Sunday, 19 Jan 2020

How many of Dublin's long gone shop fronts do you remember?

The “wholesale destruction and redevelopment” of Dublin struck a chord with so many people that writer Hugh Oram got a book out of it.

But this isn’t about great public buildings or the Georgian streetscape that fell to the developers’ wrecking ball in the 1970s and 1980s – but the corner shops, pubs and landmarks which have gradually faded unsung from the streetscape due to development and changing trends in the retail trade.

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“I’ve been a close observer of the Dublin scene for the last 60 years and while the country has developed immeasurably since the 1960s, at the same time, we’ve often been careless about preserving our built heritage,” says Oram, the author of a new book, Dublin’s Lost Treasures.

“I started by sending requests for information from readers of newspapers – including the Sunday Independent – I was surprised but very gratified by the sheer volume and strength of the response,” he adds.

“Lots of people, often from far beyond Dublin, sent me anecdotes and photographs which formed the backbone of the book; I was astonished at the reader feedback.”

Who remembers The Milky Way on Kelly’s Corner, where revellers from the Four Provinces Ballroom stopped on their way home from dancing, or Stein’s Optician next door with its wide eye keeping watch on the world, the Horse Shoe in Capel Street, Dunwell’s shoe repair shop in Parnell Street, the Iveagh Stores in New Bride Street, or the Shoe Hospital in Grattan Street?

It isn’t just Dublin’s city centre. The suburban villages from Sandymount to Castleknock have all been transformed as old shops that were in business for generations were replaced by supermarkets and chain stores, just as they are now beginning to fall prey to the advance of on-line disruption.

“In the case of many small, family-owned shops, it was inevitable that they should collapse before the onslaught of supermarkets and international retailers,” says Oram, a prolific author. “Corner shops were an inevitable casualty and it’s impossible to think that we could halt or reverse the tide of retail development,” he adds. “Progress is inevitable, but we seem to have had a much more casual attitude to preserving the best of old places than other cities.”

Theatres, newspaper offices, hotels, pubs and clubs, hospitals and restaurants have disappeared, even if some of the buildings which once housed them still remain, re-fitted to a new purpose.

There has been a tremendous attrition rate among pubs: An Beal Bocht in Charlemont Street was demolished 30 years ago; The Aviary, the only building in Canon Street, Dublin’s shortest street, is long gone; and more recently Hourican’s in Lower Leeson Street and Kiely’s in Donnybrook, have joined many famous pubs like The Ouzel Galley and The Princess Bar, which fell to the first wave of progress.

“The pace of recent development means that parts of Dublin are becoming much more anodyne, much less full of character,” says Oram.

“While improved amenities and facilities are to be welcomed, the loss of so much character from the city’s streetscapes is regretted by many people, including myself.”

He readily admits that what Dublin has lost varies from grand buildings like the Hibernian Hotel to huckster shops. But his new book is not about architectural gems but the more mundane cityscape that is still held in fond memory by many older people.

“The most surprising thing has been the survival of two of the city’s oldest theatres, the Gaiety and the Olympia,” he says.

Like a lot of other things, it is not just about the survival of the fittest, but luck and the dedication of people who like to keep old things going which means that the one-time chemist shop Sweny’s, survives in its Joycean guise today.

Shops like the Monument Creamery, Greene’s bookshop in Clare Street, department stores like Todd Byrne’s and Boyers and The Golden Orient Indian restaurant disappeared because of changing tastes and are now part of folk memory.

In a few generations, Dublin’s Lost Treasures will be there to provide a reminder of the way we were.

‘Dublin’s Lost Treasures’ by Hugh Oram (Trafford Publishing)

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