O'Connell Street (Irish: Sráid Uí Chonaill) is Dublin's main thoroughfare. It measures 49 m (160 ft) in width at its southern end, 46 m (150 ft) at the north, and is 500 m (1650 ft) in length. Known as 'Sackville Street' until 1924, it was renamed in honour of Daniel O'Connell, a nationalist leader of the early nineteenth century whose statue stands at the lower end of the street, facing O'Connell Bridge.
Located in the heart of Dublin city, O'Connell Street forms part of a grand thoroughfare created in the 18th century that runs through the centre of the capital, O'Connell Bridge, Westmoreland Street, College Green and Dame Street, terminating at City Hall and Dublin Castle. Situated just north of the River Liffey, the street has a fine axial positioning, running close to a north-south orientation. Lined with many handsome buildings, O'Connell Street is the most monumental of Dublin's commercial streets, having been largely rebuilt in the early 20th century following extensive destruction in the struggle for Irish independence and subsequent civil war. It has the air of an imposing 1920s boulevard, with signature stone-faced neoclassical buildings such as Clerys department store complemented by the more subtle grain of elegant bank and retail premises. O'Connell Street Upper by contrast retains something of its original 18th century character, with the western side conforming to original plot widths and some original fabric still intact.
The street's layout is simple but elegant. Not dissimilar to Paris's Champs-Élysées, though more intimate in scale, it has a wide pavement each side of the street serving the retail outlets that line its length, and a parallel pair of two-lane (formerly three-lane) roadways. A paved median space runs down the centre of the street, featuring monuments and statues to various Irish political leaders. The famous large London Plane trees that lined the median for the second half of the 20th century were removed in 2003 amidst some controversy, with the oldest of these at the northern end planted c. 1903 being cut down in 2005 – all as part of an extensive regeneration scheme recently completed by Dublin City Council.
The centre of the street is dominated by the imposing presence of the 1818 General Post Office (GPO) with its hexastyle Ionic portico projecting over the west pavement, and the 120 m (393 ft) Spire of Dublin, a needle-like self-supporting sculpture of rolled stainless steel erected in 2003. Both structures are addressed by a large civic plaza space, traversed by the street's two roadways.
O'Connell Street has often been centre-stage in Irish history, attracting the city's most prominent monuments and public art through the centuries, and formed the backdrop to one of the 1913 Dublin Lockout gatherings, the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish Civil War of 1922, the destruction of the Nelson Pillar in 1966, and many public celebrations, protests and demonstrations through the years – a role it continues to play to this day. State funeral corteges have often passed the GPO on their way to Glasnevin Cemetery, while today the street is used as the main route of the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, and as the setting for the 1916 Commemoration every Easter Sunday. It also serves as a major bus route artery through the city centre.
O'Connell Street has its origins in a street named Drogheda Street dating from the 17th century. Laid out by Henry Moore, Earl of Drogheda, it was a third of the width of the present-day O'Connell Street, located on the site of the modern eastern carriageway and extending from Parnell Street to the junction with Abbey Street. In the 1740s, a wealthy banker and property speculator by the name of Luke Gardiner acquired the upper part of Drogheda Street extending down to Henry Street as part of a much larger land deal. He demolished the western side of Drogheda Street creating an exclusive elongated residential square 46m (150 feet) in width, thus establishing the scale of the modern-day thoroughfare. The new, more ordered western side featured modest two-bay houses to the south intended for merchants, and larger three-bay houses further north, while the eastern side had many mansions, the grandest of which was Drogheda House rented by the sixth Earl of Drogheda. Gardiner also laid out a mall down the central section of the street, lined with low granite walls and obelisks topped with oil-fuelled lamp globes. It was planted with trees a few years later. He titled the new development 'Sackville Street' after the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lionel Cranfield Sackville, Duke of Dorset. It was also known as 'Sackville Mall', 'Gardiner's Mall' or simply 'The Mall'. However due to the limited lands owned by the Gardiners in this area, the Rotunda Hospital sited just off the street at the bottom of Parnell Square – also developed by the family – was not built on axis with Sackville Street, terminating the vista. It had been Gardiner's intention to eventually break this grand new street through to the river, however he died in 1755, with his son taking over the estate.
It was not until 1777 that the planning body in the city, the Wide Streets Commission, obtained a financial grant from Parliament and work could begin to realise this plan. For the next 10 years work progressed in demolishing a myriad of dwellings and other buildings, laying out the new roadway and building new terraces. Upon completion c. 1785–90, one of the finest streets in Europe had been created. The Wide Streets Commission had envisaged and realised marching terraces of unified and proportioned facades extending from the river as far north as Princes Street, their simple red brick elevations off-set with a major classical cut stone building near the centre (later to be the GPO built in 1814–18). The street became a commercial success upon the opening of Carlisle Bridge, designed by James Gandon, in 1793 for pedestrians and 1795 for all traffic.
