Inside Georgian Dublin


Over the past few months I have been somewhat of an English language teaching journeyman. I have navigated my way up and down much trodden streets of old in search of language schools of varying acronymic titles. Often starting with an I or and E, and somewhere else having an E or an I inside them, their meaning is often wrapped within some other flurry of adjectives represented by consonants. But despite this conundrum what I’ve enjoyed most of all is that many of the schools are housed in old Georgian houses.

Georgian Dublin represents a golden age for the city in terms of development. More so that any other period in Dublin’s history, the Georgian period has single handedly defined much of the modern shape, character, and charm of the inner city. This period stretched from the early 18th to the early 19th century, and the prosperity witnessed by the city at the time had a lot to do with the sitting of the Irish Houses of Parliament at College Green (now the Bank of Ireland), whose parliamentarians needed townhouses. The attention of the rest of the wealthy Irish was not lost and it become the norm to own a red-bricked terraced house, hundreds of which are still standing in Dublin today. Today post cards of Georgian Dublin doors and houses can be found around town. Equally, buildings like the Four Courts, Customs House, and the Bank of Ireland are some of the most monumental.

Powerscourt House, South William Street.

These red-bricked houses were designed within the constraints of a public body set up to ensure that the city was redeveloped to a habitable standard. Much of the city was still medieval in shape, and vast tracts of farmland and marsh still lay within walking distance of the pillars of power. The Wide Streets Commission when established saw about ensuring uniformity, order, and perhaps most significantly, fire precautions.

Unfortunately, during the 19th century many of these houses were converted into tenements to house Dublin’s poor, and with this so many fell into disrepair and eventually ruin. Even in areas as picturesque and typically Georgian such as St Stephen’s green, we are only left with remnants of great houses. The story is more stark on once fashionable Gardiner Street and Dominick Street on the north side of the city where some of the poorest slums where to be located. Many houses were torn down, and many now hold offices, flats, or are empty. Now they are tall and hovering over the footpaths, so far removed from the original uses.

Fitzwilliam Street Upper

All is not lost however. These buildings are finding new uses as office space, and several are used as English language schools. For whatever reasons, perhaps their size or number of rooms, but I suppose what is also important is that they are all in city centre locations. There might be other factors at play but I don’t really think that is of any significance, what matters here is that I actually finally got to walk into some of these buildings and have a look around.

I recall first finding out about this part of Dublin while I was doing my Leaving Certificate back in 2000. I studied art, which meant I had to do history of art. There was a particular part of the course which discussed the Georgian period of Dublin. I don’t remember if we had a choice on particular aspects of Irish art, but I do know that I took an instant liking to it. Maybe because it was something that we could see any time we went into town, and it had so much history too, not only in its construction but also in its faded glory and the destitute state it had come to exist in.

I’ve always been interested in these aspects of history. It could be part of my more crude nature, or perhaps some kind of romantic notion which sees the character only in that which has experienced more than others. I’ve always found old photographs interesting, but mostly I prefer photographs or images which show us how far we have come along from when the photograph was taken.

It was probably this interest in seeing how things have and do exist now that drew me towards these buildings so much more than I felt others were being drawn. I couldn’t help walking around the streets which chop through Baggot Street, up towards Herbert Road and around Fitzwilliam Square and Pembroke Street. I have driven up and down here countless times but I had never really earned the chance to simply explore.

Baggot Street

Fitzwilliam Square

I took particular pleasure when given the chance to explore around Parnell Square and Dominick Street. I had thought that all of Dominick Street’s Georgian houses had been demolished and replaced by flats, which themselves were later demolished, the scrub remaining being left for some other fate.

This particular area is where Dublin’s oldest Georgian houses sit. The top of Dominick Street has some fine examples, one of which I will talk about more shortly. But just across the street is a short street which runs up to the King’s Inns. This is Henrietta Street. When I visited, the street was quiet with the morning and damp with the condensation of the night’s clouds. The houses were bold and broad. Some had been restored to offices, but others looked they had been boarded up for a long time. They were scarred with the ignominy of rejection, but they stood with a little bit of humble pride showing that despite many years of neglect they still owned their place in Dublin’s history.

Henrietta Street, all in faded grace, removed from all its glory.

Henrietta Street; so many stories from only one doorway.

Inside many of these buildings all over Dublin is a secret treat, their interiors. The ceilings are high, like really high. The walls are thick, so thick I don’t think you needed to insulate them, and the steps and floors all creak with age. I could be wrong in saying that I would be surprised if many still had the same floors from when they were first built. Indeed, many buildings still maintain the artistic features of their original design.

