Essential Architecture-  Ireland

O'Connell Street




Ireland > County Cork > Dublin O'Connell Street




Outdoor space
  left-Daniel O'Connell, 19th century nationalist leader, whose statue by John Henry Foley, stands on the street named after him.
right-The recently restored Sicilian marble statue of Sir John Grey, designed by Thomas Farrell and erected in 1879.
  Images of 1916 Dublin city center & O'Connell Street bridge.
O'Connell Street

O'Connell Street (Sráid Uí Chonaill in Irish) is Dublin's main thoroughfare. One of Europe's widest streets, it measures 49m (160ft) in width at its southern end, 46m (150ft) at the north, and is 500m (1650ft) in length. Known as 'Sackville Street' until 1924, Dublin Corporation renamed it in honour of Daniel O'Connell, a nationalist leader of the early nineteenth century whose statue stands at the lower end of the street, facing O'Connell Bridge.

Located in the heart of Dublin city, O'Connell Street forms part of a grand thoroughfare (created in the 18th century) that runs through the centre of the capital, made up of Carlisle Bridge (now O'Connell Bridge), Westmoreland Street, College Green and Dame Street, terminating at City Hall and Dublin Castle. Situated just north of the River Liffey, the street has a fine axial positioning, running close to a north-south orientation. The sun rising to the east and setting in the west illuminates the alternate sides of the street over the course of the day, while for the most part it is lit directly from the south. This helps in making the thoroughfare two or three degrees warmer than windswept O'Connell Bridge or the city quays.

O'Connell Street has often been centre-stage in Irish history, forming the backdrop to one of the 1913 Dublin Lockout gatherings, the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish Civil War of 1922, the destruction of the Nelson Pillar in 1966, and many public celebrations, protests and demonstrations through the years - a role it continues to play to this day.

The street's layout is simple but elegant. Not dissimilar to Paris's Champs-Élysées, though more intimate in scale, it is comprised of a wide pavement each side of the street serving the retail outlets that line its length, and a pair of two-lane (formerly three) roadways running parallel to these. A paved median space runs down the centre of the street, featuring monuments and statues to various Irish political leaders. The famous large London Plane trees that lined the median for the second half of the 20th century were cut down in 2003 amidst some controversy, with the oldest of these at the northern end planted c.1903 being cut down in 2005 - all as part of an extensive regeneration scheme recently completed by Dublin City Council.

The centre of the street is dominated by the imposing presence of the 1818 General Post Office (GPO) with its hexastyle Ionic portico projecting over the west pavement, and the 120m (393ft) Spire of Dublin, a needle-like self supporting sculpture of rolled stainless steel erected in 2003. Both structures are addressed by a large civic plaza space, traversed by the street's two roadways.


Upper O'Connell Street and its tree-lined median in 1964 as viewed from Nelson's Pillar. The original 'Gardiner's Mall', this northern part of the street was planted with London plane trees c.1903 and further added to mid-century. All were cut down amidst some controversy as part of recent improvement works to the street.O'Connell Street has its origins in a street named Drogheda Street dating from the 17th century. Laid out by Henry Moore, Earl of Drogheda, it was a third of the width of the present day O'Connell Street and extended from the very top of the northern end down to the current junction with Abbey Street. In the 1740s, a wealthy banker and property speculator by the name of Luke Gardiner acquired the upper part of Drogheda Street (extending down to Henry Street) as part of a much larger land deal. He demolished the western side of Drogheda Street creating an exclusive elongated residential square 46m (150 feet) in width. The new, more ordered western side generally featured smaller houses intended for merchants, while the eastern side had larger houses, the grandest of which was Drogheda House rented by the sixth Earl of Drogheda. Gardiner also laid out a mall down the central section of the street, lined with low granite walls and obelisks topped off with oil-fuelled globe-lamps. It was planted with trees a few years later. He titled the new development 'Sackville Street', also known as 'Sackville Mall', 'Gardiner's Mall' or simply 'The Mall'. Unfortunately, due to the limited lands owned by the Gardiners in this area, the Rotunda Hospital sited just off the street at the bottom of Parnell Square - also developed by the family - was not built on axis Sackville Street, terminating the vista. It was always Gardiner's intention to eventually break this grand new street through to the river, however he died in 1755, with his son taking over the estate.

