably the debris of the old cemetery of St. Martin’s church’, as Gilbert puts it.

Now Darby Square was eulogized by a latter-day Dublin troubadour in ambivalent verses about the city of his childhood:

How can I leave the town that brings me down
That has no jobs
Is blessed by God
And makes me cry

And at sea with flowing hair
I’d think of Dublin
Of Grafton Street and Derby Square
And those for whom I really care - and you.

(From a song entitled In Dublin).

Who was it? I wonder? You might be surprised. It’s a song called In Dublin by Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott. By the way when his statue was removed just a short while ago for repairs, I noticed a handwritten note attached to the plinth to the effect that Phil was away for a while being looked after by his ‘Mum’. I was delighted to see that some true blue Dub had indignantly crossed out the word ‘Mum’ and inserted ‘Ma’ (laughter).

Now both Phil and Derby Square are now gone, but in fact this leads us on to another aspect of Dublin which was highlighted really for the first time by Gilbert: the numerous courts and small squares entered by alleys leading from main streets. Historians of London have called such places ‘a city within a city’. They arose from attempts by property owners to maximise rents by building on narrow back gardens and yards. However they were not always the over-crowded slum-like rookeries of the Victorian period. Eminent printers had their shops in them and the great Dean himself, Jonathan Swift was born in Hoey’s Court, which was entered through Cole’ Alley, now The Castle Steps.

Their names read like a litany through the work – Saul’s Court, Kennedy’s Court, Bertram’s Court. Crampton Court, although much altered, probably retains best the atmosphere of these old nooks. By the way they were not just confined to the city centre. I remember two from growing up in Rathmines, indeed I sometimes stayed in one of them with relations of mine. The other, entered through an archway behind what was called Belfield House, in Upper Rathmines, was complete with hens and chickens, even at the time.

Returning to our churches for a moment, probably the most remarkable story of transformation and indeed retransformation is that of St. Michael’s and John’s, Exchange Street, Lower. It was dedicated in 1815 and the installation by the parish priest, it was a Catholic Church the Rev. Dr Blake, of a bell, the first since the reformation it was claimed, to call Catholics to worship and say the Angelus signified a new era as the penal system was being dismantled. This angered some and Alderman Carleton of the corporation started legal proceeding, but backed off when he heard that Daniel O’Connell joined the fray.

Now this bell became the logo used in the 1929 centenary of emancipation, and a copy of it was erected on Rory O’Moore Bridge, where it still remains. By the way a badge was also brought out for the anniversary and I picked up one of them some time ago and I couldn’t resist wearing it for the occasion. I was always a little bit of an anorak anyway! (laughter). The original bell by the way, although recast in 1940 is still in place in the small bellcote above the building.

Now ‘The recent fate of this historic church has been lamentable’ as Christine Casey rightly points out. It was, as she says, ‘brutally remodelled’ in 1996 in the name of heritage as a Viking Centre. However, what’s done is done but amidst the loss something was found and restored.

St. Michael’s and John’s was of course Smock Alley Theatre, and during the archaeological work carried out by again Linzi Simpson at the time the building was being transformed, it was found that much of the fabric of the theatre survived, and now stands revealed if you like. It is good to see that Smock Alley now lives as a theatre again and I love this depiction of it used recently. Of course a major theme of Gilbert’s is the theatre. Indeed volume two could be called ‘the theatre volume’ as 45% of the commentary is just on two theatres, Smock Alley and Crow Street.

Now the great rags to riches ‘celeb’ of the eighteenth century British and Irish theatre was of course that child of the Dublin streets, the actress, Peg (Margaret) Woffington. Second to her was Kitty Clive, who lived in Dame Street. There are many paintings and prints of the divine Peg – and in fact Gilbert had one of her pasted into one of his interleaved volumes, together with other glamorous actresses (laughter).

There is no pin-up of Kitty Clive there, but an exquisite image of her in the flesh or at least in porcelain can be seen hidden away in a corner of the curators’ choice cabinet in the National Museum, Collin’s Barracks. It was made at the Bow Street factory in London. Now this little object brings Smock Alley to life for me. It is rivalled only by the series of prompt books from the same theatre, Smock Alley and they survive now in the University of Virginia. These are actual prompt books you know with directions for the actors written in. They are from Smock Alley. At least seven survive for Smock Alley, a rare survival from this very, very early period. They include Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello and other plays.

