As Dublin's Historic Street Lamps Disappear, Some Worry the City Is Losing Its Character

Outside Doyle’s pub on College Street, a lonely pair of French art deco street lanterns hang from an ornate cement lamp post.

The lanterns are made of black metal with glass and have a white hood on top.

A film entitled Dublin City 1965 shows that these stylish street lights once adorned the entirety of O’Connell Street and O’Connell Bridge, all the way up to College Green.

“The end is nigh for Dublin’s art deco concrete street lanterns,” said architect and sketch artist, John Dorman on Twitter. “This double-headed beauty is the last remaining one left on College Green.”

Speaking by phone on Thursday Dorman says he is no expert but an enthusiast. He sketches the city in his free time and is lamenting the steady loss of Dublin’s historic street furniture as detrimental to the city’s authenticity.

Dublin City Council says it is working through a long list of recommendations to assess whether they should be added to the list of protected structures.

Art Deco Lighting

On 19 December 1938, 95 new art deco style reinforced cement lamps were switched on for the first time, says a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.

These lamps once illuminated O’Connell Street, College Street and College Green, part of Dame Street and Lower Grafton Street.

The lanterns were designed first and were then manufactured by Holophane Ltd in London. They incorporated refracting glass units, which were considered unique at the time, she says.

The concrete structure of these lamps was manufactured by the Société Française des Poteaux Électriques (the French Society of Electric Poles) in Paris.

Reinforced concrete was chosen because of its low cost and because it was believed to have low maintenance requirements, she says.

“The shafts and brackets were cast separately using a Portland cement and a crushed marble aggregate which was then polished,” says the Dublin City Council spokesperson.

“Their original appearance would have been similar to terrazzo.”

Why Take Them Away?

When sketching Dublin city, Dorman includes its ornate lamp posts some of which date back as far as the 18th century, he says.

Many of those we see today are actually replicas as the concrete posts often become damaged says Dorman.

“What happens is water and frost gets into the concrete and spits the concrete out, so you get lumps falling down,” says Dorman.

However, with a historical building, it would be fixed up if it was damaged rather than being replaced he says.

Dorman would like to see the original lamp posts added to the record of protected structures.

The art deco lamps are among the most beautiful of the concrete lamps in the city. “Those ones are particularly fine,” he says.

Missing Post Boxes

Like the street lamps, other historic street furniture regularly ends up disappearing in Dublin.

“The council tends not to protect street furniture,” says Dorman. “Without a doubt, it’s all slipping away there is no cohesive policy on the protection of them.”

Ruth McManus, an associate professor in geography at Dublin City University, says that she recently spotted that the original post box outside the college in Drumcondra was missing.

“It was one of those proper round pillar boxes, it was an Edwardian I think, you know they have the letters representing the different monarchs, and it was gone,” says McManus.

In its place, “there was just one of those square box yokes, mass-produced kind of thing,” she says.

She would like to know where the original box went and says it isn’t the first time that she has spotted a postbox missing from its place.

She too would like to see street furniture protected. “It is the thin end of the wedge, you are replacing street signs, you put in some icky post box and bit by bit, you have changed the character of an area,” she says.

A spokesperson for An Post says the Drumcondra post box was removed because it was badly damaged due to erosion on the hinges of the door.

The doors are made of very heavy cast iron, and it is impossible to get new parts so they have to rely on other “retired” or damaged post boxes, says the spokesperson. To get those they often have to call on the staff in the Royal Mail, to source parts and to get repair work done, she says.

The Drumcondra post box is currently in secure storage while An Post is figuring out how to repair it, she says.

“No functioning pillar boxes are ever removed,” says the spokesperson for An Post.

“Though over the years we have moved some to quieter or safer locations within their general locality, to save them from ongoing vandalism,” she says.

Inattentive drivers of lorries and large construction vehicles have taken out a few post boxes over the years as well, by reversing into them, says the spokesperson.

The older post boxes were also designed for much smaller letters and big envelopes and jiffy bags can get blocked in the narrow inner tank of the postbox, which causes the mail to pile up and even spill out, says the spokesperson.

“The modern ‘pedestal’ boxes cannot boast the aesthetic charm of their antique elders,” she says “but they are more functional viz a viz contemporary mail formats, online shopping returns and such like.”

Will Street Furniture Be Protected?

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council says that there are around 8,780 structures on the council’s record of protected structures.

The council currently has a backlog of around 1550 structures awaiting assessment, says the spokesperson.

Some 300 of those structures were proposed by elected representatives and members of the public.

Between 2014 and 2018 another 1,250 were recommended for protection by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, says the spokesperson for Dublin City Council.

Says the Dublin City Council spokesperson, “This is a very large number of potential additions, each requiring professional consideration by conservation officers and the preparation of reports and recommendations to the respective area committees and to the city council itself.”

The Dublin City Council Town Planner has worked out a system to tackle the workload, she says.

Throughout this year they will bring forward proposals to protect additional structures and possibly to delete some of those that are on the list, further progress will be made under the new city development plan, says the council spokesperson.

“The forthcoming review of the Dublin City Development Plan, commencing this autumn, will consider the issue of the conservation of the range of features and structures of special architectural and historic interest situated in public streets and spaces across the city,” says the council spokesperson.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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