07 August 2018

Getting to know the origin
of the names of bridges in
Portobello and Rathmines

Portobello Bridge or Rathmines Bridge? … the official name is La Touche Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I always thought the bridge crossing the Grand Canal on the road from Rathmines leading onto South Richmond Street and into Dublin city centre was known as Portobello Bridge.

Sometimes, I might even have even called this Rathmines Bridge.

Portobello is also used as the name for the area north of the stretch of the Grand Canal between La Touche Bridge and Robert Emmet Bridge, which crosses the canal between Clanbrassil Street and Harold’s Cross – and in this case, I had always known this bridge as Harold’s Cross Bridge.

With its ruby red railings and lamp posts, the bridge at Portobello is attractive in the summer sunshine. As a young teenager living in Dublin, I often crossed the Grand Canal at this point, sometimes perilously using the canal lock agates a footbridge. More venturous and daring children swam in the Portobello Basin or dived into the canal lock.

As I was on my way into the city centre yesterday [6 August 2018] for Irish CND’s Hiroshima Day commemoration, I noticed a cartouche on the side of the bridge telling me that its name is La Touche Bridge.

The bridge at Portobello was built in 1791, and was named after William Digges La Touche (1746-1803), a member of a prominent Dublin banking family and a director of the Grand Canal Company.

Portobello means beautiful harbour, and I always thought the Grand Canal in Dublin and its bridges at Rialto and Portobello were romantic reminders of Venice. After all, the Portobello Market in London is right beside Little Venice, and the ‘Grand Tour’ may have been part of William La Touche’s education.

But Wikipedia entries claims that both Portobello Road in London and Dublin’s Portobello were named following the capture by Admiral Edward Vernon in 1739 of Puerto Bello or Portobelo on the Caribbean coast of Panama, during a war between Britain and Spain known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

Portobello began to develop as a small suburb in the 18th century, centred on Richmond Street. A hotel at the harbour opened in 1807, and during the following century the area was fully developed, transformed by the Portobello Gardens and solid, Victorian red-bricked homes and terraced houses, including the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw.

In a tragic accident in 1861, horse-drawn bus driven by Patrick Hardy plunged into the lock after one of the horses reared. The horses became uncontrollable, backing the bus through the wooden rails of the bridge. The horses and the six passengers drowned in the 20-ft deep cold waters of the lock, while the conductor jumped to safety and the driver was pulled out by a passing policeman.

One of the people on the bus was the father of the Gunne brothers who opened the Gaiety Theatre, the others included two mothers each with a little girl, one a niece of Daniel O’Connell.

The bridge was also the location of two events during the Easter Rising in 1916. A group from the Irish Citizen Army seized Davy’s Bar near the bridge, and it was here too that Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was arrested on 25 April 1916 on his way home to Rathmines before his murder.

The arrival of Jewish refugees in late 19th and early 20th centuries, fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, later gave the area the name ‘Little Jerusalem.’

As for William George Digges La Touche, he had an interesting and colourful life. He was the eldest son of James Digges La Touche and a grandson of David Digues La Touche (1671-1745), the founder of the Irish branch of the La Touche family, who fled from France to Amsterdam as Huguenot refugee after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and eventually moved to Dublin.

William George Digges La Touche was born in 1746, and after attending Saint Paul’s School in London, he moved in 1764 to Basra, then part of the Ottoman Empire and now part of Iraq. There he later became the British Resident or diplomatic representative.

When Zobier was captured by the Persians in 1775, La Touche ransomed the inhabitants at his own expense, and so saved them from slavery. During the siege of Basra in 1775, La Touche gave shelter to the principal citizens and their families in the English compound.

La Touche returned to London around 1784, and married Grace Puget, the daughter of a London banker. He then became a partner in the La Touche bank in Dublin, and his fortune increased he built a family mansion on Saint Stephen's Green, and bought Sans Souci in Booterstown as his country house south of Dublin. He died in Dublin on 7 November 1803.

The former hotel at the Portobello Basin beside La Touche Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hiroshima memorial reminded of nuclear dangers still facing the world

This six-column news report is published in ‘The Irish Times’ today [7 August 2018, p. 2]:

Hiroshima memorial reminded of nuclear dangers still facing the world

Elaine Edwards

It would be illegal for most US military flights to pass through Shannon airport under a new international nuclear weapons treaty which the Government is committed to ratifying, the president of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has said.

Rev Prof Patrick Comerford was speaking at a commemoration ceremony in Dublin to mark the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima during the second World War.

An estimated 80,000 people were directly killed by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, with casualties reaching 140,000 within a year. About 15,000 nuclear weapons remain in the world today, according to CND.

About 40 people attended the ceremony at Merrion Square Park, where a wreath was laid at a cherry tree planted by Irish CND in 1980 in memory of those who died as a result of the bombing.

In his address, Prof Comerford said we were living in “a fear-filled and an awesome time”.

Doomsday Clock

“According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this year, the Doomsday Clock now stands at two minutes to midnight,” he said.

Prof Comerford noted that last month marked the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in Moscow, London and Washington 50 years ago on July 1st, 1968.

That process had been launched 60 years ago in 1958 by Frank Aiken, then minister for external affairs, and it remains “one of the singular achievements of Irish diplomacy, of Irish foreign policy, of Irish engagement internationally.”

Prof Comerford said Ireland was today once again at the forefront, promoting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty.

