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Sir John Gray – The water bringer

On O'Connell Street

On O’Connell Street

Once described as a Renaissance Man and by being a doctor, surgeon, journalist, newspaper proprietor and politician the commentator was ‘spot on’. It is rare that a person should excel in so many different disciplines, but then John Gray was the exception to all the rules. He was born on 13th July 1815 in Claremorris, Mayo and entered Trinity College, Dublin where he studied medicine. In 1839 he graduated as a Master in Surgery from Glasgow University, returned to Dublin, married Mary Dwyer and worked in a hospital on North Cumberland Street.

Although from the Protestant ruling class Gray became the political editor of the nationalist newspaper The Freeman’s Journal and was co-owner from 1841. He used the newspaper to discuss important issues and, in 1843, backed Daniel O’Connell’s call for the Repeal of the Act of Union; both men were subsequently sentenced to prison. However, due to the impetuousness of the prosecutor who challenged Gray’s defence to a duel, neither he nor O’Connell went to gaol.

At Vartry Reservoir

At Vartry Reservoir

In 1850 he became sole proprietor of The Freeman’s Journal, reduced the price and considerably increased its readership. With his interest in local politics he was elected an alderman of Dublin Corporation in 1852. He put the issue of clean water for the city at the top of his agenda, and did everything to promote the Vartry Scheme. This was a massive project and necessitated building a series of water pumping and filtering stations from the Vartry River to Dublin. Due to chronic overcrowding and bad housing conditions in the city the introduction of clean water was vital in defeating the regular outbreaks of typhus and cholera that claimed so many young lives. On the day the project came into operation, 30th June 1863, Gray was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Reservoir and Tower

Reservoir and Tower

In 1865 he stood as a Liberal Party candidate in the general election and was elected as MP for Kilkenny City. During his time at Westminster he was a busy and successful campaigner for the reforms espoused in The Freeman’s Journal, such as the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland, improving the educational opportunities for Catholics and reform of the land laws. His fight for the provision in the new Landlord & Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870 of fixity of tenure gathered great support, and it was eventually conceded by Prime Minister Gladstone.

Vartry Reservoir

Vartry Reservoir

He died in Bath, Somerset on the 9th April, 1875 and his remains were returned to Ireland. As a man held in the highest esteem he was honoured with a public funeral and burial in Glasnevin Cemetery. And, shortly afterwards, a public subscription raised the necessary funds for a statue on O’Connell Street. It was unveiled in 1879 and is dedicated to the ‘appreciation of his many services to his country, and of the splendid supply of pure water which he secured for Dublin’.

Through the gate

Through the gate

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The Wide Street Commission – Reshaping Dublin

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 Custom House

The Custom House

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.

O'Connell Bridge

O’Connell Bridge

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.

O'Connell Street

O’Connell Street



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Dublin – Walking With Words 1

What is the world’s tallest sculpture?

Well you might be surprised to know that it is The Monument of Light (better known as The Spire) on O’Connell Street, Dublin. It’s just one little gem of information that I found when I was researching my e-book ‘Dublin – Walking With Words’ which will be available in May/June!

Walking With Words - front cover

Trinity College – front entrance

The guide covers Dublin, and in it you meet many of its most famous sons and daughters and hear what the city meant to them – in their own Words. It takes you on a stroll through its history where you meet James Joyce, WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Elizabeth Bowen, Phil Lynott, Molly Malone and many others. You will find out where they lived and worked, and how the city influenced them in their artistic endeavors. Whether it was in the Georgian heartland of Merrion Square, along the Grand Canal, Trinity College or some favourite watering-hole, all these places have a story to tell, and with photographs and maps they are brought to life.

The guide is divided into five sections, each one taking about fifty minutes to complete – depending, of course, on how long you may decide to linger in some friendly pub or restaurant and enjoy the atmosphere!

So, if you have a little time in Dublin and wish to ‘get to know the place’ better than some of the locals, then put on your comfortable shoes and ‘Walk the Walk’.  (Check out the video below for a preview of your ‘Walk‘. I am very thankful to Derek Gleeson for his kind permission to use his composition as a soundtrack.)

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Filed under Dublin, James Joyce