Sackville Street prospered in the 1800s, though an invisible boundary seems to have been maintained for some time between the Upper and Lower street. As planned, Lower Sackville Street became highly successful as a commercial location; its terraces ambitiously lined with purpose-designed retail units, one of the first schemes of its kind in Europe. By contrast the northern end proved not to be as successful initially; being exposed to the commercial activity of the lower street, it lost its fashionability as a quiet enclave of grand townhouses, whilst also being too far away from the commercial core of the city to stand as a strong retail location. As a result a difference between the two ends of the street developed: the planned lower end successful and bustling next to the river, and the upper end featuring a mixture of less prominent businesses and old townhouses, some converted for commercial use and growing somewhat decrepit. Upon his visit to Dublin in 1845, William Makepeace Thackeray observed: "The street is exceedingly broad and handsome; the shops at the commencement, rich and spacious; but in Upper Sackville Street, which closes with the pretty building and gardens of the Rotunda, the appearance of wealth begins to fade somewhat, and the houses look as if they had seen better days. Even in this, the great street of the town, there is scarcely any one, and it is as vacant and listless as Pall Mall in October."
As the 19th century progressed, a great many changes took place on Sackville Street, resulting in the gradual erosion of the unified classical street created by the Wide Streets Commission and its replacement with an ostentatious high-Victorian boulevard, made up of elaborate individually designed buildings. One of the world's first purpose-built department stores was such a building: Delany's New Mart 'Monster Store' built in time for the Dublin Exhibition of 1853 and later to be purchased by the Clery family in the 1880s. It also housed the Imperial Hotel. Across the road, another elaborate hotel was built next to the GPO: the Hotel Metropole, in a high-French style. Similarly the Gresham Hotel opened in 1817 to the north of the street in adjoining Georgian townhouses and was later remodelled, as it became more successful.
As the fortunes of Upper Sackville Street began to improve in the second half of the century, other businesses began to open such as a Turkish Baths, later to be incorporated into the Hammam Hotel. Standard Life Assurance built their flagship Dublin branch in a striking classical style close to the GPO, while the Findlater family opened a branch of their successful chain close to Parnell Street, as did Gilbeys Wine Merchants. A distinctive turreted office building by the firm of T.N. Deane was also built on the corner with Cathedral Street in 1866. The thoroughfare also became the centre of the Dublin tramways system, with many of the city's trams converging at the Nelson Pillar. By 1900 Sackville Street became as venerable a shopping and business location as the institutions that lined it, a highly successful city centre thoroughfare that earned the title of 'Ireland's Main Street'.
Dublin Corporation was anxious as early as the 1880s to change the name, but faced considerable objections from local residents, who in 1885 secured a Court order that the Corporation lacked the powers to make the change. The necessary powers were granted in 1890, but presumably it was felt best to allow the new name to become popular. Over the years the name O'Connell Street gradually gained popular acceptance, and the name was changed officially in 1924.
Impact of events of 1916 and 1922
The Easter Rising of 1916, when Irish republicans seized the General Post Office (GPO) and proclaimed the Irish Republic, led to the street's bombardment for a number of days by the gunboat Helga of the Royal Navy and several other artillery pieces which were brought up to fire on the north of O'Connell Street. The thoroughfare also saw sustained small arms and sniper fire from surrounding areas. By the end of the week, the rebels had been forced to abandon the GPO, which was burning, and held out in Moore Street until they surrendered. Much of the street was reduced to rubble, the damaged areas including the whole eastern side of the street as far north as Cathedral Street, and the terrace in between the GPO and Abbey Street on the western side. In addition, during the chaos that accompanied the rebellion, the inhabitants of the nearby slums looted many of the shops on O'Connell Street.
The events had a disastrous impact on the commercial life of the inner city, with many businesses forced to close for up to six years for rebuilding, or some never even reopening. Vast tracts of Henry Street, North Earl Street, Eden Quay and parts of Abbey Street were also devastated, resulting in a loss of rates for Dublin Corporation and a rise in unemployment in the city.
In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, the 'The Dublin Reconstruction (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1916' was drafted with the aim of controlling the nature of reconstruction on the thoroughfare. An expert group was also established in October 1916 which included the City Architect CJ McCarthy. Making use of the new Act, the group set out to rebuild in a coherent and dignified fashion, using the opportunity to modernise the nature of commercial activity on the street.