The Old Ground Hotel
played a key role in
modern Irish tourism

The O’Connell Street frontage of the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, Co Clare, incorporates part of the old town hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

The Old Ground Hotel, probably the best-known hotel in Ennis Co Clare, sits on the corner of O’Connell Street and Station Road, across from the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The name is curious and always leads to questions from visitors. According to records, the original house at the Old Ground Hotel was first built in the 18th century as a private house by Barry Upton and John Dwyer.

Upton and Dwyer leased the house to Charles Mahon for ‘Three Lives.’ When Charles Mahon died in 1822, his son, Charles Mahon jnr, took over the lease. In 1863, Charles Mahon handed the property over to his nephew, John Mahon, who then lived in London. John Mahon left London and travelled back to Ireland. Riding on horseback from Limerick to Ennis, he arrived at the house to be greeted by an old retainer with the words ‘You are welcome to the Old Ground.’

Mahon then sold it to a John Petty in 1875. Dr William Hynes was living in the house by 1886. Jane McNamara acquired it around 1895, and she turned the house into an hotel.

The death of FW McNamara, owner of the Old Ground, is reported in the Limerick Chronicle in April 1915.

The Easter Rising passed off in 1916 without much note in Clare and was even condemned as being misguided by church leaders. But a year later, in 1917, the Old Ground played an interesting role in events at the beginning of the War of Independence.

Major Willie Redmond, MP for East Clare and son of John Redmond, was killed in action on the Western Front on 7 June 1917. He was leading the Royal Irish Brigade to victory at the Battle of Messines Ridge at Ypres, during World War I. A by-election was called to fill the vacant seat, and it was hotly contested by Eamon de Valera, the Sinn Fein candidate, and Patrick Lynch of the Irish Party.

At a meeting in the Clare Hotel, Sinn Fein discussed possible candidates and the majority presnt initially voted in favour of Peadar Clancy from Cranny, who had taken part in the Easter Rising and whose sentence of death had been commuted to 10 years penal servitude.

However, a convention was called in the Old Ground Hotel on 14 July 1917. Over 200 delegates present focused on the emerging candidate, Eamon de Valera, who had recently been released from prison. Peadar Clancy and three other candidates withdrew, leaving the way clear for de Valera.

The McNamaras still owned the Old Ground in 1920. They had been staunch nationalists and staunch Parnellites and later became supporters of Sinn Fein, which used the Old Ground as campaign headquarters from 1917 and as a meeting place for the IRA.

Much of the hotel’s contents were burned by the ‘Black and Tans’ during martial law in Ennis in June 1921. By then, Jane McNamara was 85, blind and in very poor health, see below.

After that, the place had a chequered history, the bank acquired it and in 1927 it was bought from by James O’Regan for about £2,000. He had been on a family holiday in Italy that year wanted to acquire the neighbouring garage to establish a Fiat agency. At the time the hotel was closed, but the only way to secure possession of the garage was to buy the Old Ground Hotel as well.

In December 1936, the pilot Charles Lindbergh stayed at the Old Ground Hotel while he was in Co Clare searching for locations to open a transatlantic gateway

Ten years later, with the advent of scheduled transatlantic flights into Shannon Airport, an extension was built onto the manor house in 1946. The lounge beside the old reception area, known as the Blue Lounge, was a communal room for Trans Atlantic Airlines. The cocktail bar was where the reception area is now and was used by Pan Am. Meals were served throughout the night.

The local historian Bill Bluett (1909-1993) made a short film, An Tostal, in the late 1940s, with footage of the very first American coach tour arriving at the Old Ground Hotel.

The O’Regan family sold the hotel to Kingston Windsor Hotels in 1967 and it was later acquired by Strand Hotels in 1970. It again changed ownership in 1977, when it was incorporated into the Forte Group. It was bought by Allen Flynn in 1995 and is now part of the Flynn Hotel Group.

Part of the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis also incorporates part of the former town gaol built around 1700 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Part of the Old Ground Hotel facing onto O’Connell Street is a five-bay, two-storey former town hall, built around 1850, and is now in use as the hotel banqueting hall.

The O’Regan family owned a large house in Bindon Street, and swapped it with the town commissioners in 1963 for the Town Hall. The upper floor of the Town Hall is now the Banquet Suite.

The part of the hotel that is now the now Town Hall Bistro once incorporated a jail. The former town gaol was built around 1700, probably incorporating fabric of an earlier building. It now has a vaulted ceiling and forms part of the hotel complex.

The jail was refurbished in the 1770s to provide separate cells and day rooms for male and female prisoners, and was used later to hold prisoners in transit, waiting to be deported to Australia and Tasmania.

It is not known when the jail ceased being used like this, but in the mid-19th century it was rented by the Grand Jury, the Victorian equivalent of the county council, at a rent of one shilling.

Ennis was the first town to adopt the 1855 Public Library (Ireland) Act, and the former jail was used as a library and as a court house and as a library once again. But when the library closed and moved to new premises, the Town Commissioners sold the building to the O’Regan family business.

The fireplace in the Lemenagh Hall, formerly the jail, was built for Lemenagh Castle, and Conor O’Brien in 1553. It was given to the Old Ground by Gerard McDonagh of Dromoland Castle in 1902, on the understanding that if Lemenagh Castle is ever restored the fireplace is to be returned.

The Lemenagh Hall is contained in what appears to be an authentic mediaeval Tower House. Most of the original stone from the tower is now blocked up by modern alterations, but some remaining large limestone blocks are still visible and form the wall on the main stairs to the function room.

The Old Ground Hotel in Ennis stands on a prominent corner opposite the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)