27 December 2023

Retracing my steps in
my childhood haunts
on Leinster Road and
in literary Rathmines

Rathmines Town Hall seen from Leinster Road … Leinster Road was laid out in 1835-1840, connecting Rathmines and Harold’s Cross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my walk around Rathmines, Harold’s Cross and Ranelagh during my all-too-short and far-too-brief pre-Christmas visit to Dublin last week, I walked the length of Leinster Road – from Rathmines to Harold’s Cross, and back again.

I knew Leinster Road intimately in my later childhood and teens, and my memory deceives me into believing that in the 1960s I knew every house on the road. Our family GP lived in a large house at the Rathmines end of the road, beside the library. Dr Tierney had returned to Ireland from America in the late 1940s or early 1950s, drove a large American car, and brashly named his house ‘The White House.’

Rathmines Library was my local library, two of my sisters and one brother went to school on this road for a time, I had childhood friends all along Leinster Road, and I remember how for some weeks in the early 1960s I was sent to a nun in Saint Louis’s Convent on Leinster Road for art classes on Saturday mornings.

In his last few years, my grandfather lived in Rathmines, my father lived in Rathmines until his early teens, and his brother Robert, our Uncle Bob, died in a car crash on Leinster Road 70 years ago in 1953 at the age of 43.

Victorian houses on Leinster Road … Rathmines became one of the most attractive areas in Dublin in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Rathmines had been a rural hinterland until the mid-19th century. Samuel Lewis, writing in 1837, noted that 12 years earlier ‘Rathmines was known only as an obscure village.’ Rathmines developed rapidly in the early 19th century as many middle class and wealthy families began to move out of the overcrowded city centre. The Rathmines Township was formed by an Act of Parliament in 1847, and as the area expanded it became the Rathmines and Rathgar Township.

In time, Rathmines become one of the most attractive areas in Dublin. When my grandparents were living there in the early 20th century, Rathmines was a strongly Unionist area. But it was also the home of many republicans, pacifists, suffragists and socialists.

The residents of Rathmines over the years have included the painter Walter Osborne; Hollywood director Rex Ingram; revolutionary Constance Markiewicz; politician and doctor Kathleen Lynn; the writers James Joyce and John Millington Synge; and the theatre director Lord Longford.

The landmarks of Rathmines include the Town Hall designed by Sir Thomas Drew, with its distinctive clock tower; the imposing Carnegie Library on the site of the former Leinster Lodge on the corner of Leinster Road, with its Pre-Raphaelite window by William Morris and teak double staircase; and the Catholic parish church with a copper dome built in Glasgow and supposedly destined for an Orthodox church in Russia before the Revolution in 1917 made it redundant.

Leinster Road was laid out around 1835-1840 to connect Rathmines and Harold’s Cross, over the former lands of Mowld’s Farm. Leinster Road was originally gated at the Rathmines or east end. The Harold’s Cross or western section followed the line of the Swan River, which was culverted at this time.

Dorset House (right) and Surrey House form a pair of houses at 49A and 49B Leinster Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Dorset House and Surrey House form a pair of houses at 49A and 49B Leinster Road, built around 1878. When they were advertised for sale in The Irish Times on 25 October and 1 and 4 November 1878, it was said they were ‘built by a well-known architect under his personal supervision’ – although the architect was not named.

This pair of semi-detached polychrome brick houses stand at the corner of the road leading into Grosvenor Square. They are tall, gabled, narrow villas, built of red brick, each with a strip of garden leading onto Leinster Road.

Countess Constance Markievicz and her husband Casimir moved into Surrey House on Leinster Road in October 1911. There she gathered around her a small but elite clique of republicans, labour activists, journalists and artists, and the house became a venue for regular revolutionary meetings. Some of this ‘Surrey Clique’ included Harry Walpole, Jack Shallow, Louis Marie, Ed ‘Eamon’ Murray, Andy Dunne and Patsy O’Connor.

On one occasion in 1914, when a rifle from the Howth gun-running was tested in the back garden, the incident attracted the attention of the well-to-do neighbours. Markievicz acquired a small hand-held printing press and posters and handbills were printed in the house.

