As a child, my parents used to occasionally drive through the town of Kilbeggan. It’s a town I got to spend more time in when I became a student and started using a newfangled thing called public transport but I digress. Back in the day I didn’t know or care that the town had a racecourse or the remnants of an old distillery. No, what I used to look out for was a rather odd, corrugated, windowless, black building that stood on the far side of the river beside the old distillery. One that to a young child resembled nothing more than a giant jelly sweet. It was only years later when I bought a copy of the late Mary Mulvihill’s Ingenious Ireland book that I came to learn more about this mysterious building.
It turns out that this type of building was the brainchild of an Irish engineer called James Waller. During World War I, he watched soldiers camouflage their tents by daubing them with concrete. The memory of this stayed with him and when there was a shortage of steel in the 1940s and 1950s, he thought about how this old technique could be adapted to quickly and cheaply help people. He dubbed it the “Ctesiphon technique” (inspired by a 1, 600 year old archway in Iraq) and felt it could be used in developing countries and to help rebuild Europe’s bombed cities.
The way a building was constructed was this.
A skeleton of timber arches was erected
The arches were covered in a sheet of hessian
Two or three layers of mortar were applied to the mortar
The wooden arches were removed, leaving the mortar shell. It also left the “buildings” with an unusual corrugated shape.
The storehouse in Kilbeggan is the only structure in Ireland in good condition. It’s not open to the public but during the winter months, it can be clearly seen from across the river. Once summer comes, the trees in front of it do a good job of hiding it.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Its destruction is one of the more notorious episodes in the history of the Irish state. But first, let’s scroll back a bit.
Nelson’s Pillar was originally built in 1808-09 to commemorate Admiral Nelson. It was a granite column which stood almost 40m tall, including a 4m tall statue of Nelson on the top. Arguably, it was the presence of the good Admiral that led to the pillar’s demise. The pillar was a monument that divided opinion from when it was first built. On the one hand, it was a popular visitor attraction. For a small fee, visitors could climb the 166 steps to the top of the pillar and enjoy the views of the city centre. It also became a popular meeting place on the street. On the other hand, having Admiral Nelson on the top of the pillar didn’t go down well with everyone. Especially seeing as he was such a prominent icon of British imperialism, plonked right in the middle of the main street of Ireland’s capital city. The debate about this rumbled on, especially after Ireland gained independence. Occasionally there were debates about what, if anything, to do with the pillar. It was suggested that Nelson should be taken down from the pillar and replaced with someone or something more fitting. Executed 1916 patriots such as Pádraig Pearse and Jim Larkin were suggested, as was the Blessed Virgin Mary and John F. Kennedy. Nobody could quite agree on what to do with the pillar.
In the end, the decision was taken out of everyone’s hands. At 1:32 a.m. on 8th March 1966, the pillar was badly damaged by a bomb. The bomb was planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The explosion destroyed the top third of the pillar. It was decided that the damage to the pillar had made it unsafe. 6 days later, the rest of the pillar was blown up by the army and that was the end of that. The head from Nelson’s statue enjoyed an eventful afterlife. It was “liberated” from storage by a group of university students who proceeded to lease it out to the highest bidder. So the head spent some time in the window of an antique dealer’s shop in Soho, London. It made an appearance on stage at a live Dubliner’s concert and even featured in a commercial for ladies stockings. Sadly, its wandering days are over – it’s now to be found in the reading room of the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street
Many urban myths sprang up about the pillar and some have survived to this day.
Contrary to the rumours, it wasn’t the IRA who blew the pillar up. They had form when it came to blowing up imperial monuments in Dublin but they’d not blown any up for several decades. In fact, when Nelson’s Pillar was blown up, they distanced themselves from the bombing. It’s now believed that the late Liam Sutcliffe (he died in 2017) and two others who had broken away from the IRA did the deed.
Legend has it that when the army blew up the rest of the pillar, that the explosion shattered every window on O’Connell Street. In truth, this did not happen. There was what was described as a “dull thud” and some windows were broken. Mostly though, the street continued as normal.
What’s less well known is what happened to the rest of the pillar. It’s not so widely known that some of the remnants from the plinth have been sitting in the gardens of an old house turned hotel in Kilkenny since the late 1960s.
In 1969 Kilkenny Corporation (as it was known then) asked for some of the stones from the rubble be sent to Kilkenny. They weren’t of any particular value to anyone and were headed for landfill somewhere. There was a debate at the time as to where they should be left in the city. Originally it was thought that they could be placed on The Parade – the street that leads up to Kilkenny Castle. However, it still being a politically charged time, it was decided that this wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Instead, they were placed in the grounds of Butler House. At that time it was a house in private ownership and the owner, a Dr. Harry Roche, was happy to have them sit around his pond.
Rumour has it that the 16 blocks of granite spell out some sort of code but sadly this isn’t true. Still, if you look hard enough….
The National Botanic Gardens has been on my “to visit” list for a while. What finally pushed me into going to have a look wasn’t a sudden urge to look at ferns but an exhibition of photographs from outer space that was being held in the visitor’s centre at the gardens.
