Friday 24 March 2017

Flashback: The pedestrianisation of Grafton Street began 45 years ago today

Grafton Street in September 1971 during the experiment phase of pedestrianisation.
Grafton Street in September 1971 during the experiment phase of pedestrianisation.

Both physically and figuratively, it’s been a seminal passage to Dublin life since it was established more than 300 years ago.

It has been home to our most iconic department stores, propelled some of our most successful musicians from busking on the footpath to the stage and hailed the beginning of modern Ireland with the arrival of multinationals to our shores, such as McDonalds in 1977. Global chains like HMV, GAP, Disney and Levis are just some that have followed suit.

Originally the playground to the city’s wealthy it was inhabited by swanky department stores like Switzers, opened in 1838, followed by Brown Thomas in 1849 and the exclusive Weirs jewellers in 1869.

It welcomed King George II and Queen Mary in 1911, but in 1914 the status of the strip began to shift with the opening of American chain Woolworths. This signalled the beginning of a more democratic Grafton Street in which the working classes could now feasibly do their shopping. The opening of Dublin institution Bewley’s in 1927 cemented the shopping strip as a favourite with the city’s inhabitants.

A guard stands on Grafton Street in September 1971 during the experiment phase of pedestrianisation to ensure no cars make their way down the street.
A guard stands on Grafton Street in September 1971 during the experiment phase of pedestrianisation to ensure no cars make their way down the street.

For the next 50 years shoppers shared Grafton Street with traffic that travelled up and down its length. By the early 1970s the idea of pedestrianising the Street was being put into action and this week in 1971 the first ‘experiment’ began to clear the thoroughfare of motor traffic.

An advert in the Irish Independent from Dublin City Council on September 4 outlined the areas that would be affected, instructing readers as to the specifics of traffic flow, signed off with a polite message from the Council to the people of Dublin: “IMPORTANT: Kindly co-operate in making the experiment a success”

The last granite slab being laid in Grafton St, put into place by Nicky Whelan, left, and brothers Vincent, centre, and Damien McConnell of Ridgedale Construction who paved the street.
The last granite slab being laid in Grafton St, put into place by Nicky Whelan, left, and brothers Vincent, centre, and Damien McConnell of Ridgedale Construction who paved the street.

The proposed four-week period then became eight, and in November it was thought the experiment would continue on into the New Year when it would be halted to allow roadworks in surrounding areas like Georges Street. The Irish Independent reported concerns that the pedestrianisation of the area would attract “hippies, street performers and vagrants in the street.” Although it is now famous for hosting talented street performers, it seems for some they were an unwelcome addition to the area.

The colourful tap-dancing performer The Earl of Mustard first became a familiar sight, and sound, on Henry Street before moving south to Grafton. Speaking to the Irish Independent about the possibility of being moved on from Grafton Street, the eccentric Englishman said “Monday is my best day because everyone is miserable starting back to work, and when they see me they cheer up and give me something.

I like busking, and anyway it’s the only thing I know how to do.”

Despite continuing protests from local traders the Street was formally pedestrianised in the early 1980s. At first thought to be unsuccessful, the subsequent paving of the street benefitted the area. The process was eventually finished with the final slab laid on June 28, 1988 by Nicky Whelan and brothers Vincent and Damien McConnell, pictured above.

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