Just on that Bow factory for a moment. The Bow factory in London pioneered the production of hard paste porcelain in Britain and Ireland. Indeed its invention is attributed to Thomas Frye of Edenderry, Co. Offaly the co-founder of the factory. Now Frye was a prominent member of the school of mezzotint engravers working in Dublin in the 1740s and noted by Gilbert in his discussion of the Dublin Society Academy. There is Peg Woffington by James Macardell who is one of this school of Dublin mezzotint engravers. And really the slide does not do justice to the really superb quality of those mezzotint works. And again Dublin was foremost in leading these islands in the production of these.

It’s a great loss for Dublin that Frye did not establish his porcelain works here in Dublin. It would have been another first for Dublin. But his ingenuity and talent, and the talent of his fellow artists, drew them to the greater London market.

Now part of Crow Street has also been rediscovered, once again by Linzi Simpson. This was the great rival to Smock Alley, and it was founded by Spranger Barry and Henry Woodward in 1757 and this is Henry Woodward.

Peg Woffington’s mother sold fruit on the street nearby at the entrance to Foyne’s Court; perhaps she is the very one delineated by Hamilton’s Cries of Dublin? Now Gilbert celebrates the painting, now lost, the actual painting of Peg Woffington by James Latham, the well-known artist sometimes known as ‘the Irish Van Dyke‘, and thereby hangs an anecdote and Latham lived in Trinity Lane and he was asked at one stage to paint the portrait of ‘a lady of distinction, with coarse lineaments’. Now he did so, but she was disgusted with it and verbally attacked the artist. He tore it from its frame and nailed it to the floor of the hall of his house as oil clothe, so that everyone walking in would step over it. The lady tried in vain to buy it but Latham ‘peremptorily refused, and was so ungallant as to have her effigy trodden under the feet even of his domestics’ (laughter).

Now before we leave the theatre world, a dose of revisionism. You are going to be shocked here - Gilbert doubted that Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Dublin. So we had reference to Handel in the wonderful poem ‘Handel the organ stops…’, they might not have worked to the notes of the Hallelujah chorus at all. He states, here’s his quote: ‘although an attempt has been recently made to argue that the Messiah was first publicly performed in Dublin, no adequate evidence has been yet adduced to disprove the contrary assertion of Mainwaring, the contemporary biographer of the composer, and the statements of Mr. Gardiner, author of the work entitled ’Music and Friends’. So whatever their references are, and their references are this: Manwaring’s and Gardiner’s contention is that the work was first performed in London to little attention paid to it and then in Dublin. Now there’s the music hall, I’m sure you are familiar with this scene and there is Our Lady’s Choral Society singing it every April. What are they going to do? (laughter) Now in fact I’ll be delighted because they think they own the blooming work. I’m a member of the Tallaght Choral Society. You’d want to hear our Hallelujah chorus! (laughter) That’s off the record. And I’m only joking (laughter).

However to redress the balance a little bit, in the intervening years after Gilbert wrote that, the pendulum has swung in favour of Dublin again you’ll be glad to know, and, unfortunately, I have no more explosive new evidence to present.

The bustling commercial life of Gilbert’s Dublin is conjured up in the myriad shops of printers, apothecaries, silk and wool merchants and purveyors of coffee and gossip and is well captured in MacCarthy’s line that we quoted: Look! look! What life is in these quaint old shops: one rare survival of these is, of course, Read’s cutlery shop found in Parliament Street since that thoroughfare was created in 1753, and of course they were elsewhere before then. It is a sad site; it is falling apart before our eyes. It pains me to pass every time I go there. Can something not be done before that is lost also? I mean thousands of tourists must pass it every week - surely it can find a role in that ever-growing tourist industry while retaining its integrity.

Now it flickers to life for me in an original letter - here’s the interior of it, a Peter Pearson picture of it. It flickers to life for me in an original letter in my modest collection to the shop by the Earl of Gosford from County Armagh, written in 1790 and here he writes:

Dundalk Nov. 29th 1790

It is written to, you can see the cover: Mr Read, Parliament Street, Dublin and it is written from Dundalk and the date is on it.