It was also said Markievicz provided hospitality for young girls who had lost their jobs in the Jacobs factory during the Dublin Lockout in 1913. James Connolly stayed in Surrey House and recuperated after his imprisonment and hunger strike that year. Connolly and his family stayed at Surrey House for the next three years, and Connolly and Markievicz used Surrey House as a base and office for printing and editing The Workers’ Republic and The Spark.

Other visitors included John Devoy, Jim Larkin, Helena Moloney, Eamon Martin, Con Colbert, Jack White, Bulmer Hobson, Margaret Skinnider and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. Often the gas supply was cut off due to unpaid bills, and Markievicz struggled to feed her many visitors.

One account says the tricolour that flew over the GPO in 1916 was made in Surrey House by Theo Fitzgerald, although other accounts it stored there for the week before to the Rising. In the days immediately after the Easter Rising, the house was totally ransacked by the military, and the garden was dug up in the search for weapons.

Some accounts say Countess Markievicz never had a proper home again after the raids in 1916. However a witness statement claims Michael Collins warned her of an impending raid on Surrey House during the ‘Black and Tan War’. She probably continued to live at the house on Leinster Road during the War of Independence, although she was imprisoned for much of that time.

Surrey House (left) and Dorset House on Leinster Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

On the opposite side of the street, the suffragist Anna Maria and the social reformer Thomas Haslam had lived from 1858 at 125 Leinster Road, on the corner with Grosvenor Place.

She was born Anna Maria Fisher (1829-1922) into a Quaker family in Youghal, Co Cork, and in 1854 she married Thomas Haslam (1826-1917) from Mountmellick. They were founding members of the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association, which began as an educational society in 1876. They hosted public lectures, published pamphlets and petitioned MPs to introduce legislation to allow women great political power.

Anna was a member of the committee of Rathmines night school, and active in the St John’s Ambulance, the Rathmines Literary Society, the Friends’ Education Society, the Sanitary Society, the Fresh Air Society, the Irish Housewives’ Association, and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. They are commemorated by a seldom-noticed limestone bench in Saint Stephen’s Green.

On the facing corner of Grosvenor Place and Leinster Road, Grosvenor Park was the Dublin home of the Pakenham family and the Earls of Longford. This large house at 123 Leinster Road stood in its own grounds with an apple orchard. It was surrounded by tall mature trees and lengthy stone walls, and looked far more like a country house.

General Thomas Pakenham (1864-1915), 5th Earl of Longford, was born in Dublin and died at the Battle for Scimitar Hill, the last British offensive in Suvla in the Gallipoli campaign. Grosvenor Park and the family titles were inherited by his eldest son, Edward Arthur Henry Pakenham (1902-1961), 6th Earl of Longford, who had moved into the house on Leinster Road by 1927. He was an Anglo-Catholic, a member of the Irish Senate, friend of Eamon de Valera and a key literary figure in the mid-20th century. He gave his name to Longford Productions, the company that ran the Gate Theatre.

Lord and Lady Longford were well-known to their neighbours on Leinster Road, and were often seen shopping locally in Harold’s Cross. He was only 58 when he suffered a massive stroke and died in Portobello Nursing Home on 5 February 1961. He was buried in Mount Jerome.

The family title was inherited by his brother Frank Pakenham (1905-2001), 7th Earl of Longford, a Labour government minister and campaigner for prisoner rights, social reform, decriminalising homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty.

Another member of the Pakenham family was the journalist Valentine Lamb, a journalist with the Irish Field and a colleague in The Irish Times, who died in 1985.

Grosvenor Park was demolished in 1979, and several houses were built in the former grounds in 1980s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

By the 1960s, many of the grand townhouses in Rathmines were being divided into flats for students and young office workers and became ‘Flatland’. The widowed Countess of Longford, the writer Christine Longford, continued to live in Grosvenor Park until the late 1970s. She died at the age of 79 on 14 May 1980.

By then, the house at Grosvenor Park had fallen into decay, and I remember walking around the house as it was declining and falling into ruins. It was finally demolished at the end of 1979, and several houses were built within the former grounds from 1980 on.

Rathmines has long since shed its image as ‘Flatland’ and today it is a vibrant and cosmopolitan area and Rathmines was voted ‘Ireland’s best suburb to live in’ by The Irish Times in 2012.

The entrance to a former coachhouse at the Rathmines end of Leinster Road, a reminder of Victorian-era elegance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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