Monday, 18 April 2016

Cromwell's Quarters, Murdering Lane, or The 39 (or is it 40?) Steps

For most of its life, right through the Victorian age, it was known as "Murdering Lane" or "Murdering-Lane" with a hyphen. Or "The Murd'ring Lane". Like the title of a bloodthirsty crime novel.

Today it's a long alleyway of steps up and down a steep hill in Kilmainham, just south of the Liffey and the Camac River. In 1892 1876 it was renamed "Cromwell’s Quarters"(or "Ceathrú Chromail" in the Irish)*. Yet another example of a Dublin street name with a gory past, or so it seems.

After Independence you might have expected a further name change to get rid of the dreaded "C" word. But none ever came. The "Cromwell" street sign disappeared for a while then reappeared about five years ago, though over the years locals always preferred to call the lane "The Forty Steps".

That's exactly how the Easter 1916 rebels referred to it too, in their witness statements in the Military Archives. The steps featured in the Rising when the Irish Volunteer 4th Dublin Battalion of Irish Volunteers under Éamonn Ceannt took over Roe’s Distillery and the South Dublin Union, a sprawling warren of some 50 acres of hospitals and workhouses where St James Hospital stands today.

The top of the Forty Steps was initially cut off by at least three Volunteers: Sean Gogan, Paddy Byrne and Patrick Egan. An Irish tricolour flies there today. For a detailed account of the battle of the South Dublin Union, check out the "Archaeology of 1916" blog.

My snaps don't do justice, but the steps are verrrry wide. I've never counted them but I'm assured there are only thirty-nine, not forty (it's a Dublin thing).

OK, they're not quite Kilmainham's answer to the Spanish Steps in Rome. They are about as plain and functional and lovably ugly as a slice of an old football terrace from a long abandoned stadium - complete with the graffiti and dereliction, and cut through from top to bottom by a modern metal hand-rail that's almost like the kind of stanchion that you'd see in football stadiums.

The alley connects Bow Lane West at the bottom of the steep slope to Mount Brown at the top. Around the early 1970s the alley had a handbag factory at the top and a lipstick factory (nicknamed the Stillo) at the bottom and then a furniture workshop, then a garage, then a...

And if memory serves me right, the traditional musician Terry Woods - later of Sweeney's Men and Steeleye Span and Dr Strangely Strange and finally the Pogues - comes from around these same streets. My oldest memory of the place, though, was of the dust everywhere. It came from a Roadstone cement factory nearby.

(Roadstone's origins were as a sand and gravel haulage business in nearby Inchicore; in several big bounds, by 1970 the company was beginning to turn into a major multinational operator, Cement Roadstone Holdings. CRH is now the biggest company in Ireland, with worldwide sales "of c€24 billion in 2015". CRH's history has been soaked in the stench of conspiracies, corruption and scandal, both in overseas markets and at the very heart of the Irish political establishment, but that's another story for another day.)

So why Cromwell's Quarters?

Another bloody-sounding street called Cut-throat Lane was a long continuation of Murdering Lane; you can see the former if not the latter in this 1836 map of Dublin (it starts in the bottom right corner). Some reports say Cut-throat Lane was still called that at the time of the 1916 Rising, others that it was renamed Roundhead Row by the Corpo in 1876. Either way, it has since been swallowed up by the modern grounds of St James's Hospital.

Roundhead Row, Cromwell's Quarters... Do we detect a pattern there? Maybe they were part of a general rebranding exercise around a Cromwellian theme.

Or far more likely, the Cromwell bit refers not to Oliver C but to his son Henry, who became Lord Deputy of Ireland (as in a Lord Lieutenant or Viceroy) in 1657.

Henry lived north of the Liffey in the Phoenix House, a mansion in the Phoenix Park that was demolished in 1734 to make way for the Magazine fort. Bear in mind that in Cromwellian times the Phoenix Park was much larger than today, straddling the Liffey and taking in the Kilmainham Priory on the southside.

So there you have it. (Henry) Cromwell's Quarters.

(* See Dublin Street Names by the Rev C.T. McCready, published in 1892).