Plans were drawn up for unified terraces or 'blocks' of buildings, lined with retail outlets at street level and housing modern office accommodation in the upper floors. While the unified facades were never realised, and some developments didn't quite match the rest of the reconstruction efforts on the street leading to criticisms of an opportunity lost, Lower O'Connell Street was nonetheless rebuilt in a coherent fashion, its buildings maintaining a standard cornice line and making use of similar materials of limestone, granite, Portland stone, and red brick with stone dressings. The imposing architectural idiom of 'commercial classicism' generates a strong sense of civic importance and grandeur, especially the first set of buildings on the street with their neo-classical features, and grand cupolas and copper domes piercing the skyline.
With the exception of its Sackville Street facade and portico, the vast structure of the General Post Office was completely destroyed – a decade-long refurbishment project only having been completed a few weeks previous to its destruction. In the aftermath of the events, consideration was given to knocking the surviving facade, as were various plans proposed for the site such as a new Catholic cathedral for the city; in the end a new GPO was built behind the 1818 facade. Works got underway in 1924, eight years after the Rising, with the Henry Street side the first to be erected with new retail units at street level, a public shopping arcade linking through to Princes Street, and new offices on the upper floors. The Public Office underneath the portico on O'Connell Street reopened in 1929.
O'Connell Street was again the scene of a pitched battle in July 1922, on the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, when anti-treaty fighters under Oscar Traynor occupied the street after pro-treaty Irish National Army troops attacked the republican garrison in the nearby Four Courts. Fighting lasted from 28 June until 5 July, when the National Army troops brought artillery up to point blank range, under the cover of armoured cars, to bombard the republican-held buildings. Among the casualties was Cathal Brugha. Luckily, none of the post-1916 reconstructed buildings were seriously damaged during the Civil War. The effects of the week's fighting were largely confined to the northern end of the street, with the vast majority of the terrace north of Cathedral Street to Parnell Square being destroyed, as well as a few buildings on the north-western side. As a result, only one Georgian townhouse remains on the street today, though there are still some other Georgian buildings extant on the corner with Henry Street, as well as some masked behind Victorian facades on the lower end of the street.
Because of the extensive destruction and rebuilding, most of the buildings on O'Connell Street date from the 1910s and 1920s. Apart from the GPO, the famous buildings include the Gresham Hotel (reopened 1927), Eason & Son booksellers, the Royal Dublin Hotel (opened 1963) and Clerys department store (reopened 1922).
Modern O'Connell Street
Despite the progress made in improving the street's architectural coherence post-1916 and 1922, poor planning controls in the 1970s and 1980s had a negative impact on the vitality and presentation of O'Connell Street. Like much of Dublin of that time, property speculators and developers were permitted to construct on the thoroughfare what were widely accepted to be inappropriately designed buildings, often entailing the demolition of historic properties, in spite of its Conservation Area status. Fine Victorian and 1920s buildings were demolished in the 1970s including the elaborate Gilbey's premises at the northern end, the Metropole and Capitol cinemas next to the GPO, and even the last intact Wide Streets Commission buildings on the street dating from the 1780s located on the present day site of a well-known shoe shop at the southern end of the street. Coupled with a neglect of the public domain by the authorities, the emergence of many fast-food joints, gaming arcades, convenience shops and deadening office developments, and poor planning controls that enabled plastic signage, PVC windows and inappropriate alterations to buildings to flourish, O'Connell Street became a shadow of its former self as one of the grand thoroughfares of Europe.
However, after four decades of neglect, the street has undergone a form of renaissance of late as part of Dublin City Council's O'Connell Street Integrated Area Plan (IAP) which was unveiled in 1998 with the aim of restoring the street to its former status. The first plan of its kind to be used in Ireland, the IAP sought to go beyond the often cosmetic changes undertaken by local authorities in addressing rundown areas, seeking to intervene and exert control in as many aspects of the street as possible, ranging from pedestrian and vehicle interaction, the governing of retail outlet type and buildings' upper floor uses, the protection of architectural heritage and wider historic character of O'Connell Street, the regulation of signage and decorative state of private property, as well as radical improvement works to the public domain. Work to realise the plan was delayed by approximately four years, and finally started in 2002.
The main features of the plan included:
- The widening of footpaths to double their previous width on each side of the street and a reduction in road space to two traffic lanes either side of a slightly narrower central median.
- The removal of all London plane trees and the installation of over 200 replacements of varying species.
- The creation of a central plaza area in front of the GPO to address the street's principal building and provide a space for public gatherings and national celebrations.
- New street furnishings including custom-designed lampposts, litter bins and retail kiosks.
- The Spire of Dublin project, the world's tallest sculpture, erected in January 2003, occupying the site of the former Nelson's Pillar.
