Temple Bar lies to the east of the medieval walled city of Dublin, bounded by the South Quays, Westmoreland Street and Dame Street to the south. Temple Bar itself is a short segment midway along the Fleet Street/Essex Street thoroughfare. The name may have originated in imitation of the area in London which similarly lies just outside the city gates. Or it may be named after William Temple, Provost of Trinity College in the early seventeenth century. Trinity had been established by Queen Elizabeth in 1592. Temple and his descendents had property here, so the name probably recognises both facts.
When I was young this was a dilapidated and largely deserted part of Dublin. A place of well worn cobblestones and crumbling warehouses, the odd quirky shop or hostelry looming out of the smog. You might be picking up a Dickensian atmosphere here, but I’m not that old. The city planners in the 1970s had earmarked Temple Bar for development as a major bus station. As it was, Fleet Street was then choked with busses bound for Crumlin, Walkinstown and beyond. This was where we’d gather to imbibe the petrol fumes mingling with the smell of fish and chips, rain falling, steam rising from damp coats.
The alternative society was sussing it out in the seventies. The Granary at Essex Street was a wholefood shop, branching out into a cafe and meeting place. Next door, the Project Arts Centre moved here from King Street by Saint Stephen’s Green, bringing alternative theatre, modern art and underground music. The Alchemist’s Head, making Ireland safe for science fiction, was just across the road. My work in the P&T as then was, Eircom now, also brought me to Crown Alley, an attractive turn of the century redbrick on Fleet Street. A hub of the telephone network, the 1916 rebels had it earmarked for takeover but feared, wrongly, that the British army was in possession. Their failure here and at Dublin Castle were major opportunities missed.
The bus station never flew. The low rents prior to development attracted a creative and bohemian bunch. Representations were made to the powers that be. It was Charlie Haughey, cultured rogue that he was, who saw the light. Temple Bar properties was established to oversee development, the aim to create a cultural quarter for the capital. More famously, it has become a major social hotspot, transforming the narrow, once empty streets, into a day long conga line of partying visitors and locals.
Some of my old watering haunts remain. Whenever possible I return to The Palace Bar which proclaims its literary and journalistic connections at the eastern end of Fleet Street. Almost two hundred years old, it retains its original old style dark wood bar and furnishing style. High ceilinged with stained glass and a grand glass frontage, all the light pouring in is trapped in this veritable drinking palace. Such pubs are the salt of Dublin’s earthy drinks culture. Our old city haunt, The Crane at Crane Lane is gone. Here we could rub shoulders with Special Branch men from the Castle and seek out ladies from our own suburbs. It happened to be the nearest city pub to our bus terminus. There are many more additions than subtractions. No shortage of watering holes. Temple Bar may have been where the Danes dropped anchor in the ninth century, but you can still pay Copenhagen prices for your Carlsberg here. The Temple Bar pub charges near seven euro a pint, but still the place is hopping by midday. The market here is not price sensitive.
From nineteen seventy three, the Central Bank has towered over the area like a modern Bastille. Though I’m sure it’s much more pleasant to work there. Sam Stephenson’s monsterpiece was controversial in many ways. Built from the sky down, as it were, the completed floors hung by visible cables from central support towers. The method itself alluded to a certain exalted origin and function. Getting even bigger for its boots, it was alleged to be taller than Liberty Hall, Ireland’s awe inspiring seventeen story skyscraper of the sixties and trade union home. Labour’s Minister for Local Government, James Tully, stepped in and ordered the completed building to be taken down a peg. In truth, its height was in contravention of the planning permission. But that’s another storey.
Being a tall building, something which the Irish feel should be confined to round towers and spires, objectors considered it an affront, a Tower of Babel. Advocates insisted it would stand the test of time. I sneered then but I’d concede that it has lasted well, unlike Stephenson’s notorious Bunkers at the Dublin Corporation buildings by Christchurch. Passing beneath the Central Bank, it does seem to float in the air, and to form a fine gateway for entering Temple Bar.
Throngs of people now float on down from Dame Street towards Merchant’s Arch. This is the main north south axis of Temple Bar. A perpetual beat on the street has replaced the isolated clack of heels on deserted cobbles. Under Merchant’s Arch you emerge blinking into the common daytime whirr of traffic, the south quays taking westbound traffic, the north quays taking it east. The elegant Halfpenny Bridge arches over the Liffey. It takes its name from the toll charged at its inception two hundred years ago, compensation to the ferryman who previously carried people over. Yeats once championed a Municipal Art Gallery purpose built on a covered bridge here. But the iron structure survives, one of Dublin’s most iconic images.
The river bank in medieval days would have been close to Fleet Street. As the city spilled outside the walls, houses built along the shore faced away from the river. It was after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, that the Royalist Lord Deputy of Ireland, James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, decreed that buildings face the river, with a roadway to form the quayside. This innovation, which Ormonde had observed whilst in exile in Europe during the Cromwellian years, transformed the character of Dublin, establishing the river as the defining character in its layout and aesthetic. The Wide Streets Commission, almost a century later, further moulded the city along neo-classical lines. The extent of Temple Bar was defined by the new thoroughfares, Parliament Street and Westmoreland Street, the widened Dame Street and College Green.
Since the eighties, multitudes have come to this cramped box of little lanes, the discrete vestige of medeval Dublin without the walls. We come here to play, to plunge into the past, to live in the moment, maybe set the course of our future. But mainly to play. There is nothing ostensibly pretty about Temple Bar, it is defined more by function than finesse, a jumble of back street businesses, a mercantile slum. But cities and towns are as much about their people as their built fabric. There’s enough human life here to illuminate the city should the electricity ever be cut off. It shines, night and day.