Above Thomas Street, the tall iron lamp posts are topped with bends and swirls, the pattern reminiscent of designs in the Book of Kells.
“They give the city its character,” says Fred Hammond, an industrial archeologist who has researched the city’s lighting.
Old Dublin street lamps like these should be preserved, Hammond says, as they give people a sense of history. “Modern street lights just don’t have much character.”
Mostly, when older lights are damaged and stripped from the street these days, they’re not resurrected.
Twenty old lamps are about to get a reprieve through, having been rescued from the darkness of council storage.
A group of architects, an industrial archaeologist and the council have been working on a plan to put 20 different historic street lamps into Merrion Square Park on the south side of the city — and want to get it done just in time for Christmas.
In 1616, the first public lighting was rolled out in Dublin under the candlelight law, says a report commissioned by Dublin City Council.
For the next 200 years, Dublin streets were lit by candles or oil lamps. Until 1825, when gas lighting took over.
By 1884, there were 3,750 street lamps in Dublin, and 25 lamplighters who would scurry up and down ladders, 300 times each shift, to make it around to their quota of roughly 150 lights, the report says.
These pre-electric street lamps are taken down when they are damaged or are deemed structurally unsafe, says Elizabeth Mary, an architect with Howley Hayes Architects.
Once the lamps are taken down, it’s not guaranteed that they will go back up, says Mary, who worked on the report for the council.
There’s maintenance to consider. “They take a lot of care and work. When you have a large number of them across the city, it can be just easier to put in a standard steel one,” she says.
But “they are beautiful so it is worth the extra effort to take care of them”, says Mary.
Up and Down
In the 1990s, Dublin Corporation – as the council was known at the time – tried to salvage some of these pre-electric lamps, says the council’s Senior Executive Officer, Donncha Ó Dúlaing.
“There were just a gathering of lamps that had been decommissioned or no longer in use,” says Ó Dúlaing. They were put up all about Merrion Square Park.
But the lights in the lamps didn’t work, he says. Four years ago, the lamps were taken down again as the council decluttered the park, he says.
In the summer of 2018, the council decided to try and reinstall the lamps that were in storage. This time, they’re being restored so the lights work.
Hammond, the industrial archeologist, was brought onto the project to try to identify the street lamps that the council had in storage.
It was a tough job. There aren’t many detailed records of these old lamposts, Hammond says.
Many aren’t engraved with their makers’ names, he says. That makes dating them hard.
“When electricity came in, the gas lamps were eventually converted to electricity. They took off the old gas lamp and put in an electric bulb,” he says.
Hammond scoured the lamps for clues to their origins.
“Steel lamps didn’t really come in until the late 1800s, early 1900s,” says Hammond. Any iron lamp most likely came before that date.
The height of the lamp post can also hint at where it was in the city, he says. “The taller the lamp, the more important the road it would have been on.”
Restoring the Lamps
The next step after identifying the lamps was restoring them.
“Over time, they are painted and painted again. There is so many layers of paint so you begin to lose a lot of the detail,” says Mary, of Howley Hayes Architects.
Preservation specialists have cleaned the lamp posts, she says. They blasted off the rust encrust on the metal, which hid the detailed iron work.
Using the right paint is important, says Mary. “So that you don’t lose any of the detail.”
The lamps were cleaned, coated with a primer and painted a matt silver, leaving the grooves, spirals and flowers on the lamp posts clear and crisp.
More lamps have been added to those taken from storage. Each of the 20 lamps to be planted in Merrion Square Park is a different style.
“When you see them in detail, when you see them cleaned up you definitely do appreciate them more,” says Mary.
They’re just working out where in the park, said Mary. “We hope to have it done before Christmas. It would be lovely to see especially when it gets darker earlier.”