T ailors’ Hall is significant in the social, religious, labour, musical and political histories of the Irish capital. Despite that, it remains unknown to many Dubliners, tucked away as it is up Back Lane on the edge of Dublin’s Liberties.
It is associated with colourful characters as diverse as the revolutionary James Napper Tandy and folk singer Liam Weldon, and with organisations as diverse as the Freemasons and the United Irishmen.
Built between 1703 and 1707, Tailors’ Hall was constructed as a guild hall for workers in specific industries. Throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, Dublin was home to a number of guild halls which reflected industry in the city, operating as important social and organisational spaces for workers.
The Tailors’ Hall was joined by Weavers’ Hall in the Coombe and the Bricklayers’ Hall on Cuffe Street among others. As Dublin historian Frank Hopkins has noted, it seems almost every group of skilled Dublin workers were represented by a guild.
He points towards “the Goldsmiths Guild, the Guild of Carpenters, Millers, Masons and Heliers, the Cooks and Vintners Guild, and the Guild of Tallow Chandlers”, not to mention “the Guild of Barber-Surgeons and Apothecaries”.
Given its location, Tailors’ Hall became synonymous with the Protestant working class who inhabited the Liberties area. Not all of the Protestant population of the Liberties were home grown.
The late seventeenth century had brought an influx of French Huguenot refugees to Dublin, fleeing religious persecution in France. Bringing their traditional skills with them, the Huguenots established themselves as the dominant force in several Dublin industries, including the silk industry, weaving and tailoring.
Some Huguenot names still adorn our city streets – take D’Olier Street or Digges Lane – but it was the Liberties that saw the greatest concentration of settlement. Though Dublin maintained a Protestant majority throughout the eighteenth century, sectarian tensions were rife, with the phenomenon of faction fighting between rival gangs of workers, including tailors.
The Liberties produced the Protestant “Liberty Boys”, the Smithfield area the Catholic “Ormond Boys”. There was little love between the two, with one contemporary source describing the Liberty Boys as being “of a different breed, being chiefly unfortunate weavers without employment: some were habitual and wilful idlers, slow to labour, but quick at riot and uproar”.
There could be no doubting the politics of the Tailors’ Hall, where a portrait of King William of Orange, victor of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, took pride of place in its galleried meeting room.
Externally, a bust of King George III was placed over the main door. Much like Dublin’s streetscape, where statues of the prior-mentioned monarchs and other imperial figures took up prominent positions in the capital, such symbolism was designed to send a clear message of ownership.
Freemasons, Methodists and the Orange Order all met on the premises, but as the eighteenth century progressed, the hall was also used by political radicals. By the 1790s, that included figures like James Napper Tandy.
An ironmonger by trade, Napper Tandy was an elected member of the City Assembly who championed the rights of Dublin workers and marginalised Catholics. Denouncing the police of the city as “a ruffianly and licentious rabble”, Napper Tandy spoke in seditious tones on almost all subjects.
In 1791, Napper Tandy was central to the formation of the Society of United Irishmen in Dublin. Beginning life as a reformist body, it quickly moved to revolutionary republicanism, with Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man becoming its core text, referred to as the “Koran of Belfast” by Theobald Wolfe Tone for its explosive impact there.
In the 1847 text Sketches of Ireland Sixty Years Ago, a Trinity College student recalled a meeting of the United Irishman at the Tailors’ Hall, remembering that “the very aspect of the place seemed to render it adapted for cherishing a conspiracy”.
The intruder listened to Theobald Wolfe Tone, dismissing him as “a worthy, good-natured, flimsy man, in whom there was no harm, and as the least likely person in the world to do mischief to the state”. It was a poor assessment of the father of Irish republicanism, who later did all in his power to do mischief to the state.
In more recent times, the Tailors’ Hall achieved legendary status as a venue for traditional and folk music in the 1970s, with much of that owed to Liam Weldon. A proud Traveller for whom Ballyfermot was home (a neighbour of the present writer’s mother), Liam and his wife Nellie were instrumental to reinvigorating the folk singing circles of Dublin, with regular sessions in pubs like Slattery’s of Capel Street and the Brazen Head.
It was Tailors’ Hall that had a certain magic quality however, its reputation luring visiting bearded folkies from near and far, and celebrated local talents like Frank Harte and The Furey’s.
In the positively shabby Dublin of the late 1970s and 1980s however, Tailors’ Hall fell on difficult times. In a 1983 article for the Irish Times, campaigners bemoaned how “for well over a year now, Tailors’ Hall has stood empty, cold, damp and open to the elements, the windows open, doors broken and with many break ins. It is a sitting target for anyone who wished to burn it down and for those who wish to vandalise it.”
One Dublin city councillor has a motion pending to try to bring the hall into council ownership. Who knows whether that will happen or not.
The continued existence of the hall owes much to An Taisce, Ireland’s National Trust committed to the preservation of built heritage, who acquired the building in the 1980s. Undergoing much structural work, the hall would become home to the organisation, a rare positive story of salvaging history in a decade when so much was lost.
Used in recent years during festivals like the Liberties Festival and Dublin’s Festival of Politics, Tailors’ Hall once again echoes the sound of music and political discourse.