Wednesday, February 12, 2014

History of Merrion Lecture

Shocked with the History Hype

Recently, I saw a sign at my local branch of the Dublin Public Library promoting an upcoming lecture on the history of Merrion, our neighborhood in South Dublin. Strangely (I thought) this lecture required pre-booking. I wondered, "What lunchtime history lecture would be so busy as to require pre-registration?" Curious, I asked the librarian if I could sign up. When she opened the book, I signed my name next to the number 79. The paper was numbered to 80. Here we were, a full week before this lecture, and I took the second-to-last available seat out of eighty!?

I couldn't imagine such an event being so popular in the States. I suppose I severely underestimated the enthusiasm for history here. I signed up to help broaden my understanding of this area and her people, but who were all these other pre-bookers?

Fast-Forward to the Past

On the day of the talk, the library was buzzing a full half-hour before the talk. The children's library upstairs had been blocked off and stuffed with chairs for the lecture, and the ground floor was wall-to-wall with local history buffs checking in with the very busy librarian holding the pre-booking list.  A number of unfortunate folks were hanging around the fringes, waiting for any last-minute no-shows to this booked solid event. I felt fortunate that I signed up for what was surely going to be an earth shattering history lecture.

I was not disappointed with the presentation, it was interesting and entertaining- even without the laser show, smoke machines, and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders dance routine I was expecting after seeing the crowds in the library lobby.

The lecture was delivered by Charles Lysaght and Joe McCarthy of the Ballsbridge, Donnybrook, & Sandymount Historical Society.

Merrion, in One Hour

Mr. Lysaght delivered the first part of the program, narrating the history of this neighborhood through a series of photos and slides. Apparently, the borders of Merrion are a bit in dispute, or are at least a point of confusion for Dubliners. It doesn't help that Merrion is surrounded by the larger and more well-known Donnybrook, Sandymount, Blackrock, and... The Irish Sea. Many Dubliners still believe the area of Merrion is just the Southern part of Sandymount. Scandal, indeed!

It doesn't help that the name, "Merrion" is used all over town- including the name of one of the City Centre's most famous parks. The area is named for Lord Merrion, a landed Lord who maintained an estate on these lands.  The Lord kept a brickyard in the low and often-flooded ground near the sea. The bricks cut and kilned from these clay flats built many of the famous buildings and estates in the area.  The current seawall and Martello tower on Strand Road were built to help maintain the water level for easier brick cutting.

Current Seawall on Strand Road Dublin, Ireland
Current Seawall on Strand Road
Other prominent names of South Dublin had connections with the Merrions. The Herbert family (of Herbert Park fame) and the Pembrokes (of a small estate near Herbert Park) were related by blood or marriage to Lord Merrion and his family. The ever-wealthier Lord Merrion later abandoned the low, swampy, and often flooded Merrion to the high ground of nearby Mount Merrion, further and forever confusing the map-makers and direction-givers of Dublin.

In more recent memory, Merrion and Sandymount had become the recreational bathing beach of Dublin.  In the 1950's, the beach was the site of special "saltwater baths." These baths were long wooden piers built from the shallow water of the beach to deeper (but still safely calm) waters further into the bay. This presumably kept the tender feet of the rich holidaymakers out of the mud and silt of the beach while they walked to deeper swimming and bathing waters.

These piers were later demolished- hilariously- when it was discovered that eager young lads would hang out under the pier to glance up the skirts of the modestly-dressed ladies walking out for a swim. Scandal again!

Merrion Today

When we visit Merrion today, the saltwater baths are gone, but the beach is still busy with joggers, dog-walkers, and swimmers at medium and high tide. The neighborhood is mostly an affluent seaside suburb. Sadly, many old and stately homes were torn down for modern apartment infill. Unfortunate to lose those old homes, but more practical to install more efficient and affordable housing for Dublin's growing population. 

St. Vincent's Hospital is a modern addition and probably the defining characteristic of Merrion today. It brought with it the economic advantages of jobs, housing, and hospital-friendly businesses in the neighborhood.  Bad luck that it also happens to block the view of the beautiful Dublin Mountains just to the West of Merrin proper.  The recent building of the Irishtown and Sandymount delta now also blocks the view of Clontarf to the North from the beach (strand.)

Merrion was recently saved from sure neighborhood catastrophe when it was the runner-up for the building of Dublin International Airport, losing that dubious "honor" to the far Northern edge of Dublin. I would like to have been a fly on the wall of those meetings as nervous property owners and politicians fought over which neighborhoods would be stuck with the airport.

C'mon Get Mappy

After Mr. Lysaght finished his excellent presentation, local map enthusiast Joe McCarthy took over for the finale. He brought out reprints of maps of the area spanning from the Middle Ages to today. His first map, dated 1573 (!) noted the location of a monastery called Mergon South of the River Liffey and the nearby small town of Dublyn. Maps from 1606 and 1656 showed steadily more detail as the land was developed and mapped more thoroughly. The map from 1656 was found in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the last surviving copy of this map that was seized from an English ship by French pirates and sold back in Paris.  Ain't history fun?

In 1690, the maps showed a number of castles, forts, and walls built to defend Dublin (called The Pale by the English- their first land claim on this island and origin of the phrase, "Beyond The Pale," meaning the unknown and wild lands of Celtic Ireland) from the warring tribes of Wicklow in the south.  

The last map historic map, from 1700, showed the newly-redirected River Dodder from Ballsbridge north to City Centre and the River Liffey. The area would look quite different today had the Dodder been routed straight east to the sea, as was closer to its natural course.

In Conclusion

What a great event. I sat rapt in that packed children's library listening to the stories of this small neighborhood delivered by these volunteer history buffs. Amazing how something small and seemingly insignificant like a square-mile neighborhood can have such great stories. I have to assign a good amount of that to the talented and obviously passionate presenters.  I was doubly pleased to hear of the next talk in this series near the end of February...

...And I made sure to sign up straight away.

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