It wasn't until 1777 that the planning body in the city the Wide Streets Commission obtained a financial grant from Parliament and work could begin to realise this plan. For the next 10 years work progressed in demolishing a myriad of dwellings and other buildings, laying out the new roadway and building new terraces. Upon completion circa 1785-90 one of the finest streets in Europe had been created. The Wide Streets Commission had envisaged and realised marching terraces of unified and porportioned facades extending from the river as far north as Princes Street, their simple red brick elevations off-set with a major classical cut stone building near the centre (later to be the GPO built in 1814-18). The street became a commercial success upon the completion of Carlisle Bridge, designed by James Gandon, in 1792 for pedestrians and 1795 for all traffic.

 19th century
Sackville Street prospered in the 1800s, though an invisible boundary seems to have been maintained for some time between the Upper and Lower street. As planned, Lower Sackville Street became highly successful as a commercial location, its terraces ambitiously lined with purpose-designed retail units, one of the first schemes of its kind in Europe. By contrast the northern end proved not to be as successful initially; being exposed to the commercial activity of the lower street it lost its fashionability as a quiet enclave of grand townhouses, whilst also being too far away from the commercial core of the city to stand as a strong retail location. As a result a difference between the two ends of the street developed: the planned lower end successful and bustling next to the river, and the upper end featuring a mixture of less prominent businesses and old townhouses, some converted for commercial use and growing somewhat decrepit.

As the 19th century progressed, a great many changes took place on Sackville Street resulting in the gradual erosion of the unified classical street created by the WSC and its replacement with an ostentatious high-Victorian boulevard, comprised of elaborate individually designed buildings. One of the world's first purpose-built department stores was such a building: Delany's New Mart 'Monster Store' built in time for the Dublin Exhibition of 1853 and later to be purchased by the Clery family in the 1880s. It also housed the Imperial Hotel. Across the road another elaborate hotel was built next to the GPO: the Hotel Metropole, in a high-French style. Similarly the Gresham Hotel opened in 1817 to the north of the street in adjoining Georgian townhouses and was later remodelled as it became more successful.

As the fortunes of Upper Sackville Street began to improve in the second half of the century, other businesses began to open such as a Turkish Baths, later to be incorporated into the Hammam Hotel. Standard Life Assurance built their flagship Dublin branch in a striking classical style close to the GPO, while the Findlater family opened a branch of their successful chain close to Parnell Street, as did Gilbeys Wine Merchants. A distinctive turreted office building by the firm of T.N. Deane was also built on the corner with Cathedral Street in 1866. By 1900 Sackville Street became as venerable a shopping and business location as the institutions that lined it, a highly successful city centre thoroughfare that earned the title of 'Ireland's Main Street'.

 Impact of events of 1916 and 1922
The Easter Rising in 1916, when a band of Irish republicans seized the General Post Office (GPO) and proclaimed the Irish Republic, led to the street's bombardment for a number of days by the Helga gunboat of the Royal Navy and several other artillery pieces which were brought up to fire on the north of O'Connell street. The street also saw sustained small arms and sniper fire from surrounding areas. By the end of the week, the rebels had been forced to abandon the GPO, which was burning, and held out in Moore street until they surrendered. Much of the street was reduced to rubble, the damaged areas including the whole eastern side of the street as far north as Cathedral Street, and the terrace in between the GPO and Abbey Street on the western side. In addition, during the chaos that accompanied the rebellion, many of the shops on O'Connell street were looted by the inhabitants of the nearby slums.

The events had a disastrous impact on the commercial life of the inner city, with many businesses forced to close for up to six years for rebuilding, or some never even reopening. Vast tracts of Henry Street, North Earl Street, Eden Quay and parts of Abbey Street were also devastated, resulting in a loss of rates for Dublin Corporation and a rise in unemployment in the city.

In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, the 'The Dublin Reconstruction (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1916' was drafted with the aim of controlling the nature of reconstruction on the thoroughfare. An expert group was also established in October 1916 which included the City Architect CJ McCarthy. Making use of the new Act, the group set out to rebuild in a coherent and dignified fashion, using the opportunity to modernise the nature of commercial activity on the street.