- The restoration of the street's monuments, including those of late nineteenth century Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell, radical early twentieth century labour leader Jim Larkin, prominent businessman and nationalist MP Sir John Grey, and the most challenging of all: the conservation of the O'Connell Monument standing guard at the southern entrance to the thoroughfare. This project was worked on for a number of months by an expert team of bronze and stone conservators in the first half of 2005.
All public domain works were completed in June 2006, finalising the principal objective of the IAP at a cost of €40 million. Work was disrupted by a riot centred on the street which erupted on 25 February 2006. A protest against a planned Loyalist march degenerated into vandalism and looting, with building materials from the works in progress being used as weapons and for smashing windows and fixtures.
In efforts to protect O'Connell Street from the planning mistakes of the past, the thoroughfare has been designated an Architectural Conservation Area and an Area of Special Planning Control – both of which safeguards strictly govern all aspects of planning and development on the street. In most cases, not even comparatively minor alterations can be made to any structure, or changes in use (such as to fast-food etc.) without the planning permission of Dublin City Council. The majority of the buildings on the street are now also Protected Structures. The north-western block (Henry Street, Moore Street, Parnell Street), is currently undergoing substantial demolition and redevelopment, subject to current restrictions.
Statues of O'Connell Street
Dubliners, who are famous for giving blunt nicknames to monuments, used to nickname the street 'the street of the Three Adulterers' because of the Victorian allegations of adultery made against the three principal figures on the street commemorated by statues; Parnell, Nelson and O'Connell. It was also noted humorously that the statue of Charles Stewart Parnell, on which appears his famous words "No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. To say to his country 'thus far shall thou go and no further", points to the Rotunda Hospital nearby, once Dublin's main maternity hospital, as though he was encouraging the Irish nation to outbreed its enemies.
The monuments on the O'Connell Street from south to north are:
- Daniel O'Connell: designed and sculpted by John Henry Foley and completed by his assistant Thomas Brock. Widely considered Foley's finest work, the foundation stone was laid in 1864 and the monument unveiled to enormous crowds in 1882.
- William Smith O'Brien: by Thomas Farrell. Originally erected in 1870 on an island at the O'Connell Bridge entrance to D'Olier Street, it was moved to O'Connell Street in 1929.
- Sir John Gray: by Thomas Farrell. Both plinth and statue carved entirely of white Sicilian marble, it was unveiled in 1879. Gray was the proprietor of the Freeman's Journal newspaper and as a member of Dublin Corporation was responsible for the construction of the Dublin water supply system based on the Vartry Reservoir.
- James Larkin: by Oisín Kelly. An expressive bronze statue atop a granite plinth, the monument was unveiled in 1980. Originally Larkin's birth date was incorrectly incised into the plinth as '1876', and later altered to '1874' – hence the slight alteration marks to the text.
- Father Theobald Mathew: by Mary Redmond. The foundation stone was laid in 1890, and the monument unveiled in 1893.
- Charles Stewart Parnell: the Parnell Monument by Irish-American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The 57 ft high obelisk is made of solid Galway granite and was paid for through public subscription and unveiled in 1911 at the junction with Parnell Street, just south of Parnell Square for which Dublin Corporation re-routed the tram tracks to facilitate the siting of the monument.
- Nelson's Pillar, a 36.8 m (121 ft) granite Doric column erected in 1808 in honour of Admiral Lord Nelson, formerly stood at the centre of the street on the site of the present day Spire. Blown up by republican activists in 1966, the site remained vacant until the erection of the Spire in 2003.
Among the major buildings near to O'Connell Street are St Mary's Pro-Cathedral (popularly known as the Pro-Cathedral, which serves as Dublin's de facto Catholic cathedral, though it has never been raised formally to cathedral status, hence the name), the Rotunda Hospital, which serves as North Dublin's main maternity hospital, and several large modern shopping centres. South of the street, across O'Connell Bridge, lie Trinity College and the Bank of Ireland building, previously called (before the Act of Union in 1800) Parliament House, former home of the old Parliament of Ireland.
- Osborough, W. N. (1996). Law and the emergence of modern Dublin: a litigation topography for a capital city. Irish Legal History Society History Series 5. Irish Legal History Society (illustrated ed.). Irish Academic Press in association with the Irish Legal History Society. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-7165-2583-7. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- Friends of Saint-Gaudens Memorial – Saint-Gaudens' works – Parnell Monument
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to O'Connell Street.|
- Archiseek.com – Buildings of O'Connell Street
- ReflectingCity.com – O'Connell Street IAP
- O'Connell Street, Upper and Lower, from Dublin by Christine Casey