Derek Nibbs points across to the housing complex Peadar Kearney House on the other side of Liberty Park, a small green in the north inner-city.
“That was Liberty House,” he says. “My family moved there from Waterford Street – which is a continuation of Railway Street – after 1916.”
Paul Flood grew up around here in Corporation Buildings, a block of social homes which has since been demolished. His family lived around here for generations too, he says.
Back then this park was bigger and was called Corporation Place, says Flood. The street on the other side of the flats was Corporation Street. Until it wasn’t.
Around 20 years ago, many locals were surprised to discover that Corporation Street had been renamed James Joyce Street, says Flood. “One day it was Corporation Street. The next day they took down the sign.”
Flood says doing that erased their history. “They are taking your heritage away from you, what you grew up with and your family grew up with.”
Independent Councillor Christy Burke says that at the time a lot of locals in the north inner-city supported the idea of renaming Corporation Street because people with that address might face discrimination.
Twenty years on though, locals still call it Corporation Street.
And the same lingering questions are turning up in other parts of the city, around who gets to name a street, or a neighbourhood, and what that says about who belongs and is valued.
What’s in a Name?
“This was all corporation property,” says Nibbs, standing on the corner of James Joyce Street, formerly Corporation Street, and gesturing down the road.
These days, the street – about 200 metres long – has tall shiny offices and four- and five-storey blocks of private apartments.
Towards the southern end, is the Dublin City Council City Arts Office and the LAB Gallery. They are used by some local people, says Flood, but most of the development on the street isn’t aimed at them and neither was the name change.
“People were never consulted about the name being changed,” he says. “It was more for commercial reasons, it wasn’t to benefit the community.”
The council didn’t just rename Corporation Street: at the same time, they sold off much of the land there and on the adjoining streets, says Nibbs.
Now locals whose families have lived in the north inner-city for generations can’t afford to stay. “People don’t realise that we are being pushed out of the city,” he says.
“They don’t want the people from these areas,” says Nibbs. “Because the land is too valuable.”
Burke, the independent councillor, says that at the time of the renaming many locals were in favour because they faced discrimination because of their address. “It stigmatised people and it labelled people.”
People he knows who came from Corporation Street still talk about life and growing up in “The Buildings” as if they are still there, he says.
“Those of us who remember it, we never let it go from our minds,” he says. “The Corporation Buildings, we still speak fondly of them.”
“There was great times but there was cruel hardship,” says Burke.
The regeneration of the area included the construction of Dublin City Council arts facilities, the upgrade of the park, and new council housing, he says. “The name change didn’t do it any harm.”
How Did It Happen?
Before Corporation Street was Corporation Street, it was called Mabbot Street after Gilbert Mabbot, who built a watermill there around 1674, says a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
“The street was renamed by the City Council around 1911, presumably due to the association of Mabbot Street with the ‘Monto’ red-light district,” he says.
There is a legal framework around renaming a street. “Under the legislation, the re-naming of a street must be approved by a plebiscite of qualified voters,” says the council spokesperson.
Former Fianna Fáil Councillor Royston Brady proposed that the council rename Corporation Street as James Joyce Street, says the council spokesperson.
Dublin City Council carried out a plebiscite.
By then, Corporation Buildings had already been demolished. Liberty House still sits on the corner of James Joyce Street and Railway Street and is still occupied, but its address is Railway Street so tenants there weren’t consulted.
“There were only two qualified voters on Corporation Street, the Corporation itself, and Kelly & Co (Dublin) Ltd,” says the spokesperson. “The result of the ballot was that there was one vote in favour and none against.”
They didn’t say who voted and who abstained.
The city manager then reported the result to the full council on 5 February 2001. At that meeting, councillors voted in favour of the renaming.
The people living in Liberty House should have been consulted, says Patrick Minogue, who comes from Ballybough and lives in Gardiner Street. “It might have been legally right but it was ethically wrong.”
“If I was from the area or from Liberty House I’d have been very annoyed about how it was handled,” he says.
“It shows a disregard for the people that the city should be for, the locals and the people born and reared in the city,” he says.
One issue that bothers some locals is that James Joyce was not from the area. The connection is that he wrote about the area in Ulysses.
“[The] Circe episode in Ulysses takes place in the red-light district, which Joyce calls Nighttown,” says Sam Slote, an associate professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin.
The street itself is mentioned, he says, back then it was called Mabbot Street.
“The Mabbot street entrance of nighttown, before which stretches an uncobbled tramsiding set with skeleton tracks, red and green will-o’-the-wisps and danger signals,” wrote Joyce in Ulysses.
Flood says there is more to the history of the area than the red-light district of Monto, though. It’s just one part of the story.
Says Nibbs: “Women didn’t become prostitutes for no reason. People did it to survive.”
Contrast that with the name of a new council housing complex, Peadar Kearney House on nearby Railway Street. That was a good choice, says Flood.
Across the City
“The question is why?” says community activist Rita Fagan. “Why did they change Corporation Street?”
Was it to make the land more valuable? she says. The process of street name changes should include consultation with locals, she says. Otherwise, “it’s all top-down”.
After the council demolished Fatima Mansions, a social-housing complex in Rialto, and named the new complex Herberton, locals fought to keep the name Fatima as the Luas stop, she says.
Fagan sits on the regeneration board for St Michael’s Estate, another former social housing complex, in Inchicore.
She says she is concerned that the St Michael’s Estate lands appear to have been renamed as the Emmet Road Urban Quarter.
During public consultations last year, that’s what the planned project of cost-rental and social homes was called on flyers.
She fears that there won’t be a consultation process on the name as residents moved out of St Michael’s years ago, she says. “They would argue the same, that there wasn’t any residents left on the site.”
More recently, the “quarter” seems to have been dropped. A project website simply calls it Emmet Road.
That is a temporary name anyway, says Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan. Once the development is completed the council will start the process to name it.
There should be local consultation before it is formally named, he says.
It won’t be St Michaels Estate though, he says. “It’s a totally new development. It’s not a refurbishment or a regeneration.”
Likewise, the new development built on the O’Devaney Gardens land won’t be called O’Devaney Gardens once it is completed, he says.