Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Milltown, The Dropping Well, and Classon's Bridge

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Almost one month to the day after our local branch of the Dublin Public Library hosted a lecture on the history of Merrion, I attended the second installment of this local history lecture series. Ironically, less than a week after our walk farther up the Dodder River, this lecture was to be on Milltown, The Dropping Well, and Classon's Bridge on that same river. We had been through Milltown, popped our heads into The Dropping Well Pub, and crossed Classon's Bridge ourselves... Not that we knew anything about it.  

But that was all about to change.

River Dodder Rhino with Classon's Bridge in Dublin
Our Rhino Friend with Classon's Bridge

I checked in with the librarians at the Pembroke Branch of the library, who I must compliment on their running of a clean, comfortable, and well-organized neighborhood library branch. This event, like the last one was booked full, and the audience piled into the children's library, set up with chairs and a projection screen for the speaker, Ged Walsh.

The interest in local history here is amazing.  I can't imagine a weekday lunchtime talk in Iowa City titled something like...

The Planning and Building of University Heights... And Why They Can Charge so Much for Gameday Parking
Nope, couldn't see 60+ people cramming a library room for that talk. Here in Dublin, an hour long lecture about the history of something as specific as a square mile township draws a healthy audience.

Part of the reason this is fascinating to me, an American, is the sheer age of so many places here. I've noted several times before that North America wasn't colonized by Europeans and their concrete roads and stone buildings until a few hundred years ago. Dublin has had people building stone castles, manors, estates, and keeping records going back much farther than that. There is just so much more European recorded history to be shared, and sadly many Native American records and history were lost when those same Europeans came to the Americas.

 About Milltown

Milltown is a small neighborhood on the River Dodder south of Ranelagh and Rathmines.  If that doesn't mean anything to you...

Now that we've oriented ourselves, we can look at The Dropping Well. Mr. Walsh noted that The Dropping Well is a popular landmark, and many directions given begin with, "Take that until you get to The Dropping Well, go left across the bridge..." The audience all nodded, and it was one of the few times I could nod with them. I had been over that bridge and past The Dropping Well with my fishing pole many times. There would be many more occasions of the audience nodding in agreement or acknowledgement at the mention of a local historical figure or important location in town, and I as usually scratching my head. No fault of the presenter, I am just green on my Irish (specifically Dublin) history and geography.  I'm getting better, though!

The Dropping Well was first licenced in 1847 (the year after Iowa became a US state for those keeping score at home...) and passed through different ownerships. It was given the current name Dropping Well after a nearby underground well that used to flood every Winter and Spring into the nearby river. I wonder if Malarkey's in Storm Lake or Paul's Tap in Dubuque can boast as much history as that. Before the name Dropping Well stuck, it was known as Classon's Bridge House, named for nearby...

Classon's Bridge

Can a bridge really have a story?  A mundane, traffic-heavy bridge over a small stream with a past, a story, strategic importance? Turns out, it can. Classon's Bridge was originally built in the eighteenth century by a wealthy mill owner, John Classon. There is some speculation as to where the mill (from which nearby Milltown gets its name...) actually was. Some say right on or near the bridge itself, some posit that the mill might have been on a small Dodder tributary, the River Slang. Wherever his mill was, Classon himself was a prominent eighteenth-century businessman, and he contributed to the growth of Dublin to the southwest of the city.

The bridge was originally built of limestone, as limestone was the building material of most of old Dublin. A limestone quarry was just a little farther west of Milltown, and it possibly provided the stone for the bridge and other buildings in the area.

The bridge, being one of the older bridges over the Dodder, served a great strategic purpose in the Irish War of Independence in the early twentieth century. It was finally successfully detonated in 1921 after many failed attempts to bring down the sturdy stone foundation. It was repaired and widened in 1928, with the new (and current) bridge built on top of the remaining structures of the old bridge arches.  

Just south of The Dropping Well, Patrick Doyle Road pays homage to a famous Irish Republican fighter who lived in Milltown. At the mention of this name at the lecture, many heads nodded in the room, but I had never heard that name among the list of famous Irish patriotic heroes. Today, one can find a stone and plaque bearing his name on the road (which I had seen before) and a monument to him in nearby Milltown Church.

Milltown Golf Club and Opposing Families

Part of the inspiration for this lecture was the discovery of a document, a list of Milltown Golf Club's Roll of Honour from 1914. This document provided a list of names of club members who left Ireland to fight for England in World War I. Many prominent names from many big Dublin families appeared on the list, and many connections were made to important people in Dublin's history.

Mr. Walsh addressed an all-too-common issue in Ireland, and one of which I am endlessly interested- respectfully. When Ireland was splitting from England in the early twentieth century, a schism was formed in the country between loyalists to the English crown and Republicans demanding independence. After independence was achieved, the opinions of the people split again among the leaders of the newly independent Ireland, sparking the Irish Civil War. With these splits, we find many instances of family members fighting against each other on opposing sides of these conflicts. World War I throws in another layer of complexity, happening as it was right around the time of the Easter Rising in 1916. Many Irish soldiers fought for the English against the Kaiser, helping out the smaller countries on the Continent, but also helping out the hated English.

That's simplifying modern Irish history a great deal, but it was interesting to see the audience members all perk up at this discussion, many of whom presumably had parents and grandparents fighting on one side or the other of these conflicts. The American Revolutionary War and Civil War were both fought a long time ago, and with a long span between them. Imagine, Americans, if our Independence and Civil Wars were both fought less than a hundred years ago? How fresh would that be in our nation's consciousness?

The name drop that brought about the strongest audience reaction was another name I had never heard. I was startled by the audible audience response when the name William Martin Murphy was brought up as being connected to Milltown and the Golf Club. I made a note to look him up right away. I had heard of the 1913 Lockout, in which workers unions led a strike against the big business interests in Ireland. The lockout was led largely by James Larkin, of whom a large statue stands in City Centre. Murphy was the bad guy in the history of the lockout, leading the wealthy businessmen against Larkin and the unions. He was apparently dubbed William Murder Murphy by the trade unions for his anti-union stance... ouch.  

What Did We Learn

What an amazing experience to see a local historical expert speak about such a unique subject. I love learning the local stories, and all the better to learn them from people who are so intimately connected with the local history. Of course I didn't grow up around it, and clearly I have a lot to learn (William Martin Who?), but I can't wait to dive into more local history, with the help of the Library and the local historical societies.


  1. Most of the Irish that fought in WW2 did so out of necessity.. To feed their families.. Dublin City was awash with slums and abject poverty. The war was an opertunity for work and a wage. There are many reports of women booing while the declaration of independence was being read outside the GPO 1913. The women wanted to get in to post office to collect the wages of the men fighting in Europe.

    1. That's very interesting. I hadn't heard that before. My Ireland/Dublin history is getting better, and I still love learning more details like this.

      I hope I don't simplify things too much in blog entries, they are mostly aimed at a non-Irish (read: American) audience. We in the States learn very little about Irish history beyond The Potato Famine, and we only learn about that because of the huge impact it had on America.

      Thank you as always for your comment.


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