The Moore Street ruling and our Rising heritage
John Meagher on surprising 'battle site' decision
Chances are most people fail to notice it, but O'Rahilly Parade, the short laneway just off Moore Street, is loaded with symbolism for students of 1916 history. It was here, during the last embers of the Rising on April 29, that Michael Joseph O'Rahilly - known to his Republican admirers as The O'Rahilly - died from gunshot wounds sustained in the pitched battle that raged through this part of Dublin's north inner-city.
O'Rahilly Parade, Moore Street and the warren of narrow lanes and streets in their vicinity were thrown into sharp relief last week when High Court Judge Max Barrett ruled that the entire area be designated a national monument as it was the last "battle site" of the bloody rebellion of Easter 1916.
The judgment took even seasoned observers by surprise. It had been assumed that campaigners - including selected relatives of those involved in the Rising - would be unsuccessful, especially as the Government were committed to preserving numbers 14 to 17 Moore Street, with developers Chartered Land seeking to transform the area behind the old Carlton cinema site.
But in his 400-page report, Justice Barrett was unequivocal: this warren of streets is an area of great historical importance. "There remains much of 1916 that is still there and that is evocative of a key moment in Ireland's national history," he wrote. "This is unaffected by the fact that there is also much of the fabric [from] 1916 that, regrettably, has long disappeared from Moore Street and its environs."
Arts minister Heather Humphreys has refused to rule out taking an appeal to the Supreme Court, but such action may well be seen to be swimming against the tide of public opinion.
Architect William Derham - who has just published the book Lost Ireland, which documents the country's fine stock of buildings no longer with us - welcomes the ruling and believes it says something important about how Ireland regards its past and its built heritage. "James Connolly lay gravely injured in one of those houses," he says. "A lot of the fighting took place on these very streets and preserving and protecting them sends out a message about their importance."
The eastern side of Moore Street has retained much of the character it had at the turn of the 20th century, but its western side is unrecognisable having been swallowed up by the enormous Ilac Centre developed in the late 1970s. In all, 11 streets were obliterated, including Little Denmark Street which connected Liffey Street with Parnell Street. One of the finest buildings in the area, and probably well known to the rebels, was the imposing Denmark House, built in the 1890s, and now long gone and likely forgotten.
Derham says such cultural vandalism was a distressingly common phenomenon in 20th-century Ireland, where countless buildings - including several from the Georgian era - were demolished. "So many wonderful buildings, including those of historical importance, have been lost," he says. "They exist only in photographs now. It was a different time, and much has been learned."
The legacy of such destruction can be seen today on Molesworth Street, Dublin, where several buildings put up in the 1970s by the late developer Patrick Gallagher were torn down before Christmas to make way for what's hoped will be new buildings sympathetically designed to fit in with the streetscape of an area that is a stone's throw from Leinster House. Gallagher's unloved office buildings came at the expense of a number of important buildings, including the early-Victorian Molesworth Hall.
"The irony is that it's many of the newer buildings that have come down, barely lasting a few generations, while the far better, older ones remain standing today," Derham says. He points out that while officialdom appeared to have flagrant disregard for our heritage between the 1960s and 1980s, civic movements sprung up to protest - most famously during Dublin Corporation's highly controversial building work on the old Viking settlement at Wood Quay.
Paul Clerkin, the founder of the Archiseek website which documents the country's built heritage, says the Moore Street campaigners were cut from much of the same cloth as their Wood Quay forebears. "It goes to show what a well-meaning and dedicated group of citizens can achieve," he says. "There was a similar groundswell of public opinion at the time of Wood Quay and other 1970s campaigns (such as the protests at Patrick Gallagher's destruction of Molesworth Street) but it was very much Dublin Corporation's approach to ignore campaigns at that time.
"I am surprised (with the High Court judgment). I figured the ruling would be held back until post-centenary events when it would be refused, and the buildings demolished. I'm not sure the ruling changes anything for other buildings with a 1916 link, as the link might be quite tenuous. Many building were destroyed in the fighting, and the Moore Street site has a particular importance."
Meanwhile, broadcaster Ryan Tubridy has long had a keen interest in 1916 and the tempestuous years up to Civil War. Both his grandfathers fought in the War of Independence and, in an interview with this newspaper last year, he noted that echoes of the country's birth remain in the buildings around us. "Those of us who live in Dublin have reminders of it all around us, and the buildings of O'Connell Street resonate with history.
"There's a window above the Burger King in O'Connell Street and that's where my grandfather [Todd Andrews] was shooting from and was shot at [during the War of Independence]."