Streets and lanes are amongst the most widely used, and venerated, words in English. Not surprisingly their presence in our language has a pedigree at least as old as the notion of settlement itself. The twin concepts of thoroughfare and settlement are so mutually inclusive, settlement can never – and was never – just about the shelter and utility that the buildings confer. Instead, sustainable settlement had to be negotiated, fought and argued over and were ultimately delivered through the concession by plot owners of something known as right of way. These rights of passage, evidenced by threaded lanes and tracks, comprise the soft fabric, an almost invisible dark matter underpinning the urban scene. In the earliest settlements, just as in primitive villages today, this network emerged, an unconscious structure, where hierarchy had little place.
Evidently a hierarchy of streetscape eventually formed as part of the enlightenment-age approach to planned urban form. Thus an Italian, centuries ago, propounded the view that a bridge needed to be as wide as the street leading up to it. Turning to Dublin, that’s precisely what George Semple (circa 1700-1782) did in laying down the lines for the new Parliament Street. The Street – and the new Essex Bridge beyond it – conferred great significance and status on each other. And Dublin Corporation eagerly followed by cleverly terminating the new vista with the Neo-Classsical vision of the Royal Exchange.
Of course the rollout of urban fabric has always had a dynamic aspect – less a struggle for survival as a tussle for eminence, a long-term game of winners and losers that remains in play right up to the present.
So to this day, perhaps a millennium after they first formed, we can view around Dublin literally dozens of what we choose to denigrate, our regular warren of little lanes, randomly placed here and there all around the urban core. In Temple Bar we have Adair Lane, Bedford Lane, Crampton Court and Copper Alley. The latter is said to be named after the copper coins once minted here (and notorious as the haunt of Darkey Kelly). It’s now amputated from Fishamble Street which it once linked down to Essex Gate. There are dozens more of these – such as Frenchman’s Lane – another amputee, this one chopped to make way for the Loop Line railway bridge. Such places might be enlisted for our Capital of Cool, as restful, easy counterpoints to the braggart bustling streets around them. Instead, holding about as much charm of an asphalt carpark, they are haunted by neglect, grimed with grease and dirt, even pooled with the slick of someone’s late-night piss. Wake up Dublin! This is simply shocking, these little lanes could be so great if we just tried. In the sentimental lyrics of the song, “Grafton Street’s a wonderland, with magic in the air…”. But I still feel more than empathy for the losing side.
Words: Reg McCabe
Reg McCabe is a tour guide and local historian and was formerly a business lobbyist. You can follow him on Twitter @timethemetours
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