The imposing buildings of Lower O'Connell Street, built in a restrained neoclassical style between 1918 and 1923. They make use of Irish granite and limestone, red brick and Portland stone, with copper as a roofing material.Plans were drawn up for unified terraces or 'blocks' of buildings, lined with retail outlets at street level and housing modern office accommodation in the upper floors. While the unified facades were never realised, and some developments didn't quite match the rest of the reconstruction efforts on the street leading to criticisms of an opportunity lost, Lower O'Connell Street was nonetheless rebuilt in a coherent fashion, its buildings maintaining a standard cornice line and making use of similar materials of limestone, red brick with granite dressings, and Portland stone. The imposing architectural idiom of 'commercial classicism' generates a strong sense of civic importance and grandeur, especially the first set of buildings on the street with their neoclassical features, and grand cupolas and copper domes piercing the skyline.

With the exception of its Sackville Street facade and portico, the vast structure of the General Post Office was completely destroyed - a decade-long refurbishment project only having been completed a few weeks previous to its destruction. In the aftermath of the events, consideration was given to knocking the surviving facade, as were various plans proposed for the site such as a new Catholic cathedral for the city; in the end a new GPO was built behind the 1818 facade. Works got underway in 1924, eight years after the Rising, with the Henry Street side the first to be erected with new retail units at street level, a public shopping arcade linking through to Princes Street, and new offices on the upper floors. The Public Office underneath the portico on O'Connell Street reopened in 1929.

O'Connell Street was again the scene of a pitched battle in July 1922, on the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, when anti-treaty fighters under Oscar Traynor occupied the street after Free State troops attacked the republican garrison in the nearby Four Courts. Fighting lasted from the 28th of June until the 5th of July, when the Free State troops brought artillery up to point blank range, under the cover of armoured cars, to bombard the republican held buildings. Among the casualties was Cathal Brugha. Luckily none of the post-1916 reconstructed buildings were badly damaged, if at all, during the Civil War. The effects of the week's fighting were largely confined to the northern end of the street, with the entire terrace north of Cathedral Street to Parnell Square being destroyed, as well as a few buildings on the northwestern side (image left). As a result, only one Georgian townhouse remains on the street today, though there are still some other Georgian buildings extant on the corner with Henry Street, as well as some masked behind Victorian facades on the lower end of the street.

As a consequence of the extensive destruction and rebuilding, most of the buildings on O'Connell Street date from the 1910s and 1920s. Apart from the GPO, the famous buildings include the Gresham Hotel (reopened 1927), Eason & Son booksellers, the Royal Dublin Hotel (opened 1963) and Clerys department store (reopened 1922).

 Modern O'Connell Street
Despite the progress made in improving the street's architectural coherence post-1916 and 1922, poor planning controls in the 1970s and 1980s had a severely negative impact on the street. Like so much of Dublin of that time, property speculators and developers were permitted to construct inappropriate buildings on the thoroughfare, in spite of its Conservation Area status. Fine Victorian and 1920s buildings were demolished in the 1970s including the elaborate Gilbey's premises at the northern end, the Metropole and Capitol cinemas next to the GPO, and even the last surviving Wide Streets Commission buildings on the street dating from the 1780s located on the present day site of a well-known shoe shop at the southern end of the street. Coupled with a neglect of the public domain by the authorities, the emergence of many fast-food joints, gaming arcades, cheap stores and convenience shops, and poor planning controls that enabled plastic signage, PVC windows and inappropriate alterations to buildings to flourish, O'Connell Street became a shadow of its former self as one of the grand thoroughfares of Europe.

Night time view showing the illuminated tip of the Spire. Erected in 2003 at a cost of €4.4 million, the sculpture rises to 120 metres.However, after four decades of neglect, the street has undergone a form of renaissance of late as part of Dublin City Council's O'Connell Street Integrated Area Plan (IAP) which was unveiled in 1998 with the aim of restoring the street to its former glory. The first plan of its kind to be used in Ireland, the IAP sought to go beyond the typical cosmetic changes undertaken by local authorities in addressing rundown areas by seeking to intervene and exert control in as many aspects of the street as possible, ranging from pedestrian flow and interaction, the uses of retail outlets and buildings' upper floors, the protection of architectural heritage and the broader historic character of O'Connell Street, the regulation of signage and decorative state of private property, as well as radical improvement works to the public domain. Work to realise the plan was delayed by approximately four years, and finally started in 2002.

