A worn little face, large-eared and deep-eyed, sits unassumingly on a building, tacked on to the old warehouse at Grand Canal Harbour, in the heart of Guinness country in the Liberties.

Eagle-eyed Dubliners will recognise the face of the Rialto Devil, former resident of the Rialto Bridge.

It’s made of grey stone, and is much older than the drab, pebble-dash building it lives on.

When Stephen Coyne noticed it for the first time earlier this month, he had no idea where it came from or what it was. So, he took to Facebook.

“People who were kids living in the area at the time thought it was the devil’s head,” says Coyne, a programme manager for Dublin City Council in the Liberties area.

They replied with stories of the bad luck it brought if you looked at it three times, and how they had been afraid to glance at it.

Catherine Scuffil was able to shed some light on the little figure. She remembers it in stories from her own childhood.

The Rialto Devil

Scuffil was just a child when she first heard the story of the devil’s head. Now she’s a historian in residence in the council’s South Central Area, and she makes it her business to look out for curiosities like this.

When Coyne posted the picture, she knew straight away what the head was. And where it came from.

“As a child, I was shown disturbed bricks in the underside of Rialto Bridge. [I was] told this was where a head used to be,” she says.

The bargemen, leaving the harbour at Guinness would touch the head for luck, says Scuffil, as they were passing under the bridge. It was the first bridge on the Grand Canal system.

“It was a lucky charm to the bargemen heading out on what could be a dangerous and long boat trip, maybe as far as the Shannon,” she says.

The Grand Canal originally ended at the warehouse, says Coyne. Today’s Luas line at the Rialto stop is the footprint of the original Grand Canal, which was filled in along that line in 1971, he says. By that stage, the harbour had been derelict.

According to Scuffil, the head moved in 1939, when the Rialto Bridge was widened. Coyne says the pebble-dash shed it lives on now is from 1940, and it’s not particularly interesting to look at, so “someone decided to add a little bit of colour”.

Given such a tight time frame, it looks as if whoever moved the little head was trying to rescue it.

Moving up the Canal

The significance of the Grand Canal Main Line to this area was huge in its heyday, says Scuffil.

It wasn’t just providing Guinness with raw materials, and taking the finished product to the rest of the country. It was also serving places like William Jameson’s Distillery in Marrowbone Lane, the Dolphin’s Barn Brick Company and William Spence’s Iron Works in Cork Street, she says.

As a result, “Spence’s products can been seen in places along the canal route and Dolphin’s Barn bricks also turn up along the route.”

“The canal was a significant local employer in its own right, in the days of horse-drawn canal barges, many locals were employed as saddlers, grooms and horsemen, and also received accommodation from the company,” says Scuffil.

Nobody seems to know anymore who moved the devil’s head from the bridge to the warehouse site. But what’s interesting is that it has stuck to the path of the original canal in its travels.

Now, the old harbour site is being redeveloped, and though the warehouse is being retained as a protected structure, Coyne says he’s not sure what will happen to the devil’s head, since its building is newer, and unprotected.

“Perhaps a replica could be placed on Rialto Bridge when it is being redeveloped for the National Children’s Hospital,” says Scuffil.

As a historian, she wants to see it preserved for future generations, “like all things related to our history and heritage,” she says.

The last time it was rescued was 1939; maybe it’s due another change of scenery.

Our Brushing Up series tells the stories behind pieces of art on display across Dublin, from paintings in pubs to mossy sculptures. So you can pretend you know your art. You can read more of the pieces here. 

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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