From village to suburb: the building of Clontarf since 1760

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

62Claire Gogarty
Clontarf Books
£30

ISBN 9781782801702

Clontarf these days, to outsiders at least, seems no more than an amorphous part of the suburbs that stretch without interruption around Dublin Bay from Howth to Killiney. In the late eighteenth century, however, it was a small fishing base and one of the early bathing places close to Dublin city, with several miles of fields between it and the metropolis. Rocque’s map of 1760 shows Clontarf as a modest straggle of houses on the road leading inland from the coast, but with little development along the bay. Although not obvious from Rocque, there was a castle, and also a cluster of fishermen’s thatched cottages facing the sea at ‘the Sheds’ where herrings and oysters were preserved.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Clontarf gained from the new fashions for drinking goat’s whey and for sea bathing. Goat’s whey was seen as beneficial to those suffering from tuberculosis and a number of places around Dublin, from Carrickmines and Bray to Clontarf and Howth, became popular destinations. The fashion for sea bathing as a cure and for strengthening the system also dates from this period, having begun in Brighton c. 1750. Dublin city-dwellers needed to escape from their polluted environment and Clontarf, like Sandymount and Blackrock on the south side, became a popular bathing place, offering fresh sea air. The locals provided basic facilities and some of the fishermen’s wives would have served as bathing attendants. Bathing, of course, was not then regarded as recreational; it generally involved immersion in the sea once a day and the regular consumption of a glass or two of seawater.

Like Blackrock, Clontarf continued as a minor resort well into the period of bathing for pleasure’s sake. Both acquired concrete-built swimming baths on the shore in the 1880s, and remained popular destinations for Dubliners until the decline of the Irish seaside resort a century later. Clontarf, however, retains a seaside ambience with its lengthy promenade and bathing structures, despite unpromising views towards Dublin’s dockland. (The Great North Wall, built out from Clontarf in the 1820s, caused the build-up of Bull Island and changed the seafront views long before the expansion of Dublin port.)

In the eighteenth century Clontarf Castle was a significant building in the area. On a site once occupied by the Knights Templar and later by the Knights Hospitallers of St John, it was then a quaint-looking battlemented structure with Gothic windows, its central block flanked by towers. Painted by Gabriel Beranger in 1772, it appears on the cover of Claire Gogarty’s book. As she recounts, however, in 1836 the Vernon family, who held most of Clontarf from the mid-seventeenth to the twentieth century, commissioned William Vitruvius Morrison to build a more impressive replacement. This was given el-ements of several styles, including Tudor Revival, with an interior that has been described as of ‘sombre richness’. Morrison also designed the gate lodge, described by Gogarty as ‘a small Irish round tower rising improbably from a cluster of perpendicular forms’. The mansion survives today, enlarged, as the Clontarf Castle Hotel.

Gogarty’s book begins with a short history of Clontarf, before concentrating on the stories of individual buildings. Her second chapter covers some 30 houses listed in Samuel Lewis’s Topographical dictionary of Ireland and therefore built before 1837; in many cases these also appear on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey six-inch sheets. Some of these houses are today in institutional use, ranging from Sybil Hill, partly built in the 1730s and sold to the Vincentian Fathers in 1950, to Bellgrove House, dating from at least 1837 and today used by the GAA and other bodies. The oldest house in this section is Furry Park, a fine-looking five-bay residence dating back to about 1731. Although stripped of its lands and with the interior divided into apartments, it still stands conspicuously on Howth Road. The most notable house is St Anne’s, remembered as home to Lord and Lady Ardilaun of the Guinness family. The lavish late nineteenth-century mansion came to a sad end in December 1943 when it was destroyed by fire. It was later demolished, but some of its once elaborate gardens remain as Dublin City Council’s St Anne’s Park and Rose Garden.
Chapter 3 covers other individual houses, some of them pre-dating 1837. Many of these were substantial and a few are traditionally believed to be by Morrison. Their occupants, where listed, were mainly businessmen, with an inspector of constabulary and the superintendent of the Dublin Steam Packet Company, rather than members of the professions. Chapters 4 and 5 detail the residential development during the second half of the nineteenth century and since 1900. Clontarf grew steadily, at first with typical Victorian and Edwardian terraces. In January 1901 it came under the jurisdiction of Dublin City and subsequently the Vernon estate went into partnership with Dublin Corporation—the latter supplied the roads—and large numbers of small suburban houses were built for Dublin families.

The author has based her account on a number of major sources, including the Dublin City Archive, the Griffith Valuation, directories and deeds. She has also sought out local memories. The property descriptions are illuminated by the inclusion of a large number of extracts from the 1837 and 1907 Ordnance Survey maps (although without explaining the original scales), and there are many modern and some period photographs. There are brief endnotes: an index would have been useful. This is an impressively detailed work of local history—a labour of love by someone who cares about ‘bricks, stones and people’ and who knows her area intimately.

Reviewed By
Mary Davies

Mary Davies is the author of That favourite resort: the story of Bray, Co. Wicklow (Wordwell, 2007).

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