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‘I knew I'd never do anything as important again’: Wood Quay Archaeologist over 40 years on

One of the most controversial events of the 1970s the bulldozing of Dublin’s Wood Quay is the subject of a new TG4 documentary.

September 1978, 20,000 people march through Dublin calling for Wood Quay to be protected as a national monument.
September 1978, 20,000 people march through Dublin calling for Wood Quay to be protected as a national monument.
Image: TG4

44 YEARS AGO in 1974 Pat Wallace was a young archaeologist tasked with excavating what was to become one of the most controversial sites in Irish living memory.

Wood Quay was the planned location of the new headquarters of Dublin Corporation, what is now the city council. However the area it was being built on contained some of the most historic Viking artefacts in Irish and indeed European history.

Wallace, a relatively new employee of the National Museum, was given the job of assessing the archaeological value of Wood Quay, including anything he found there, so that building work could commence quickly.

Civic offices plans Artist's impression of Wood Quay Source: TG4

What was to be a relatively short project,  soon consumed Wallace’s life. He would be on the site in Wood Quay in Dublin city centre from 1974 to 1981.

Young Pat Wallace Pat Wallace, the Director of Archaeology at Wood Quay between 1974 and 1981. Source: TG4

Wallace is now the subject of a new documentary on TG4’s Finné programme. To discuss this and the long-lasting impact of Wood Quay on his life, Wallace sat down with TheJournal.ie.

But first: What was all the fuss about?

The plan to develop Wood Quay as Dublin Corporation’s headquarters was announced in the early 1960s. However by the following decade the scale of the plan was causing some concern.

Archaeological digs in other parts of the city had already uncovered some of the capital’s history and experts believed the four-acre site of Wood Quay, along the Liffey and next to Christ Church Cathedral, would be of similar if not greater value.

This would be the largest and most significant project ever taken on by Wallace.

As the dig got underway more and more evidence of Dublin’s first citizens, the Vikings of the ninth and tenth centuries, was uncovered.

However the corporation continued unabated and forced Wallace’s team of archaeologists to work day and night in order to excavate and document as much as possible.  

The development and bulldozing of the site by the local authority quickly caught the attention of activists in the capital city and further afield.

The works led to a now famous protest in 1978 which saw 20,000 people take to the streets, calling for Wood Quay to be named a national monument.

The case eventually went to court, and the site was given the classification. However the local authority did a deal with the Minister of the day, under a loop-hole in the legislation, which allowed them to remove the historic artefacts from the site to allow the construction of the new office block go full steam ahead.

I had no power on my own

“I was on that site from May 1974 until March 1981, with some short breaks in between” said Wallace.

In the first two years we unearthed a huge area of the wooden area of the dockside, the first generation of the Normans.

Wallace and his crew then moved further up the site towards Fishamble street and then he said “the you-know-what hit the fan”.

“The corporation wanted us to get on with the building, they weren’t very anxious for  us to be still excavating and digging there. They actually started bulldozing the earthen bank that had been built around the town, Wallace said.

 I stopped that, but I had no power on my own.

A voluntary group led by Fr FX Martin came together and formed ‘The Friends of Medieval Dublin’ to protest and demand that Wood Quay be named a national monument.

However Wallace was caught in the middle between the corporation on the one side and the academics and historians on the other.

“I supported them of course, I was on Fr Martin’s side,” Wallace said. However  he couldn’t vocalise his opinions on the matter: “I was a government employee, a civil servant.”

Shouldn’t the site have been preserved?

“When you think of a national monument, you think of something like Newgrange or the Rock of Cashel”.

Wallace explained that Wood Quay was a different affair:

This was also a national monument but the idea in this case was the corpo (corporation) and the board of works made a deal whereby the national monument could be removed.
We were brought back in to finish the excavating along Fishamble street and that’s where I discovered the remains of 140 house foundations.
I discovered the best evidence in Europe for town layout, how a town looked at the time of Brian Boru.

Wallace said it simply wasn’t possible to preserve the site then or even now: 

You had a succession of 12 different levels, one on top of the other, which one do you preserve? How do you preserve it?
 “It’s really basketry in muck to put it crudely.” It was the detritus of everyday life according to Wallace, “How do you preserve that in situ?”

Wallace maintains that if the project had been allowed proceed at its natural pace a better picture of life in Viking Dublin would have been gleamed. He said this could have led to the creation of a dedicated museum.

“We certainly lost elements of the site that were bulldozed and we never got our claws on those areas.”

Wallace said money wasn’t an issue, but time was. “We had a budget of £2 million punts.”

“We were finding the origins of their city”

“It really stretches you alright because you had to be on every side,” Wallace said of the challenges he faced on a personal and professional level at Wood Quay.

He said the media was easy enough to deal with at the time. The corporation on the other hand was harder work:

They wanted it done yesterday. They had no interest in what we were finding, even though we were finding the origins of their city!

On his employer the National Museum of Ireland, Wallace said “The hardest job of all was dealing with my bosses at the National Museum”.

Wallace said the body should have advocated for Dublin’s history, “They should’ve done more”.

“I respected the National Museum, I love it, but they wanted the project finished,” he said.

PAT WALLACE 3 Pat Wallace as featured in TG4's Finné. Source: TG4

Present day

Turning to 2018 and Dublin City Council’s offices loom large over the river Liffey. In the hours of darkness the building is often illuminated, a beacon of 1970′s architecture, a sculpture the only hint to the site’s historic past.

Wallace has positive memories of his time at Wood Quay: “I always remember the site and the great laughs and the great staff I had there.”

 I always remember what was there.
They were ordinary men and women just like us, they were the same really, just the technology was different.

Wallace said he isn’t saddened by the events of the late 70s at Wood Quay, but the lack of recognition of Dublin’s history is a source of regret.

“What saddens me is Dublin hasn’t grasped the opportunity. It hasn’t realised what it has,” he said.

I regard Wood Quay and those sites in Dublin, the archaeology of Dublin, as the equivalent of Newgrange, honest to God.
I think we should have by now a museum of Dublin, that’s my dream and it won’t be realised in my lifetime, but I hope it will be in yours.

Pat Wallace went on to become Director of the National Museum of Ireland. He maintained a close relationship with Fr FX Martin, who presided over his wedding.

Wood Quay changed my life, it was a difficult time. I knew from day one it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I knew I would never again do anything as important.

You can watch this story in full on TG4′s Finné tonight at 9.30pm.

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About the author:

Aisling O'Rourke

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