Donal Fallon’s Burning Question | Cassandra Voices

Donal Fallon’s Burning Question


Deities or daimons held strong associations with the cities of Classical Rome and Greece, projecting how freemen, and sometimes women, wished to represent their civic virtues. Thus Athena, the patron god of Athens, combined an association with crafts such as weaving and valour on the battlefield.

The gods of Antiquity yielded to saints or angels in Europe in the Christian era. The twelfth century, Archbishop Lorcán Ó Tuathail is the patron saint of Dublin. He began the construction, in stone, of Christchurch Cathedral and was renowned for making peace between warring groups. Mediating between competing factions to produce lasting building stock might not be the worst attribute to find in a contemporary civic champion.

Architects are the most obvious authors of cities. The skyline of Dublin is indebted – or otherwise depending on your view – to the varied talents of Gandon, Scott and Stephenson. Craftsmen and builders are generally forgotten, although some see the hidden patterns of freemasonry, while street names still bear the names of the first developers – notwithstanding post-independence re-branding.

At a deeper level it has been writers, musicians and visual artists that have forged a distinctive consciousness among the inhabitants of the bricks and mortar of Dublin city. Historians, too, have helped impart an essence of place, by joining past and present, lest we forget…

Donal Fallon is a very modern historian who has used new technology to excellent effect throughout his career, while retaining a commitment to the craft: engagement with sources primary and secondary, and reflections on the role of history and historians. Unusually among his peers, he approaches a mainstream audience without indifference.

His latest work, Three Castles Burning: A History of Dublin in Twelve Streets (New Island Books, 2022) cleverly uses twelve street as a window on an array of historical episodes, and personalities, which touch on contemporary concerns, notably a housing crisis.

Numerous themes are explored throughout the book, perhaps most evident is an enduring tension between preservation and development: ‘All cities must develop and grow’, he writes, ‘The balance of development is key’ (p.2). This extends to reconciling an alluring multiculturalism with the cultural distinctiveness of the native-born population.


The first street Fallon surveys is Henrietta Street, the impressive early Georgian terrace that was reduced to squalid tenement-dwellings over the course of the nineteenth century. It found an unlikely champion in the shape of a veteran Republican architect and planner Uinseann MacEoin (1920-2007), who unlike many of his comrades, admired the city’s Anglo-Irish architectural inheritance.

Henrietta Street also offers a vantage on nearby Henrietta House, one of a number of schemes designed by Dublin Corporation Housing Architect Herbert George Simms (1898-1948). His signature rounded corners and communal courtyards demonstrate that social housing need not necessarily succumb to brutalist functionality.

In the following chapter on Watling Street, Fallon recalls a 1939 speech by Simms before a Housing Enquiry in City Hall: ‘housing of the working classes would have to be accepted sooner or later as a permanent service, like water or other municipal services.(p.36)’ Simms would surely have despaired at the subsequent financialisation of property led by his countrywoman Margaret Thatcher. Sadly, overwork drove him to suicide.

Watling Street also allows Fallon to explore the origins of the Liffey Swim, immortalised in the painting of that name by Jack B. Yeats, ‘a piece of work … ingrained in the mind of the city’(p.49).

Remarkably, women were only permitted to compete for the first time in 1991, seemingly in response to the demands of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (1895-1973), who maintained that ‘mixed athletics and all cognate immodesties are abuses that right-minded people reprobate, wherever and whenever they exist(p.50).’

‘Disturbed Pits’

A wander down Fishamble Street allows Fallon to transport us to Viking Dublin and also to the controversy over the development of Wood Quay, which became the site for the Dublin City Council offices. As the poet and campaigner against the development Thomas Kinsella put it: ‘Disturbed pits and drains trickled with unease.’

Fallon takes a characteristically measured stance, arguing that Sam Stephenson’s buildings ‘are an important part of the built heritage of the city … Alas, if only they had been built at less contested sites, we could appreciate them more fully(p.71).’

Rathmines Road Lower brings Fallon to the affluent suburbs beyond the canals. Rathmines became a staunchly Unionist enclave after becoming a township through an Act of Parliament in the early nineteenth century.

One contrarian resident of Rathmines prior to independence was Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who was murdered by a deranged British Officer during the 1916 Rising. The social campaigner and pacifist adopted the label of crank with pride. ‘A crank, according to Skeffy, was a small instrument that makes revolutions(p.87).’

A look at South William Street allows Fallon to enter the legendary hostelry of Grogan’s or The Castle Lounge, which he commends as ‘one of the few pubs in the city continuing to shun unwanted modernity in the lives of drinkers and conversationalists(p.111).’ The pub also holds the distinction for being one of the few in the city during the 1960s to serve unaccompanied women.

Fallon seems less than impressed with Lovin’ Dublin proclaiming the street to be at the heart of ‘the Hipster Triangle’ and christening it ‘without doubt the hippest street in the city. P.115)’ ‘Such hollow titles can change quickly’ Fallon acerbically notes. Perhaps he would like to see this occur sooner rather than later, which might make it easier to secure a seat in the aforementioned hostelry.

Next up on Fallon’s tour is Parnell Street East, described as Chinatown on Google Maps. Fallon appears to bridle at the suggestion that the Tech giant should be bestowing the title. He seems more inclined to the Vietnamese food on offer, allowing him to recall the arrival of Vietnamese Boat people in Dublin from 1979 onwards.

