Although it was disbanded over 150 years ago the Wide Street Commission left a legacy that we see in the city to this day. It was created by an act of parliament in 1757, and over its 94 year existence, was responsible for the reshaping of the medieval city into what we recognise today.
The actual reshaping of the old city began in earnest during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685), when the Earl of Ormonde (Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time) had radical plans drawn up. Before this, houses backed onto the Liffey, that over time became little more than a collective sewer. He wanted all house frontages to face the newly built quays, with a street between them and the river. It was an inspired decision that changed the face and character of the city. New large houses and grand buildings, like the Custom House and Four Courts (both designed by James Gandon), enhanced the city’s image.
The commission’s main work was in reshaping central Dublin and it did this through careful planning with different developers given areas of responsibility. One of its first projects was to widen Essex Bridge (now Grattan Bridge) in 1755, so that it could better deal with the traffic of people, horse-drawn vehicles and cattle on their way to market. Parliament Street and the Royal Exchange (now Dublin City Hall) were built later.
Most notably, under the guidance of the then Chief Commissioner John Beresford, a number of narrow streets were demolished to allow for the creation of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), which at 160 ft is one of the widest streets in Europe. O’Connell Bridge (also designed by James Gandon) was erected between 1791-1794 connecting both Westmoreland Street and D’Olier Street. Westmoreland Street ran into College Green (as it faced Trinity College) and a newly widened Dame Street led past the Irish Houses of Parliament to Dublin Castle and Christchurch Cathedral beyond. This north-south axis became the dominant feature of the city, leading to better movement for people and carriages. And the new buildings and statues improved the architectural aesthetic. The work of the Commission, though short-lived, certainly left its mark.