In some respects there is not much to see in these big houses. The walls as I said are tall, and the floors a bit creaky and old. Because they’re old buildings it is hard to have light fittings and plugs and stuff to make them more modern. Adding to this is that in each ceiling you can’t really drill a hole into the beautifully crafted stucco work which is typical of every house. Of yeah, I forgot to mention that, didn’t I?

At the centre of each room where perhaps a candle chandelier would have hung the most beautiful stucco work is the norm in many of these houses. Even in smaller, clearly less influential homes, having a elaborate floral motif emanating from the ceiling was common practice. Often there are fantastic animal or floral patterns addornig other parts of the ceiling, but the main focus is at the very centre. The level of detail and size depends on the owners wealth, and I suppose also on the owners taste.

Inside a house on Fitzwilliam Street Upper

Inside a house on Fitzwilliam Street Upper

While I was mesmerised by actually being inside just a few fairly standard Georgian houses, I was lucky to have to teach in an overflow classroom for a week in one of Georgian Dublin’s most prized possessions. These overflow classrooms are often temporary solutions to busy periods. This particular acronymic school based on Dominick Street was in need of some room, and the Youth Work Ireland building nearby was in the position to offer space.

I had little idea of what to expect as I stepped in, but I instantly recognised the work on the walls from my Leaving Cert history of art classes. The owner of this house originally was a man named Robert West, and he was known as one of the foremost stuccodores in Dublin at the time. This particular interior is so elaborate that it is near impossible to describe with enough words, and I for one can merely leave some photographs of the beautiful walls and ceilings.

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Street Lower

Inside 20 Dominick Lower

In time I hope that I can again visit some of these properties, although not as a journeyman, more as an enthusiast for the magnificent tribute left to a time when Dublin was finally becoming a city of Europe, one with its own shape and its own character. I think Georgian Dublin is something which many of us take for granted, although it is not so serious that we do take it seriously, but we should offer it the respect it deserves. I think that Dublin will grow always around these magnificent monuments, but at the same time I hope that they do not allow for a stagnation of the progress which they themselves were the product of some two hundred years before.

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Do you have a particular building or era from historical Dublin which you like or have an interest in?

Should we seek to restore all these buildings to their original state, or should we allow progress to change these for the better?

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I took all these photos with my camera phone (HTC One M8 if you’re asking). For some reason I never had the sense to bring my Nikon in with me.

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The Robert West house is 20 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin 1. You can read a little more about the building and its history and the restoration project which was carried out on it here.

If you are interested in Georgian Dublin take a look at the Irish Georgian Society’s website.

Here is a detailed post on the history of Lower Dominick Street in Dublin.

Supermarkets -v- the People?


It has been bothering me since about the time it has been instigated. It’s a simple thing that shouldn’t really get me agitated as it has very little effect on me, and in many respects it is a good principal to take. It’s just that I think it’s the wrong step and I don’t think it really solves any problems, only encourages more populist resolutions to complicated social and economic problems.

What am talking about? Sunday closing for the so-called discount stores in Korea.

Now lets establish some terminology first.

“Discount stores” are what major supermarket chains are called in Korea. These include E-Mart (part of Shinsaegae international), Homeplus (owned by Tesco, the second largest supermarket company in the world), and Lotte Mart, which are the biggest ones.

“Sunday closing” is a government regulation which has called for all “discount stores” to close on two Sundays a month, or in some cases two Wednesdays a month. The reason for this is because they were blamed by smaller businesses for taking away too much business from smaller shops and businesses which were nearby.

Now that we understand this, allow me to explain why I find this to be bothersome.

To begin with there’s the obvious inconvenience of wanting to buy something that the major supermarkets stock. I personally haven’t been overly bothered by this on many occasions, and I’ll admit that the one time it really did get to me, and is probably where the idea for this blog post came from, was on a nice Sunday afternoon when I decided to stop by Yeongtong Homeplus and pick up some tasty foreign beer.

I fancied a few warm cans of something elaborate and I was looking forward to the painstaking decision I would have to make in the aisles. When I came to the front of the supermarket the shutter was pulled down and there was a big yellow banner acorss it explaining, I imagine, that it wasn’t their fault I couldn’t buy my beer, blame the government.

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I don’t doubt that at this moment you’re thinking I’m some crazed anti-government vigilante who feels the world is against him, but this is not the case. I am not going to go into why I didn’t want Korean beer either, but if you’ve been in Korea long enough, you’ll understand. The way I see it is that as a consumer we’re being forced to buy things we don’t want to buy when there are better alternatives available.

