The photograph above was taken in autumn 1913 by John Cooke, then Hon. Treasurer of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, for presentation to the Dublin Housing Inquiry in November of that year. Showing Chancery Lane, off Bride Street, it is one of a number of Cooke’s images on exhibition until April 2nd in the Little Museum of Dublin, 15 St Stephen’s Green.
I imagine that for most people the photographs are of interest because they serve as a record of the dreadful conditions in which far too many Dubliners then lived: at the time the city enjoyed a dubious reputation for having the worst tenement slums in Europe. To me, however, the pictures also provide a poignant record of Dublin’s architectural losses: not a building featured in the photograph of Chancery Lane remains. Look at the handsome projecting lamp towards the end of the street, and the wonderful cut-stone doorway just beyond. Gone, all gone.
During the second half of the last century accommodation in large parts of the city centre was rightly improved, but was it absolutely necessary that this should have been at the expense of so much old housing stock? No structure, however dilapidated, is ever beyond repair provided sufficient will to restore it exists. I have always thought it was more because of what they symbolised rather than owing to their poor condition that so many buildings were torn down – and even today some continue to be at risk for the same reason.
We must learn to understand our architecture, not for what we believe it represents – whether that be British colonial rule or an expression of our yearning to be ‘modern’ – but for its inherent merits. These lost buildings, even in the shocking state seen here, could have been salvaged and preserved for future generations to appreciate. So too might have been the terrace seen towards the back of the photograph below. Another image by Cooke, it shows the rear of Summerhill, part of the Gardiner estate begun c.1733 but largely developed in the 1780s. I remember those immense brick houses, each with a splendid bow from which the original occupants were offered unimpeded views of Dublin Bay. Now none remain: after lasting for 200 years they were swept away in their entirety around 1980. No matter how much better housed, we are the poorer for their loss.
Photographs reproduced by permission of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.