12 June 2023

Rathmines Town Hall
and the clock tower
known to everyone as
the ‘four-faced liar’

The clock tower of Rathmines Town Hall is a prominent landmark, dominating the skyline (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Three buildings dominate the streetscape and the skyline of Rathmines, where we were staying last week: the Catholic parish church with its great green copper dome, which I was writing about on Saturday; Rathmines Library, which opened 110 years ago, and which I wrote about yesterday afternoon; and the former Town Hall, which is a prominent landmark with its very tall clock tower.

Rathmines is a vibrant south Dublin suburb today. Séamas Ó Máitiú, in his recent study of Rathmines in a series being produced by the Irish Historic Towns Atlas project in the Royal Irish Academy, traces how Rathmines first emerged as village. As Rathmines developed over the centuries, its centre shifted north, from a core centred on the original Rathmines Castle on the site of Palmerston Park to the area along Rathmines Road, including the Town Hall and the Library.

In the 19th century, some of the areas around Dublin city were ‘townships’. They were like small towns in themselves, each with their own town hall and town commissioners, with responsibility for lighting, water supply, sewage and drainage and building roads and houses.

Rathmines became one of these townships in 1847 when the Rathmines Township was created by Act of Parliament on 22 July 1847. Rathgar and Sallymount, or present-day Ranelagh, were added to the renamed Rathmines and Rathgar Township in 1862. The Township was further extended in 1866 to include areas in Uppercross, and Milltown was added in 1880.

Originally the township was governed by Commissioners, who felt they needed a place to meet and conduct business. Their first house was at 71 Rathmines Road, which became the first town hall.

Initially, the council was made up of local businessmen and other eminent figures. The original township began as a sanitary area, concerned with fresh water supplies, drains and sewerage systems. But new functions were added with subsequent Acts, including responsibility for public lighting and other shared public facilities which was provided jointly with the Pembroke Township.

The Rathmines commissioners asked one of the best-known architects of the day, Sir Thomas Drew (1838-1910), to design a new town hall. Work on building a new Town Hall began in 1895 on the site of the previous town hall.

Sir Thomas Drew was born in Belfast, a son of the Revd Canon Dr Thomas Drew, ‘a militant Orange’ clergyman who was Rector of Christ Church, Durham Street, Belfast, and later of Loughinisland, Co Down, and Precentor of Down Cathedral.

The younger Thomas Drew was articled in 1854 to Charles Lanyon, who later went into partnership with William Henry Lynn. Drew was Lanyon’s superintendent and clerk of works in 1858-1861. In 1861, he formed a brief partnership with Thomas Turner in Belfast, but the following year he moved to Dublin, where he became principal assistant to William George Murray.

Drew became the diocesan architect of Down, Connor and Dromore in 1865, but remained Murray’s chief assistant until 1867. Later he practised on his own, although in 1870 he worked closely with William Fogerty before the Limerick-born architect moved to the US.

Drew’s pupils and assistants included WDE Butler, John Frederick Fogerty, Daniel J Freeman, Joseph Aloysius Geoghegan, Frederick Hicks (who designed Rathmines Library), William Sampson Jervois, Charles Hoffe Mitchell, John Mansfield Mitchell, Francis Nolan, Lucius O’Callaghan, Richard Caulfeild Orpen, John Charles Wilmot and probably Harold Edgar Coyle.

Drew reached the peak of his career with his design for Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. He was also the consulting architect for Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, after its restoration by George Edmund Street, and for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Saint Patrick’s (Church of Ireland) Cathedral, Armagh, and Saint Columb’s Cathedral, Derry. He was also responsible for the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, which I am looking at in my prayer diary later this week, and he advised on the restoration of the nave pillars in Truro Cathedral.

Drew was president of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI, 1892-1901), the Architectural Association of Ireland (AAI, 1875-1876), the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI, 1894-1897) and the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA, 1900-1910), the only person to ever hold all four positions.

He was a one-time editor of the Irish Builder, gave frequent papers on architectural and antiquarian topics, and for many years delivered a lecture on the history and fabric of Christ Church Cathedral at Strongbow’s tomb every Saint Stephen’s Day. He was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Hibernian Academy (1884-1910), and in 1894 he became professor and lecturer in architecture at the Metropolitan School of Art.

Drew was knighted in Queen Victoria’s birthday honours in 1900. He received an honorary degree of LL.D. from Trinity College Dublin in 1905. Two months before his death, he was invited to become the first Professor of Architecture in the National University of Ireland.

He died on 13 March 1910 and was buried in Dean’s Grange cemetery. He married Adelaide Anne, sister of William George Murray, in 1871; she died on 9 January 1913. His offices were at 64 Upper Sackville Street (1862), 68 Lower Gardiner Street (1863), 60 Sackville Street Upper (1867-1872), Brunswick Chambers, 6 Saint Stephen’s Green (1873-1888) and 22 Clare Street (1889-1910). He lived at 1 Martello Avenue, Dun Laoghaire (1873-1877), and Gortnadrew, 5 Alma Road, Monkstown (1879-1910).

The clock tower on Rathmines Town Hall has been known to generations of local people as the ‘four-faced liar’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Drew’s town hall in Rathmines is a fine building of red sandstone and brick with a bay window on the first floor. The builder was John Good, the clerk of works was P Coyle, and the total expenditure was about £18,000.

The best-known feature of the Town Hall is the high clock tower, which can be seen from afar. The clock was made by a local firm, Chancellor and Son, who secured the commission when they claimed they could beat any English and Scottish company.

The clock has four faces, one for each side of the tower. Before the clock could be run with electricity, the four sides would often show different times so the clock was called ‘four-faced liar.’ Its chime is as familiar to Dubliners as Big Ben is to Londoners.

The Rathmines and Rathgar Urban District Council (UDC) was established under the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. After that, the council built a number of small housing schemes under legislation for working class housing.

The Urban District Council met for the first time in Drew’s magnificent Town Hall in January 1899. The franchise was extended later that year and in time the council membership would become more diverse.

The town commissioners met in the boardroom in the town hall. The town hall also had a gymnasium, a kitchen, a supper room, that could be hired, and an assembly hall for meetings that could fit 2,000 people, and with a stage and a room for an orchestra.

Apart from council meetings, the Town Hall was also a centre for social life in Rathmines, with concerts, dances and other events. The first public event was a performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1897, and in 1899 Guglielmo Marconi gave a demonstration of his new wireless.

Percy French, who wrote many well-known songs and who had his own theatrical company, gave many performances in the town hall and one of the first moving films made by Edison was shown there in 1902. The Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society also performed there. It was founded in 1913 and its first performance was The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Dublin The town hall faces the junction of Leinster Road and Lower Rathmines Road, where Rathmines Library opened on 24 October 1913. It was designed by Frederick Hicks to fit in with the style of the Town Hall and was also intended to be an ‘ornament to the township’.

Dublin Rathmines was a parliamentary county constituency at Westminster from 1918 to 1922. It returned a Unionist candidate, Maurice Dockrell, as its MP in 1918. Dockrell was elected with an overall majority, and was the only Unionist elected in a geographical constituency outside Ulster.

Under the Local Government (Dublin) Act 1930, the district of Rathmines and Rathgar became part of the City of Dublin, under the administration of Dublin Corporation. The UDC held its last meeting in the Town Hall in 1930 and today the building is the Rathmines College of Further Education.

The former Town Hall with its clock tower remains one of the most prominent landmarks in Rathmines, alongside Rathmines Library and Rathmines Church with its large copper dome. The town hall is now the premises of Rathmines College.

The former Town Hall with its clock tower remains one of the most prominent landmarks in Rathmines (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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