Dun Laoghaire is part of Dublin’s sprawling conurbation, but is a large town in its own right. Capital of the county, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, it has been Dublin’s main passenger port for two hundred years. Originally named for Laoghaire Mac Neil, sixth century high king, or pirate if you prefer, Laoghaire’s status is somewhat mythological, and his connections with this region rather nebulous. Some reports say he feared the sea, a prophesy foretelling that he would drown in it should he invade Leinster. But, whether ironic or not, the name stuck. Later Anglicised to Dunleary it remained an insignificant fishing village until the early nineteenth century when plans were put in train to establish a safe haven for shipping along what had become a treacherous stretch of coast.
Construction began in 1817, stimulating the urban development of Dunleary’s hinterland. The growing modern town’s name was changed to Kingstown when the British King, George IV visited in 1821. George IV was the first British monarch to visit without an army in tow, the first in four centuries or so. An extravagant spendthrift, a serial accumulator of monstrous dept, a drunk, a glutton and a womaniser, there wasn’t always a queue to honour him. His appalling treatment of his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick excited public distaste with his attempts to divorce and humiliate her. She was refused entry to his coronation and died, suspiciously, days later. George celebrated with his Irish trip, and taking up with a new mistress, Elisabeth, Lady Conyngham of Slane Castle. For the next decade till his death, Lady Conyngham would suffer the waning charms of the last monarch of the Georgian era.
His legacy adheres mostly to his Regency, those first two decades when his father had succumbed to madness. Regency style tilted our world towards the recognisably modern. George for all his faults, was a renowned patron of arts and architecture, and an early populariser of the notion of the formal seaside resort, with its pavilions and promenades, its designated bathing, grand hotels and elegant terraces. From Brighton to Dun Laoghaire, and on to Bray, the seaside resort town was the coming thing.
George’s Street is the main drag, while the name Kingstown stuck for a century until Independence, when it reverted to the Gaelic, Dun Laoghaire, pronounced Doon Lair-eh. But everyone uses the anglicised pronunciation that applied in its village days: Dunleary.
Our journey, following the route of South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, takes us from the People’s Park along the seafront. We will follow the railway past the Harbour to the West Pier, and back again. Queens Road is a busy thoroughfare on the seaward side, Marine Terrace and Haddington Terrace are slightly elevated on the inland side. The railway line itself passes through a cutting below our sightline. The two terraces comprise fine old Victorian houses and hotels. One particular hotel, the Hotel Pierre, is the place where myself and M had our wedding feast in the ringing cold of a December day in 1983. The name Pierre, I believe, is something of an affectation, the place previously known as the Pier Hotel, catering particularly for those who used the Mail Boat, in leaving, or even visiting, Ireland.
The terrace vista terminates with a startling intrusion. Like a giant ocean liner cast in stone, Dun Laoghaire’s new library, The Lexicon, seems set to sail. The Lexicon excited outrage outrage amongst the guardians of our skyline. Who needs all them books, they cried. Why build a library so large when there’s a perfectly good Carnegie from 1900. A fine thing, the Carnegie Library, but Dun Laoghaire is a lot bigger now than it was then. DLR’s population is over two hundred thousand, about ten times its population at Independence. The expansion of the library service demands a lot of space for a lot of disparate activities. Reading and study areas, public computer access, meeting rooms and children’s library, Space too to retain its core function of book stock for browsing and borrowing. Yes, we do need large modern libraries and we build them because we can. Have a coffee on the lower deck or climb to the top deck to admire the view across the harbour to Howth Head.
Next door is the Maritime Museum, housed in the old C of I Mariner’s Church built in 1837. Exhibits feature Ireland’s lighthouses and Dun Laoghaire’s Mail Boat fleet from the era when the four ships were named for the provinces. Most famed and sorrowful is the fate of the Leinster, sunk by a German UBoat in 1918; Dun Laoghaire harbour and indeed the end of the war in sight, with the loss of 500 souls. A prime exhibit focusses on the Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive folly. The giant steamship was the largest ever built when launched in 1854. Accident prone and a failure as a passenger liner, it left a more telling legacy in the laying of telegraph cables, becoming very much the origin of the information age. Robert Halpin, born in Wicklow, in that most nautical of pubs the Bridge Tavern, was chief engineer when the cable was laid from Valentia Island to Newfoundland. Rising to captain, Halpin would earn his nickname the Cable Man, laying enough cable to girdle the globe.
Towards the town centre, holding the high ground, the Royal Marine Hotel embodies what Kingstown was originally about. It was designed in 1860 by John McCurdy for William Dargan, the great railway entrepreneur. McCurdy’s original concept envisioned a stately chateau in the French manner. With its mansard roof and french pavilions surmounted by a tower and dome, this was to be the epitome of the nineteenth century Grand Hotel. Running over budget, the west wing was not completed, with a more modest construction in its place. This asymmetry persists. The building struggled to survive and was forced to shed many of its period features, but its most recent version has restored the mansard roofs and central tower, the traditional east wing forming a curious hybrid with the modern and ultra modern west wing.
Despite the arbitrary depredations of time, I think you can still gauge the original effect. Squint and you will see The Royal Marine set out its stall in Victorian splendour. Here was the bastion of the civilising project of empire; it still radiates a haughty Britishness. Breeze jauntily into the lobby and make for the bar. Duty bound to look like you own the place, and growl the words to The Captains and the Kings, Brendan Behan’s meditation on the essence of being English.
I stumbled in a nightmare all around the People’s Park
And what do you think I found there as I wandered in the dark?
‘Twas an apple half-bitten, and sweetest of all things
Five baby teeth had written of the Captains and the Kings
Five baby teeth had written of the Captains and the Kings
The Dubliners, with Ronny Drew’s gravelly vocal, provide the classic version of the song. The correct words are ‘all around Great Windsor Park’.