I’ve always been fascinated by the Dublin suburb of Rathmines. To English ears it’s a strange-sounding name. There are no coal mines in Rathmines, the name just means ‘Ring fort of Maonas’. To anyone who knows Dublin, the name in the past might have conjured up various images: ‘bedsit’, ‘dormitory’, ‘sleepy’, ‘students’ and ‘old-fashioned’. But today the words we might think of are ‘property’, ‘upmarket’, gentrified, ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘residential’.
I lived at Trinity Hall just to the south of Rathmines for two years as an undergraduate. I regularly took the 14 (now 140) bus along Rathmines Road and Palmerston Road. The area left a deep impression on me.
Rathmines is located in south Dublin, around two miles (3km) from the city centre. To get there it takes around 15 minutes on the bus from O’Connell Street or you can take the Luas tram to Ranelagh. Like many parts of Dublin it has a strong feeling of the past. Everywhere there are houses from the 18th and 19th century. There are relatively few modern buildings. It seems like a vast conservation area. There are some listed buildings.
The former Rathmines Town Hall was completed in 1898. In 1930, the township was incorporated into Dublin City. The town hall dominates Rathmines Road with its clock tower that seems too large in proportion to the rest of the building. Today it’s occupied by Rathmines College and on my January 2016 visit the clock was not working! Other landmarks include the imposing Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners with its large and distinctive dome. Like many Catholic churches it was in the past symbolic of the dominance of the Roman Catholic church. Now it seems to symbolise the opposite.
Rathmines Road is a busy street, long and quite narrow, with a variety of shops and supermarkets including Aldi and Lidl. The well-loved ‘Stella’ cinema is still there but it’s empty and has a ‘to let’ sign. In the centre of Rathmines, Rathgar Road leads off to the right and Rathmines Road Upper continues to the left. The post office is still there, and there’s a Tesco supermarket opposite. Tesco wasn’t in Ireland when I was at Trinity. There seemed to be few ‘foreign’ influences then. Nowadays you’ll find many people from other countries – women with headscarves, men with Middle Eastern accents. I stopped at the Carnegie Library, opposite the town hall, to check my e-mail. In the past it might have been full of people from other parts of Ireland. Today it was full of people from other parts of the world.
Rathmines is first and foremost a residential suburb. It has every variety of house from tiny terraced cottages to grand Georgian residences. There are impressive squares, wide roads, residential streets, narrow alleyways and tiny footpaths. Here and there there are modern apartment blocks but they generally seem to blend in with the 19th century edifices.
In the past many of the houses in Rathmines might have seemed fairly average and affordable for anyone with a good salary. Today, parked outside the houses, you’ll find expensive cars and SUVs with the current year on the number plate. Rathmines has become a place of great affluence. Properties are now priced beyond the reach of most people, even those on the best salaries.
In my opinion the most impressive part of the suburb is Palmerston Road. It’s a wide nineteenth century tree-lined avenue lined on both sides with beautiful Georgian terraced houses set back behind gardens. The ornate street lamps date from the late 19th century. This area looks virtually unchanged for well over a hundred years and this is definitely a selling point.
Although Rathmines grew and developed into its present form during the 19th century ‘British’ period of Irish history, and had a Unionist (pro-British) majority until 1922, to me it seems to have an unmistakable sense of Irishness. I can’t quite explain it. It’s said that Eamon De Valera wanted to have the Georgian terraces around Merrion Square demolished as he regarded them as ‘foreign’. But he was wrong. This uniquely Irish style of architecture and town planning would have emerged no matter what the arrangements for Ireland’s government had been. Ireland became independent but the ‘British’ influence has remained and is part of the country’s unique character.
During the Second World War, Ireland was neutral, and so unlike British cities, Dublin was wasn’t bombed, apart from a few mistaken raids where the Nazi pilots thought they were flying over Belfast. Metal railings were never removed. In Britain most railings were needlessly cut out for the war effort and to this day have never replaced. The result is that Dublin has preserved its past much better than most British cities, and Rathmines is a prime example of this. You’ll see many wonderful, original iron railings in Rathmines!
My favourite place is Palmerston Park, situated next to my former place of residence, Trinity Hall. I often used to go for walks there.
It’s a beautiful Victorian park with lawns, a waterfall and tree-lined footpaths. Looking through the trees, at the houses, if you ignore the modern cars, you could almost imagine yourself back in the era of James Joyce or Oscar Wilde. That’s the great thing about a place with a strong historic character. The past doesn’t go out of date, quite the opposite: a place that has preserved its heritage is future-proof.