For the uninitiated – and I count myself amongst these – a botanic garden is “an establishment where plants are grown for scientific study and display to the public”. The Botanic Gardens in Dublin have been here since 1795, on a site 5km from the city centre.
Admittedly, a drizzly Thursday in early February isn’t the time of the year to see the gardens at their best. Still, it wasn’t a journey wasted. One of the most striking things about the grounds are the large 19th-century glasshouses. These are known as the Great Palm House and the Curvilinear Range. The latter is actually a series of connected glasshouses. They were designed by an Irish ironmonger called Richard Turner who was something of an innovator when it came to working with wrought iron. The glasshouses in Dublin aren’t the only examples of his work – he also worked on glasshouses in Belfast and in Kew Gardens/Regent Park in London. Even to modern eyes, the glasshouses are impressive. They’re large, they’re high, they’re warm and it’s obvious that they provide an environment in which plants thrive. What isn’t there to like? 🙂
The glasshouses fell into disrepair over the years due to a number of issues. Wrought iron, it turns out, isn’t the most forgiving of materials for glasshouses. The iron corroded and at its worst, there were sheets of glass falling and breaking on a regular basis. Both the Great Palm House and the Curvilinear Range underwent painstaking, extensive renovation during the early part of this century. Indeed, the restoration of the Curvilinear Range won the Europa Nostra award for excellence in conservation architecture.
Unfortunately, time and the weather stopped me from investigating the grounds much further. There was enough there to make me want to hop on the bus and take another trip out to Glasnevin when summer comes along. Admission is free and there is a visitor centre with information leaflets/helpful staff. What’s also worth investigating are the audio tours which are available from the Botanic Garden’s own website or as smartphone apps. I found them to be entertaining company as I made my way around the grounds.
The Google Streetview People made a trip to the gardens on a nicer day – that can be seen here
The Images of Starlight Exhibition was an interesting insight into what amateur astronomers can see with modern day equipment. Each photograph gave details of what equipment and software was used to produce the end result. In some ways, seeing what people did to get their final photos was as enlightening as the subject matters themselves.
RTÉ News had a short feature on the exhibition and interviewed some of the people involved.
The Poolbeg Lighthouse is a familiar site to anyone who has ever come in or out of Dublin on a ferry. Indeed, that’s how I first caught sight of the Poolbeg Lighthouse and the Great South Wall in the early 1990s. By that stage I had been travelling for 7 hours so I was more interested in getting off that boat than paying any particular attention to the long seawall and the dinky little red lighthouse at its end. Which is a pity really.
The wall and lighthouse are located at the mouth of the River Liffey which flows into Dublin Bay. There had always been a problem with the area silting up with sand, causing problems for ships and boats which needed to travel into Dublin. Initially, in 1715-1716, thick wooden piles bound together with wattle were driven into the seabed. These became known as The Piles. Full marks for originality there. The Piles proved to be rather useless at keeping the sand at bay so it was decided that something more substantial would be needed. In the mid-1740s, work began on a sea wall, built parallel to The Piles. The wall was built from granite blocks which were cleverly interlocked, without the need for any bonding material. The wall was finally finished in 1795.
It was hoped that this new, improved wall would both stop the encroachment of the sand into the bay and deepen the river channel. Neither happened so in 1800 a survey of Dublin Bay was carried out by Captain William Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame. His recommendations had a better outcome than his misadventures on that fateful trip. On his advice, a second sea wall (now known as the North Bull Wall) was built on the other side of the bay. Its construction led to a naturally occurring scouring action which took away the sand and deepened the river channel.
The Poolbeg Lighthouse itself began life as a lightship, before being replaced by a tower in 1768. At first, its light was candle powered – it’s believed that it was the first lighthouse in the world to do so. It was converted to oil 18 years later. It was reconstructed in the 19th century and that is the tower which remains there to this day. The Ordnance Survey originally used the low water mark on the lighthouse (Springtide of 8th April 1837) as the standard height for its mapping. These days, the Malin Head datum is used.
Depending on the weather, the walk out to the lighthouse makes for a pleasant/bracing/vaguely suicidal trip. The route to the wall takes in views of Dublin’s docklands, the iconic chimneys from the former Poolbeg electricity generating station and the Shellybanks nature reserve. Also, if the wind’s blowing the wrong way, you can enjoy the savoury aroma of the nearby water treatment plant 😀 Also visible on the walk are the two other lighthouses which work in tandem with the Poolbeg Lighthouse. The Poolbeg lighthouse is painted red to indicate to ships that it’s Port side. The North Bull Lighthouse which is on the opposite side is painted Green to indicate Starboard. To the north, Howth peninsula is clearly visible while to the south, Killiney Head and Dun Laoghaire are visible.
Depending on how fast you walk, you can get out to the lighthouse and back in an hour to eighty minutes. It’s not a walk to undertake when it’s getting dark. The wall isn’t lit up and the surrounding area doesn’t look like it’d be the nicest place to be at night. During daylight hours it’s perfectly fine – it’s a popular walk for Dubliners.
The wall has featured in two music videos that I know of. It can be seen at the end of Phil Lynott’s Old Town and features heavily in The Script’s Breakeven. The less said about the latter, the better 😀