Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

Dublin in the 1780s: It's Hell, Jim, but not as we know it

Recently, as I trawled through Google Books archive looking for various tidbits that would service my twin Irish historical interests – economic history and genealogy – I stumbled across an edition of the Quarterly Review from 1852 which contained a fascinating lengthy article, essentially a proto-Lonely Planet for Dublin. I’m still going through it – there are an amazing amount of anecdotes about daily life in Dublin, as well as guides to all the sites of prominent buildings, still standing now, standing then but gone by now and those which had even gone by then.

Early in the article, there was a fascinating diversion in a footnote, containing a discussion of an area of Dublin long since gone – Hell. My first thought was that this must have been one of the slums of Dublin, possibly the most notorious. It turns out, however, that it’s just another example of Dublin wit. The area itself was quite posh – rooms in Hell for lawyers working in the nearby old Four Courts were advertised in local papers. Dubliners just liked the idea of having an area right beside the main Cathedral, Christ Church, called Hell. It even had a statue of the devil! To better follow the story, you might cross-reference against this map of Hell, Dublin, circa 2008, courtesy of Google Maps.

Dublin's Hell Region, circa 2008

I’m hoping to dig out a series of little interesting anecdotes about Dublin from this excellent trove – I’ve spotted a list of pubs and gentlemen’s clubs later in the piece, so that might be up next! Here’s the footnote in full, though. The bulk of it is a direct quotation from about 1830, the reminiscences of an old man, presumably thinking back to his youth in the 1780s or so – enjoy!

The “London Tavern” appears to have been destroyed by a fire which broke out in 1729, in the “London Entry” between Castle-street and Fishamble-street, the greater part of the houses in these two streets, as well as in Copper-alley, close to the back of the “London Entry”, being then built of timber or “cage-work”.

The iron gate of the passage through which the judges entered the old Four Courts of Dublin, stood about ten yards from the present west corner of Fishamble street, in Skinner’s-row, now called Christ Church-place. The widening of the upper part of the west side of Fishamble-street and the adjacent alterations, totally obliterated this passage, which was known as “Hell”. The following description of it appeared in a Dublin periodical twenty years ago:-

“I remember, instead of turning to the right down Parliament-street, going, in my youth, straightforward under the Exchange and up Cork-hill, to the old Four Courts, adjoining Christ Church cathedral. I remember what an immense crowd of cars, carriages, noddies, and sedan chairs beset our way as we struggled on between Latouche’s and Gleadowe’s Banks in Castle-street – what a labour it was to urge on our way through Skinner-row – I remember looking up to the old cage-work wooden house that stood at the corner of Castle-street and Werburgh-street, and wondering why, as it overhung so much, it did not fall down – and then turning down Fishamble-street, and approaching the Four Courts, that then existed, through what properly was denominated Christ Church Yard, but which popularly was called Hell.

This was certainly a very profane and unseemly soubriquet, to give to a place that adjoined a Cathedral whose name was Christ Church; and my young mind, when I first entered there, was struck with its unseemliness. Yes; and more especially, when over the arched entrance there was pointed out to me the very image of the devil, carved in oak, and not unlike one of those hideous black figures that are still in Thomas-street, hung over Tobacconists’ doors. This locale of Hell, and this representation of his satanic majesty, were famous in those days even beyond the walls of Dublin. I remember well, on returning to my native town after my first visit to Dublin, being asked by all my playfellows, had I been in Hell, and had I seen the devil. Its fame even reached Scotland, and Burns the Poet, in his story of ‘Death and Doctor Hornbook’, alludes to it when he says –

‘But this that I am gean to tell, / Which lately on a night befell / Is just as true as the dell’s in hell, / Or Dublin city.’

As Hell has not now any local habitation in our city, neither has the devil – but I can assure you, reader, that there are relics preserved of this very statue to this day; some of it was made into much esteemed snuff-boxes – and I am told there is one antiquarian in our city, who possesses the head and horns, and who prizes the relic as the most valuable in his museum. At any rate, Hell to me, in those days, was a most attractive place, and often did I go hither, for the yard was full of shops where toys, and fireworks, and kites, and all the playthings that engage the youthful fancy, were exposed for sale. But Hell was not only attractive to little boys, but also to bearded men: for here were comfortable lodgings for single men, and I remember reading in a journal of the day, an advertisement, intimating that there were ‘To be let, furnished apartments in Hell. N.B. They are well suited to a lawyer.’

Here were also sundry taverns and snuggeries, where the counsellor would cosher with the attorney – where the prebendary and the canon of the cathedral could meet and make merry – here the old stagers, the seniors of the Currans, the Yelvertons, and the Bully Egans, would enjoy the concomitants of good fellowship – there Prime Sergeant Malone, dark Phil Tisdall, and prior still to them, the noted Sir Toby Butler, cracked their jokes and their marrow bones, toasted away claret and tossed repartee, until they died, as other men die and are forgotten.”

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