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Double Take: The easy-to-miss 'pavement lights' that once had a very important function

“They’re an important part of the city.”

pl3 Source: Arran Henderson/Dublin Decoded

IF YOU’VE EVER spotted a glass grid set into the pavement on a Dublin city street and wondered what it’s purpose is, Arran Henderson has the answer.

The man behind Dublin Decoded walking tours, Henderson has been studying the unusual features for the past year.

The purpose of the lights is simple: to illuminate basements, cellars and store rooms before electricity became readily available. 

First introduced in the late 1800s, pavement lights were most popular and important until the 1920s, although they were used “deep into the 20th century.”

pl2 Source: Arran Henderson/Dublin Decoded

They consist of an iron or steel frame with a special type of glass set into it. “It’s not just ordinary glass that was used,” says Henderson. “Each square is a thick glass slab that amplifies the light and is designed to change the angle of the light through an anidolic prism.” This, in turn, maximised the reach of the light that entered the basement. 

“Sometimes bathrooms would be directly underneath them and people could look up and see the silhouette of feet above,” he says.

What attracted me to them was the beautifully inherent contrast between the rigid grid-like pattern and the glass. It can be grey, green, green/blue, purple, or a milky colour.

pl1 Source: Arran Henderson/Dublin Decoded

The majority of pavement lights were made in London, says Henderson, with the name of the maker marked into the metal frame. Examples of these include Hayward Brothers, Hyatt & Co. and Luxifer.

While they aren’t depended on for their original use anymore, Henderson says Dublin’s remaining pavement lights “need to be protected.”

“There’s one on Clare St near the National Gallery of Ireland that was filled with concrete. That broke my heart. It can never be replaced,” he says.

If you fancy seeing a pavement light yourself, take a stroll to The Windjammer pub on Townsend Street, where there’s one nearby. Otherwise, there’s “quite a few of them in the south city centre,” according to Henderson.

“They’re an important part of the city. We won’t appreciate them until they’re gone.”

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