Up to Monto

Fallon points to ‘a special irony in the renaming of James Joyce Street, formerly Mabbot Street … after a client of Monto (p.137).’ Monto – an area to the east of what is now O’Connell Street – which was Dublin’s notorious red light district, where prostitution was on very public display.

The city’s notoriety was perhaps deserved. Fallon reveals that in 1870 there were 3,255 arrests for prostitution in the city, compared to just 38 in Belfast, while in London the figure stood at 2,163 (p.141).

However, the religiously-inspired clearances after independence did little to ameliorate the situation, as Ronan Sheehan recalls In Dublin: The Heart of the City, ‘The unfortunate women did not have reputations to lose. They simply moved elsewhere.’

Ship (a corruption of Sheep) Street, leads Fallon to engage with the suffragette protests on that street in 1912, when ‘windows belonging to the Castle at Ship Street were smashed by members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (p.163).’

Also, a nineteenth century resident Giuseppe Cervi ‘is widely credited with opening Dublin’s first fish and chip shop (p.171)’ emphasising the long history of immigrants broadening Dubliners’ paletes, and perhaps their waistlines.


Church Street was the site of a tenement collapsing in 1913 – inspiring such an incident in Joseph Plunkett’s novel Strumpet City – as well as Dublin’s worst industrial accident in 1878, which claimed fourteen lives.

Fallon also explores class divisions in Dublin, where ‘traditionally the Liffey itself has been thought of, rightly or wrongly, as a dividing line.’ However, he recalls that ‘there was a time when East-West was a better way of thinking of such things’, adding, in parenthesis, ‘and perhaps it is once more (p.181).’

At least progress was made after independence with housing. The 1911 census revealed that some 63% of the city were working class, of whom 45% lived in tenement accommodation. It was estimated that some 37,500 Dubliners were ‘housed in dwellings so decayed as to be on the borderline of unfitness for human habitation.’

Eustace Street in Temple Bar is a notable flash point in terms of the balance of development and preservation. Indeed, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern once declared that this could be Ireland’s answer to the West Bank.

More prosaically, the former Dublin City Council planner Paul Kearns argued ‘Dublin has, for far too long, favoured the temporary, often fleeting visitor, over the local urban resident(p.204).’

Before getting its touristic makeover, Temple Bar was slated for destruction, to be replaced with a bus station. ‘In acquiring the property with the eventual aim of demolition, the bus company began leasing out units at low rents,(p.204)’ which brought a host of artist studios, cutting edge music venues and off-beat retailers.

Fallon observes that ‘Temple Bar today may not bring ‘neo-bohemian’ to mind, but a surprising array of institutions from that moment of great optimism remain in the district.’ He also lauds ‘the brilliant Meeting House Square(p.205).’

The penultimate street Fallon considers is Pearse Street (to Westland Row), site of Pearse Street Garda Station, once home to the counter-revolutionary G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Fallon reveals that the name ‘G’ is simply ‘the seventh letter of the alphabet and these men formed the seventh division(p.226)’ of the DMP.

Pearse Street was formerly known as Great Brunswick Street, before being re-named in honour of Patrick Pearse the leader of the 1916 Rising, who was born on 27 Great Brunswick Street.

James Pearse, Patrick’s father, was ‘a Unitarian raised in England [who]… specialised in ecclesiastical and architectural sculptures.’ Patrick fondly wrote of his father’s work, which can be seen in churches across the city: ‘If ever in an Irish church you find, amid a wilderness of bad sculpture, something good and true and lovingly finished you may be sure that it was carved by my father or by one of his pupils.(p.242)’

Finally, to Moore Street, where Fallon again explores the competing aspiration of breathing new life into an impoverished area and preserving the famous open-air market, along with sites of the 1916 Rising. Fallon wonders whether some kind of ‘proper market’ could prosper on the street in future (p.269).


From its foundation as a slave market by Viking raiders Dublin has had a fraught relationship with the rest of the island. The nickname Jackeen is a term of derision applied to ‘West Brit’ Dubliners, who enthusiastically welcomed Queen Victoria with the Union Jack.

Donal Fallon’s account reminds us that Dublin has long been subject to the ebb and flow of migration, whether Norman, English, Huguenot, Italian, Vietnamese or Chinese. As capital and main entrepot it became an important political, commercial and cultural hub from the seventeenth century. This engendered enduring civic pride, that can spill into arrogance, breeding resentment in rural Ireland, a sentiment which often persists even among those who have made it their long-term home.

The stereotype of a true Dub is one who regards a cow pat with horror, and any beverage other than a pint of plain with deep suspicion. But such rare specimens now generally feel a profound alienation in a city increasingly dominated by office blocks, hotels and cafes. Dublin is a city of outsiders.

Today most long- and short-term residents of Dublin don’t live in the city proper – generally considered to be the area between the canals –  but in the sprawling suburbs. Many of us who grew up there are never quite sure where we fit in. Perhaps Donal Fallon will deign to explore this unglamorous hinterland in a subsequent work.

Feature Image: Daniele Idini


About Author

Frank Armstrong graduated with a BA (International) from UCD majoring in history, during which time he spent a year at the University of Amsterdam on an Erasmus scholarship. He later earned a barrister-at-law degree at the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, and gained a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before taking a Post-Graduate Diploma in Education. Prior to setting up Cassandra Voices his writing was published in the Irish Times, the London Magazine, the Dublin Review of Books, Village Magazine, and the Law Society Gazette, among others. He is the editor-in-chief of Cassandra Voices.

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