Kingstown was formally renamed Dún Laoghaire in 1920. Despite efforts to change it over the years, its main street is still somewhat stubbornly named after a British Monarch.
Let’s go right back to the street’s origins before we talk about these various renaming proposals. There is a very good reason why it runs in an almost perfectly straight line, all the way from the People’s Park to the junction of York Road, Mulgrave Street and Cumberland Street, where Lower George’s Street ends.
Incidentally, it is known as the lower part of the thoroughfare because this is the section of the street closest to the River Liffey, keeping with the convention of how Dublin’s various lower and upper streets were named.
In 1804, the British establishment were so concerned about the prospect of Napoleon Bonaparte invading Ireland that they built a network of defensive Martello towers along the coast of Dublin. Towers at Seapoint, Sandycove, Dalkey, Killiney and Bray are all still standing. Others, formerly situated at the People’s Park and the Crofton Road railway bridge, were demolished a long time ago.
There was a large military barracks at Cherrywood. An early road, or more accurately, a dirt track, connected the towers. In Dún Laoghaire, then officially known as Dunleary, that road connected the town’s two towers with Seapoint and beyond. George’s Street runs in an almost straight line because of this old road, only curving slightly before reaching York Road and Musgrave Street.
The other feature that makes it unique among Irish main streets is the presence of red brick over so many of its shopfronts. These date from around the turn of the 20th century in the early 1900s, when the ground landlords, who essentially owned most of Dún Laoghaire and Monkstown at the time, the De Vesci and Longford families (Longford Terrace, De Vesci Terrace, Gardens etc.), renewed the leases with local shopkeepers.
Edwardian red brick became both fashionable and affordable, so the installation of red brick facades over shops was written into new lease agreements. There are a few exceptions. Number 70, Lower George’s Street, where the Irish Cancer Society shop is currently based, was one. The building over Dunphy’s pub was also left as it was.
So what’s in a name? King George IV visited Ireland in 1821, arriving at Howth on his 59th birthday, where his footprints are still immortalised in cement, and departing via Dún Laoghaire harbour.
His 18-day visit was a huge deal because it was first peacetime visit by a British monarch to Ireland in history. King George wasn’t here to wage war, or fight like King Billy at the Battle of the Boyne, but his visit did impose the official name of Kingstown and the construction of an obelisk in his honour beside the harbour. Imagine the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2011, but with even more hype and hullabaloo.
William Makepiece Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, blasted this regal obelisk as “a hideous monument, stuck upon four fat balls, and surmounted with a crown on a cushion (the latter were no bad emblems perhaps of the monarch in whose honour they were raised), commemorates the sacred spot at which George IV quitted Ireland.”
Thackeray continues: “Before that day, so memorable for joy and sorrow, for rapture at receiving its monarch and tearful grief at losing him, when George IV came and left the maritime resort of the citizens of Dublin, it bore a less genteel name than that which it owns at present, and was called Dunleary. After that glorious event Dunleary disdained to he Dunleary any longer, and became Kingstown henceforward and forever.”
It certainly wasn’t going to be called Kingstown forever, but Thackeray couldn’t possibly have envisaged Irish independence. In 1970, Republicans tried to blow it up. It didn’t suffer the fate of Nelson’s Pillar in 1966, prompting the Irish Times to opine: “It is a harmless enough relic – indeed, in some ways, a pleasantly absurd one. Fifty years after independence perhaps we could afford to leave it alone”
George’s Street was laid out on a greenfield site when plans for the harbour were drawn up around 1816. Early maps indicate ‘The Three Churls’ to be located in this area. The Three Churls was a quarry, which was excavated to provide rock for the harbour.
If all the brouhaha about changing Dunleary to Kingstown and calling its main street George’s Street wasn’t enough, a number of other thoroughfares in Dún Laoghaire were named after the King’s brothers; Clarence, Sussex, Cumberland, and York, who were all Dukes. Additionally, Adelaide Street was named after the King’s sister-in-law.
In 1838 the local Town Commissioners split the thoroughfare into Upper and Lower George’s Street. Since then, there have been at least three unsuccessful attempts to change the name of the street.
In 1902, there was a proposal to change it to O’Growney Street in the memory of a priest who helped the poor of the locality. In 1921, a name change to Moran Street was proposed, after Patrick Moran was hung for allegedly killing a British soldier. Moran Park was named in his honour.
During the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising commemorations in 1966, it was suggested to rename it Casement Street after Roger Casement, the renowned humanitarian, activist, poet and 1916 leader, who was born at Doyle’s Cottage, Lawson Terrace, Sandycove, close to Fitzgerald’s pub.
However, yet again the proposal failed to gain sufficient traction or support. A statue of Casement will be unveiled on the seafront at Dún Laoghaire baths whenever its rejuvenation project is completed.
The centenary of the Rising came and went in 2016 without any discussion I’m aware of about renaming Georges Street. Maybe the moment has past.
Ronnie Drew, who passed away in 2008, also deserves to be commemorated in a meaningful way somewhere in the town. Although he was always associated with being a Dubliner, Drew used to say, “I was born and grew up in Dún Laoghaire, and no true Dubliner would accept that at all”.
This quip was appropriated by Planxty’s Andy Irvine in his song called O’Donoghue’s, an ode to the famous pub on Merrion Row where The Dubliners regularly performed in the 1960s.
“Ronnie Drew in his fine suit of blue,” Irvine sings. “And a voice like gravel that would cut you in two. We thought he was Dublin through and through. But he blew in from Dún Laoghaire.”
Exactly 200 years this September since he graced the town and harbour with his royal presence, the ghost of King George IV still haunts the Old Main Drag.