I want a large carving knife and fork for the Servants’ Table – you know I suppose what is proper. I shall be obliged to you to have it packed up and I shall write to the maid in my house to call on you for it, so you will be required to give directions to deliver it to her – it will be sent down by the stage so must be packed accordingly. I have been in town for a day or two and am so far on my road home [he is writing from Dundalk]. I was so hurried when there that I totally forgot to call at your house. My deceased friend was in your debt for two razors which I shall pay for when I next go to town. I desire my compliments to Mrs. Read.
Believe me Your Well Wisher

So it very much comes to life I think in a little letter like that.

Now probably the most colourful anecdote that Gilbert relates is associated with the nearby Anglesey Street. It concerns the putative heir to the huge Anglesey titles and fortune, James or Jemmy Annesley, this was the heir to the Anglesey fortune, and he was reduced to the status of urchin on the streets of Dublin by a greedy uncle, claiming his birthright. Perhaps he knew that other urchin running around the streets of Dublin at the same time, Peg Woffington, they are more or less contemporaneous. In 1728, Richard Annesley, James’ uncle had him, aged 12, snatched and sold into slavery in America. He eventually escaped and instituted legal proceedings again his uncle. The case was an eighteenth-century sensation and inspired five novels including Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering and Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. There’s Annesley kidnapped. Now Gilbert’s long-winded telling of the tale proves he would never have made a novelist. However the story has been taken up by other chroniclers of Dublin since and has leaped to life again from the pages of Gilbert in a recent book Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped by an American writer Robert Ekirch and a BBC documentary by the architectural historian and broadcaster, Dan Cruikshank, some of you might have seen it called Kidnapped: a Georgian Adventure in which Dublin features prominently.

Speaking of Jemmys or Jems or Shems , James Joyce while in Trieste sighed for a copy of Gilbert’s Dublin - he writes to his brother, Stanislaus: ‘I thought of beginning my story Ulysses, but have too many cares at present’. He then goes on to say:

You remember the book I spoke to you of one day in the Park into which I was going to put William Dara and Lady Belvedere? Even then I was on the track of writing a chapter of Irish history. I wish I had a map of Dublin and views and Gilbert’s history.

Joyce was toying with the idea of writing about the area of Belevedere College, where he had been at school. William Dara owned a house nearby. Again Gilbert would not have been much use to him as he did not treat of the north side at all, as we know in the particular work ‘the History’.

Gilbert also features in Finnegan’s Wake .In a parody of antiquarian writing Joyce cites the Dublin historians James Ware, John D’Alton, Charles Haliday, the scholar, Luke Wadding and the Norman chronicler, Giraldus Cambrensis or typical Joycean fashion he calls him Gerontes Cambronses. And Gilbert is also mentioned. Here is an extract. I am not going to read this extract because I don’t understand it and it’s complex but I just want to point out the reference to Gilbert. It’s a parody of antiquarian writing:

Gillia (a cooler blend, D’Alton insists) ex equo with Poppea, Arancita, Clara, Marinuzza, Indra and Iodina, has been tenderly debauched (in Halliday’s view)…

And then he goes on down to the very end, he speaks of a tribe called ‘Sulivani, and (as Gilbert at first suggested)’. I’m not going to read all that because I don’t understand it but it is obviously a parody of antiquarian writing.

There is another Joycean connection - of an incidental, perhaps even coincidental nature that Joyce would have liked. He liked coincidences. In one of the interleaved copies Gilbert inserted a raffle ticket sold at the ‘Araby’ fete, held at Ballsbridge in 1894 – the subject, and indeed the title of Joyce’s well-known story in Dubliners. Gilbert probably saved it because the raffle was for Jervis Street Hospital, on the street where he was born. I notice that the first prize was a ‘Magnificent Genuine Chippendale Mirror’, presented by the Lord Mayor and his fellow corporation members – I hope it didn’t come from a wall in the Mansion House!

Now the only area covered by Gilbert outside the walled city is that of the College Green and Grafton St. district to the South and slightly East. Land what are called in the early records ‘The Lands of Tibb and Tom’. The old parliament house in College Green features prominently. Indeed volume three could be called ‘the parliament house volume’ as over a third of the text is given to it. Another building which features prominently in volume three is Northland House, home of the Royal Irish Academy – no coincidence, I would think, in a work by a young man hoping for recognition by that very institution.

Gilbert was somewhat obsessed by the parliament building. He later brought out a whole book, as I’ve said before to it and it takes prominent place in the 1903 single volume edition.

