Thursday 23 November 2017

Magnificent tome informs and entertains

John Spain Books Editor

IT'S a pity that Desmond McCabe's impressive book 'St Stephen's Green, Dublin 1660-1875' comes with baggage attached.

This history of the first half of the life of Stephen's Green is the only part of the much larger history of the Office of Public Works (OPW), which Dr McCabe has been working on for the past nine years, to see the light of day so far.

The book is magnificent -- a large format 381-page tome full of beautiful illustrations, maps and engravings, as well as an impressive history leavened with fascinating stories from the Green's early days.

It's not just a history of the Green, but of the Dublin of the time in all its changing complexity.

It all started in the early 1660s when Dublin Corporation decided to enclose the central part of what was then a much larger boggy area and to sell land around the new park for housing.

Dr McCabe goes through the development of the Green and its surrounding streets over the following decades in extraordinary detail. No piece of information is too small to be left out. There is an extensive undergrowth of footnotes in which to get lost. To be fair, some of it is absolutely fascinating. But, the forest of detail may be a clue to why Dr McCabe was having trouble finishing his masterpiece on the OPW.

His fellow historians will be impressed by the breadth and depth of Dr McCabe's research. For the ordinary reader, it may be too much of a good thing.

If you stick with it (ideally stretched out on the grass in the Green over long summer afternoons) you will be endlessly entertained as well as educated in the history of the city.


You will learn, for example, that at one time the Green was reserved for keyholders, like Fitzwilliam Park still is today. Also that pickpockets and muggers were far more common around the Green than they are today. And that the Wellington Monument was originally destined for the Green before it was redirected to the Phoenix Park.

So where does the Green fit into the story of the OPW? Our OPW did not come into being with the Irish State; the original Office of Public Works was started by the British in the 1830s and it took over the management of Stephen's Green from the local householders who had taken it over from the corporation. Today's OPW still runs the Green.

Of course the story of St Stephen's Green is only a small part of the history of the OPW, before and after independence, a body that was in charge of relief works during the Famine and in later decades built many of the great public buildings we have today.

Whether Dr McCabe gets to finish his history of the OPW remains to be seen. But hopefully he will complete the story of Stephen's Green. This book, up to 1875, is only half that story. The century and a half since then in and around St Stephen's Green was even more compelling. And Dr McCabe is the best man to tell that story, even if it's at his own pace.

'St Stephen's Green, Dublin 1660-1875' by Desmond McCabe is published by the Stationary Office at €35

Irish Independent

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