While she was researching her family tree, Brian Dempsey’s aunt asked him if he could take a few photographs of his great-great-great-grandparents’ home.
They were Catherine and Patrick Duffy, her list said.
And, her research found, in 1877 they lived on Leinster Market, an alley between D’Olier Street and Hawkins Street.
It wasn’t an address he was familiar with, Dempsey says, but he paid it a visit in early January 2021. “And I was disappointed to see that it was gated off on both streets.”
On D’Olier Street, the alley entrance is at the corner of the glassy 12-storey O’Connell Bridge House. It is blocked by a gate of four steel panels topped with sawtooth spikes.
Around the other end on Hawkins Street, it hides behind a pair of locked, wrought-iron gates inside the round arch that cuts through the Neo-Tudor Dublin Gas Company building.
Five years ago, Dublin City Council said it was close to launching a plan to bring life to Dublin’s laneways – albeit at that point its focus was on the northside of O’Connell Bridge rather than the southside where Leinster Market sits.
But because of the pandemic, the project hasn’t moved past the concept stage, a council spokesperson said in July. And – even as council policy promises more routes for pedestrians around the city as it seeks to encourage active travel – another laneway, Harbour Court, just off Abbey Street Lower, is set to be blocked up.
Dempsey says the fate of Leinster Market is a shame, to see a piece of the city’s heritage still closed off, especially when the thoroughfare could be a market. “With a bit of imagination, something could be done with this.”
“You could have it like the Blackrock market, where it’s a hive of activity during the daytime,” he said.
A council spokesperson did not explain why the lane was closed off. But, they said, there are no plans to reopen it at this time.
The old meat market
Despite the gates, Dempsey did manage to get an inside glimpse of Leinster Market, he said, as there’s a Spar next door. “And the guys let me in.”
The narrow red-brick alleyway was relatively well-preserved, said Dempsey. “It’s there and still intact, and with some very nice features.”
Old city maps show Leinster Market going back hundreds of years.
It was documented in 1756 by the French-British cartographer John Roque in his map, “An exact survey of the city and suburbs of Dublin”. It was unnamed, though, and had just one entrance, via Hawkins Street.
It was named after the Duke of Leinster, says Maurice Earls, the owner of Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street. “They were the Earls of Kildare, the Fitzgeralds, and that family along with the D’Olier family put up the money for building D’Olier Street.”
D’Olier Street didn’t exist until around 1807, Earls says. “It was created by the Wide Streets Commission, and I can only assume D’Olier put up more money because he got the street named after him.”
By 1822, after D’Olier Street was built, Leinster Market was recorded as a thoroughfare in Cooke’s Royal Map of Dublin.
In 1843, it was already mentioned as a market, the Leinster Meat Market, according to the Irish Historic Towns Atlas No. 26: Dublin Part III 1756 to 1847.
Used for refuse
On a Saturday afternoon, the shadowy entrance onto busy D’Olier Street reveals little of its historic character. But the Hawkins Street side does.
The alleyway is through the round archway of the Dublin Gas Company building, a three-storey neo-Tudor structure built in 1905, according to the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.
Black wrought-iron gates with golden spearheads block off the arched entrance into the alleway. Its surface and the walls on either side are built from red brick.
In the centre, there is a corridor that serves as a bridge between the buildings on either side of the market. Like the main facade of the Gas Company building, it is done in the Tudor style. The exterior walls are painted white, and supported by a dark timber frame.
The alleyway is used to store bins these days. Health and safety signs are fixed to the walls, and steel grids fitted over some of its former windows. A puddle was filled with litter.
Just inside the Hawkins Street entrance, on the wall to the right, is a rusted and bent green and white bilingual street sign.
A plaque on the left wall, dated 1993, shows a gruff man drinking whiskey from a glass marked Jameson, and reading a book, which says on its cover Dublin Literary Pub Crawl.
The plaque was sponsored by Jameson and Bord Gáis, says Colm Quilligan, founder of the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl.
The tour used Leinster Market for a street performance at the time, he says. “Because it looked like an authentic Dublin in the time of Sean O’Casey.”
Leinster Market started to decline during the 1960s, says Earls, the owner of Books Upstairs. But it was still accessible for decades.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council did not give a reason for why it was closed. But it was about 30 years ago, they said.
There wasn’t a steel gate blocking off the D’Olier Street entrance in 2009. But, based on Google Street View images, this became a permanent fixture by June 2014.
Similarly, Google Street View images from 2009 and 2010 show the Hawkins Street side open too, with the wrought-iron gates only appearing to be locked from 2014 onward.
The council spokesperson did not respond when asked if the laneway had only been closed in more recent years.
But even shuttered off, the street fascinated filmmaker Sean King. “It looked so magical and atmospheric,” he said.
It was like a glimpse into a part of Dublin that doesn’t really exist any longer, he says. “And it has these amazing light fixtures over its arches.”
In 2022, King suggested to Dublin City Council that Leinster Market be reinstated as an art and food market. That was in response to the council’s consultation on its Draft Scheme of Special Planning Control for O’Connell Street and Environs 2022.
But the council’s chief executive at that time, Owen Keegan, said in a written response that no changes were recommended. King’s suggestions were out of the remit of the scheme, he wrote.
King was disappointed, he says, because a place like this could be reimagined as something similar to the Merchants Arch cut, between the Ha’penny Bridge and Temple Bar, he says.
“That is like a transition zone, and if we applied the same logic to Leinster Market, there are lots of types of uses that we could put it to,” he said.
Laneways provide walking shortcuts, increase permeability and improve access to properties, the council’s Reimagining Dublin One report from 2018 says. “In some cases they also create opportunities for low rent shopping and services and highlight texturally rich historic cobblestones and buildings.”
But there isn’t any plan to re-open the alleyway at this time, the council’s spokesperson said on Tuesday.
If Leinster Market was to have a future however, it wouldn’t be sufficient simply to open those gates up, Earls says. “I would support anything that made the city more interesting, but the city has severe social problems, with a large number of lives blighted by drug-taking.”
That would need to be borne in mind when bringing a lane like the Leinster Market back to life, he says. “It would require a really energised kind of vision, so that the alleyway could be used in a socially positive way.”