Now it is also the subject of an early error by the great man. In the ‘Streets’, the periodical version and the ‘History’ itself, he states that the building on the site known as Chichester House which was used for meetings of the parliament was built by Sir George Carew, President of Munster and Lord High Treasurer of Ireland. This is a mistake: the man in question was a near contemporary, George Carey, Treasurer of the Army. Now he corrects this in his 1896 book on the parliament – but the error had already been in print – twice. So even Homer nods.

Now the great and the good who received compensation at the time of the union are often enumerated. But I particularly like the appendix by Gilbert of the officeholders of the houses of parliament compensated in the form of annuities. These are people associated with the actual houses of parliament themselves. It is headed by John Earl of Clare, ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon, Lord Chancellor and Speaker, who received £3, 978/3/4, that’s an annuity now, and it goes down to Mary Connor, housekeeper in the Commons, who received £4/11/0 and includes Thomas Seavers and Rodney Watham, firelighters, who received £11/7/6 and £6/16/6 respectively.

However the fires still blaze in the old house. Thanks to the Bank of Ireland. One just outside the House of Lords is a popular stopping-off point for warming their hands for my American students on their walking tour of Dublin every January. However I do worry about that well-kindled fire sometimes (laughter). This is a print from Gilbert’s book on the history of the parliament. By the way those depictions I had were of Chichester House, the original building and the interior of Chichester House with the parliament, House of Lords in session.

Now the future of that great building, the parliament house has been the subject of some controversy lately, but I am delighted to see that its environs have been more and more used for great public gatherings and indeed great oratory once again.

Now ‘Early printing was a speciality with Sir John Gilbert. There being in his Library many important examples in fine preservation. Many of these are specimens of Dublin printing and publishing.’ So wrote Douglas Hyde and D.J. O’ Donoghue in the introduction to the catalogue to his works – and so let us finish where we began, ‘from swerve of shore to bend of bay brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation (as Joyce might have said) back’ to the world of books.
Gilbert’s interest in books can be seen in the fact that within the small area he covers he names some 127 printers and publishers – now partly due no doubt to the thriving pirating of works in Dublin due to a lack of a copyright law here and of course cheaper overheads for printers and publishers.

Now there is only time left to refer to some of the most celebrated of the Dublin printers and publishers and Gilbert is not without humour here. One of the most famous, George Faulkner, the printer, had he informs us a leg amputated and it was buried, the leg, as was the custom; he had one foot in the grave, according to the Dublin wits. (Laughter)

Now although Gilbert does not cite this, nor does a copy appear in the catalogue of his books, both Faulkner and Grierson , the foremost Dublin printers of the day, had their own sense of humour and displayed their wit in a joint address they published lamenting the state of the Dublin book trade in 1745:

The Humble Petition of George Faulkner and George Grierson, printer and bookseller, Dublin 1745.
Your petitioners can assert that they have not for a considerable time past sold any books, (though they have at a very great expense provided themselves with the worst) excepting some few old sermons against Popery and the newest Country dances.

(That’s all the books that were selling)

….Your petitioners are sensible as any of your honours can be, of the little use and importance of that learning and knowledge that is contained in books, and would not be misunderstood to recommend to your honours the useless drudgery of reading, which would be too much break in upon your precious time
Your petitioners taken ‘em to prove that a certain number of books well chosen are cheaper than furniture and wear longer, than a good Genoa damask. One thousand books, if collected by the joyner, will, together with the proper wainscot ornaments, shelves and partition, completely furnish one large room, which books one with another, need not exceed two shillings a piece; amounting in all to one hundred pounds; whereas two hundred of Genoa damask which we take to be at least fourteen shillings per yard,

Books are much cheaper to use as furniture they are saying in effect. Other suggestions included lapping books around candles, lighting the tea lamp with them, using them ‘to pin up Miss’s hair, to make kites for young Masters; or to wet and put upon his forehead when he falls down and cries; and they say ‘in short for a thousand other purposes for which paper has of late been found much more useful than the old ones of reading and writing’. And all this in the era before iPads and tablets.

Thankfully the book trade revived and John Gilbert collected them and so we have the wonderful library here upstairs. Their richness inspired Gilbert to set down on paper the annals of his native city. If, as Alex de Tocqueville claimed, ‘history is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies,’ then John Gilbert was certainly one of the originals, perhaps even, as far as our city is concerned, the original. (Applause)

Thank-you for listening to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. To hear more, please subscribe on iTunes or SoundCloud. You can also visit our website - and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Add new comment