Dublin City Council historian in residence Mary Muldowney says she was caught on the hop when a senior council official asked if she’d heard of “the old woollen mill” on North Great Clarence Street.
She hadn’t, she had to admit.
But she set about trying to find out more about it. “That is when I found a much more interesting story,” she says.
Muldowney’s main focus is the history of labour. As soon as she saw the name of the building’s owner, John Wallis, it rang a bell, she says.
Could this be the same John Wallis she had read about, the head of the Master Carters’ Association, and one of the most influential people in the Dublin Employers’ Federation during the 1913 Lockout?
She soon confirmed that it was.
And contrary to popular belief, the beautiful but imposing limestone and red-brick building had never housed a woollen mill. It had been a wool distributor, but that was not its intended purpose, she says.
Instead, it had been purpose-built as one of Dublin’s major suppliers of coaches and carts, at a time when that was the main form of transport.
“You can imagine the carts coming in and out, says Muldowney, peering in through the massive gates to the building. “It opened its doors in 1900,” she says.
Now that she’s unearthed that background, Muldowney is keenly searching for anyone who has stories from inside that building at any point in its history.
Wallis & Sons
“John Wallis was a very wealthy man, he lived out in Dundrum in what looked like a fairly palatial estate,” said Muldowney, standing at the front of the coach house building on Dunne Street, last Monday morning.
“Dundrum back in those days was a far distance but he would have had his horse and carriage,” she said.
The house had huge stables. She doesn’t know if that was for pleasure or related to the business, she says. “You get all these tantalising glimpses” from the census and other factual sources, she says.
Muldowney says she needs people who have heard stories to fill in the gaps. As it stands we don’t know anything about the condition of the workers, she says.
The coach house at North Great Clarence Street is huge too, with imposing black gates on two sides. It sits a few minutes walk from the Five Lamps, around the corner from the Charleville Mall Library.
Muldowney has asked around among locals. She wants to start an oral-history project, she says. But “nobody knows enough”, she says. “It is over 100 years so the memory may be lost.”
Gathering information about the Lockout in 1913 can be tricky, she says.
For the 2013 centenary, she researched some of the history, in conjunction with the trade unions, and edited a book called 100 Years Later: The Legacy of the 1913 Lockout, she says.
But there is a lack of oral history around, she says. Families often didn’t talk about it at all because it was so traumatic, she says.
Dublin families tended to pass on stories to the next generation about their roles in the 1916 rebellion and the war of independence, she says, rather than the experience of the Lockout in 1913.
The building is decorative in design, showing it was important, she says. “Because he was the president of the Carters’ Association it obviously was the big carting business.”
“Maybe the idea of having such a fancy building for a day-to-day business tells us a bit about him,” Muldowney says. “Perhaps he was conscious of his own position – it would have given him status having such a lovely building.”
Motorised transport was appearing too, she says. “The Lockout gave a lot of employers an opportunity to change over,” she says.
In the early 1930s, the business closed. Muldowney says she thinks John Wallis retired at that stage, because he was 66 years old.
The business would have been important and most people lived near where they worked. “It would be safe to speculate that most people who worked there came from around the area,” she says. Many workers lived in tenements at the time.
Inside the building has been tastefully renovated.
Nowadays, it is home to D-Light Studios – who host photo shoots, music videos and artists’ residences, and offer exhibitions and yoga classes.
A few small businesses rent office space and one day they hope to open a cafe too, says Aisling Reddin, who works for D-Light.
At one stage in the 1980s the building was a mechanic’s premises, says Reddin.
That is why there is a very large ramp running from the ground floor to the first floor, which you can still drive a car up, she says.
As one of Dublin City Council’s resident historians, Muldowney has written about the Wallis & Son’s coach house building in a new book History on Your Doorstep Volume 2.
Her chapter looks at workplaces that shaped their areas in the beginning of the 21st century.
“Workplaces are often central to how communities develop,” she says. Some Dublin businesses have had a remarkable impact on their areas.
The first one she noticed was the Smithfield cattle market. It had a dramatic impact on the area around it, with housing built for workers, and pubs and businesses clustered around, too.
The Jacobs biscuit factory on Bishop Street was “enormously significant as an employer of women in the 20th century”, she says.
They were “probably the only one in Dubin that employed women in large numbers”, she says.
While they didn’t build housing in the way that Guinness did, they had leases on lots of tenements so there was housing for people who worked there, she said.
Jacobs moved out to Tallaght in the 1970s. Now the company makes its products in England, she says.
“The Docklands is a real case in point,” she says, crisscrossing the city again.
Roll-on-roll-off ships – ships designed to carry wheeled cargo – came in in the 1960s and that significantly reduced the number of men who worked on the docks, she says. There were people whose families had worked there for generations.
What you have there now are tourism and tech businesses, she says. So it is very different nowadays.
“If someone got transported from the 1900s into the 21st century they wouldn’t recognise the place at all,” she says.