I’m all for buying from the little guy, believe me, and I would happily choose the alternative over a major mulitnational blood sucking vampire such as Tesco any day of the week. But I’m also a consumer who has grown accustomed to buying food and products that meet a certain standard, and there’s also the added bonus of liking a bit of variety in my life also.

But there’s a little more to it than that.

One of the arugments put forward for Sunday closing was that the prices of the major supermarkets were suffocating the smaller businesses. But if you’ve spent any amount of time in the supermarkets, you can’t really argue successfully that they are in fact ‘discounted’ prices. Yes there are some discounted goods, but really can you say they are slicing a hole in the belly of the competition and watching them bleed dry on the streets? No. Maybe a pinprick would be a more apt comparison.

There is more to this picture than just prices, its the very nature of competition and the lack of innovation in the realm of small businesses. Take smaller supermarkets for example. What do they sell that would make you want to choose them over the major supermarkets? Nothing. In fact that lack of variety and bog standard middle-to-bottom of the line brands in stock are in my opinion a turn off, especially to young and middle sized families, the kind of people who go into a supermarket and drop 200,000 won in a weekly shop. Other than being a place where you can pick up something urgently in case you run out, I struggle to see what other function they can serve. Of course across the world these smaller shops suffer from the same plight, so it’s not only a Korean problem.

Before this situation with supermarkets came to light, it was another issue raised by smaller restaurants who again complained that the supermarkets where threatening their business. Around 2010 or 2011 Lotte Market announced they were selling fried chicked for around 5,000 won per portion. Compare this with the standard delivered variety costing over 10,000. You can imagine why the fried chicken restaurants went up in arms over this. Not long after this E mart copied them by selling jumbo pizzas at cut prices, and again the pizza shop fraternity went baloobas. In the end the government jumped in and put a stop to this opportunism by the considerably wealthier and resourceful supermarkets by putting a cap on the number they could sell every day.

If we take a look at the pizza and fried chicken places around Korea you can see the problems already, as there are already too many. To the average armchair enthusiast they seem to be a get rich quick scheme which doesn’t seem to be such a hot ticket any more. Pizza places seemed to be the next to follow, and recently I’ve noticed a surge in tteokboki restaurants – I suppose it depends on what’s being promoted the most at whatever franchise fair people end up going to with a sack of inheritance.

*This video will give you an idea of the problems with the fried chicken business in Korea

The propenderence of fried chicken and pizza franchises, to name a few, is a key ingredient in understanding where I’m coming from. I see that these clearly point to a lack of much needed innovation in the small business sector.

For example, if you have all your little supermarkets which are competing against E Mart and Tesco change their stock to sell organic or direct from farm fruit and veg, or high end products, or homemade/locally produced condiments (you know the kind of stuff I’m talking about) you’ll not only encourage people to shop there you encourage the wider national agricultural economy to prosper. This is just an example. Easier said than done I know.

Another avenue is to really go out of your way to provide excellent service. Take camera shops for example. If you go into a camera shop, the guy selling you the stuff is a photographer, and knows all about what you are looking at. Invariably they throw in all sorts of others freebies like bags, memory cards, and other things. Of course the supermarkets aren’t the threat to these people’s livelihood. Their situation is even more serious because they have to compete against the internet.

For the most part a lot of the people who own these places are older, don’t have a lot of money, and really lack the inclination to innovate. Perhaps though they could lease out their premisis to someone with the inclination to innovate. Retail rents are extraordinary at the best of times, but if they could do a deal where the older owner keeps his deposit down as kind of insurance while the younger person pays the rent and some, or something to that effect.

I’ve heard before that a lot of these places are only kept open by some older people because they don’t really have anything else to do, so you know, they keep plugging along. This is mere speculation of course as there are undoubtedly other social issues which may be at play which I’m unaware of.

Regardless, the main thing is that the business is busy and the people involved are all making money. I know that this will not be something that will not happen overnight, and I know that in many circumstances it will not happen at all.

Populism and complaint to the nanny state will continue on as before. If a little innovation were to come it needs to be encouraged by those in a position to do so. There’s no reason why people who are already burdeoned with inexplicably high rents need to suffer because no one wants to buy what they are trying to sell. But at the same time, if no one really wants to buy it perhaps its worth considering what it is for sale.

There is so much room for growth in Korea, despite what people might think, but it is on a micro scale. Large scale development has polarised the economy and increasingly society. If a little vision were employed perhaps we could find ourselves living in new neighbourhoods which were welcoming to all our tastes.