The main features of the plan included:

The widening of footpaths to double their previous width on each side of the street and a reduction in roadspace to two traffic lanes either side of a slightly narrower central median.
The removal of all London plane trees and the installation of over 200 replacements of varying species.
The creation of a central plaza area in front of the GPO to address the street's principal building and provide a space for public gatherings and national celebrations.
New street furnishings including custom-designed lampposts, litter bins and retail kiosks.
The Spire of Dublin project, the world's tallest sculpture, which was erected in January 2003, occupying the site of the former Nelson's Pillar.
The restoration of the street's monuments, including those of late nineteenth century Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell, radical early twentieth century labour leader Jim Larkin, prominent businessman and nationalist MP Sir John Grey, and the most challenging of all: the conservation of the O'Connell Monument standing guard at the southern entrance to the thoroughfare. This project was worked on for a number of months by an expert team of bronze and stone conservators in the first half of 2005.
All public domain works were completed in June 2006, finalising the principal objective of the IAP at a cost of €40 million. Work was disrupted by a riot centred on the street which erupted on March 25 2006. A protest against a planned Ulster Unionist march degenerated into vandalism and looting, with building materials from the works in progress being used as weapons and for smashing windows and fixtures.

In efforts to protect O'Connell Street from the planning mistakes of the past, the thoroughfare has been designated an Architectural Conservation Area and an Area of Special Planning Control - both of which safeguards strictly govern all aspects of planning and development on the street. In most cases not even comparatively minor alterations can be made to any structure, or any building's use change (such as to fast-food etc) without the planning permission of Dublin City Council. The majority of the buildings on the street are now also Protected Structures.

As a testament to the restoration work recently done on the street, Brown Thomas now plans to open a 120,000 square foot store on the street in 2007.

 Statues of O'Connell Street

Dubliners, who are famous for giving blunt nicknames to monuments, used to nickname the street 'the street of the Three Adulterers' because of the allegations of adultery made against the three principal figures on the street commemorated by statues; Parnell, Nelson and O'Connell. It was also noted humorously that the statue of Charles Stewart Parnell, on which appears his famous words "No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. To say to his country 'thus far shall thou go and no further" are quoted, points to the Rotunda Hospital nearby, once Dublin's main maternity hospital, as though he was encouraging the Irish nation to outbreed its enemies.

The statues on O'Connell Street from south to north are:

O'Connell Monument: designed and sculpted by John Henry Foley and completed by his assistant Thomas Brock, the foundation stone was laid in 1864 and unveiled in 1882.
William Smith O'Brien: by Thomas Farrell. Originally erected in 1870 on an island at the O'Connell Bridge entrance to D'Olier Street, it was moved to O'Connell Street in 1929.
Sir John Grey: by Thomas Farrell, and unveiled in 1879.
Jim Larkin: by Oisín Kelly, and unveiled in 1980.
Father Theobald Mathew: by Mary Redmond, the foundation stone was laid in 1890 and unveiled in 1893.
Parnell Monument: designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and unveiled in 1911.

Nelson's Pillar
: Dublin's most prominent monument, until it was blown up by Irish republicans in 1966.The Nelson Pillar, a 36.8m (121ft) granite Doric column erected in 1808 in honour of Admiral Lord Nelson, formerly stood at the centre of the street on the site of the present day Spire. Blown up by republican activists in 1966, the site remained vacant until the erection of the Spire in 2003.

Among the major buildings near to O'Connell Street are the Pro Cathedral (the church which serves as Dublin's de facto Roman Catholic cathedral, though it has never been raised formally to cathedral status, hence the name), the Rotunda Hospital which serves as North Dublin's main maternity hospital, and several large modern shopping centres. South of the street, across O'Connell Bridge, lie Trinity College and the Bank of Ireland building, previously (before the Act of Union in 1800) the Irish Houses of Parliament.