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A late 19th century aerial view of the O'Connell Bridge. Alamy Stock Photo

Donal Fallon 'Many royal and political figures were honoured with street names'

The historian looks at the reasons for street names in some of Dublin’s more notable areas.

FROM THE LARGEST metropolis to the smallest rural village, street names can give some indication of who holds power. They can also reveal much about who previously held it.

There’s nothing uniquely Irish about a contested landscape of commemoration. In Berlin, a compromise seems to have been arrived at following German reunification, with the names of socialist leaders whose lives predated the East German state surviving, while streets honouring the DDR’s leadership and those of the Soviet world have largely been renamed.

A visitor can still walk down Karl-Liebknecht-Straße or Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße. By comparison, Leninplatz is a historical memory, replaced by Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Square) in 1992. In other cities, recent years have witnessed debates leading to street renaming, as people question just who we remember and honour in our streetscapes.

Movingly, New York City invites its residents to propose names for some of its intersections, and little ‘honorary stretches’, which honour all from the Beastie Boys to fallen FDNY firefighters. This is a strictly symbolic act, the more familiar street name remaining the one upon city maps, but across the five boroughs, the signs add a touch of local history to the landscape.

Walking through history

For most people, a street name is nothing more than a curiosity, if even that. How many walk Nassau Street in Dublin with any clue it honours the House of Orange-Nassau, to which King William III belonged? Similarly, Queen Victoria has survived too, though street signs on Victoria Quay give the curious Irish translation of ‘Cé Buaidhe’, linking the name to victory instead. Perhaps that in itself was a political point.

Sometimes, names were bestowed on streets by developers themselves. Moore Street takes its name from developer Henry Moore, Earl of Drogheda, who with typical modesty proceeded to name it and just about everywhere else around it after himself. Henry Street, Moore Street, North Earl Street, Drogheda Street (later absorbed into what eventually became our main thoroughfare) and even Of Lane ensured that wherever else he may be forgotten, his name (he hoped) would live eternally on a map of Dublin.

Other names were chosen in honour of royal and political figures. Sackville Street was named for Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset, who served twice as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

In May 1924, a series of street name changes took place across the capital, as the new Free State and Dublin Corporation continued their efforts to put a distinctly Irish stamp on the capital. The painting of postboxes, the production of distinctive currency (which arrived only in 1928) and the erection of memorials were all part of this identity shaping process in the 1920s, but street name changes were a relatively straight-forward process — the only thing which stood in the way of change were ratepayers, who sometimes objected on the basis of potential economic impacts on businesses.

O’Connell Street was an unsurprising name selection for Dublin’s main thoroughfare, given the great presence of John Henry Foley’s statue of The Liberator, in place since the 1880s. Foley’s monument (completed by his disciple, Thomas Brock) has a great commanding presence, from his own bullet-riddled cloak to the four winged figures at the base of the monument, representing Patriotism, Courage, Eloquence and Fidelity.

Indeed, since the monument had been unveiled, many had already taken to calling the street O’Connell Street. When the authorities outlawed a trade union rally on the street during the 1913 Lockout, James Connolly would ask where Sackville Street was: ‘Perhaps it is in Jerusalem or Timbuctoo, but there is no such street in Dublin. There is an O’Connell Street in Dublin, and there we will come on Sunday.’

‘Meet you on Silken Thomas Street’

Other names that had been proposed before Dublin Corporation at the same time failed. Capel Street was not to become Silken Thomas Street for example, while Gardiner Place survived the proposal to rename it Thomas Ashe Street. Ormond Quay won the day over Oliver Plunkett Quay.

In more recent times, there have been other proposed street names which didn’t make it over the line. So while Dublin still has a Nelson Street (in honour of Admiral Horatio Nelson), attempts by some councillors on Dublin Corporation to rename Gardiner Place in honour of Nelson Mandela in June 1990 failed. One member suggested the Corporation find ‘a more impressive location’, to honour Mandela, ‘who was hailed for so long for his principles and is respected by people all over the world.’ There is no Nelson Mandela Street in Dublin, but Nelson Mandela Boulevard in Tehran is — if Google Maps is to be believed — a sixteen minute drive from Bobby Sands Street there.

It’s unsurprising that the name of Daniel O’Connell should bestow not only Dublin’s primary street but those of other Irish cities and towns including Limerick and Sligo. One can also walk O’Connell Street in North Adelaide. Renaming Sackville Street in honour of the man they called The Liberator was a gesture of great hope for the future of the wide street that has withstood so much. Perhaps no street in the city requires hope and vision more today. On the centenary of O’Connell Street’s renaming, let us give more thought and action to its future.

Donal Fallon is a historian and the presenter of the Three Castles Burning podcastThree Castles Burning: A History of Dublin in Twelve Streets (New Island Books) is available now.

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