Writing about New York life – or maybe life in the US generally – once, somebody somewhere drew a profound parallel with the road layout of Manhattan. I can’t locate the original now, or recall who the writer was, or even the exact point s/he was making.
But the gist of it was that Manhattan’s dozen or so broad, vertical avenues were like the principles people strove to live by; while the multiple cross-streets, narrower but much more numerous, were the distractions and compromises that got in the way.
It seemed like a deep, poetic truth when I read it: something they should teach at urban planning school. It must not have been true in prose, however, or I’d probably remember it better now.
If big, straight avenues were of any real help towards the possession of principles, it would be a bad look-out for those of us living in the old cities of Europe, where small, winding thoroughfares are the norm and principles and tourists get lost easily.
But I doubt if straight streets make a people less crooked. For all its grid-pattern layouts, in that respect, America is hardly a beacon on the hill.
Dublin is a notoriously crooked city, in the architectural sense at least. Even when it was aiming for straightness and symmetry, as in the days of the Wide Streets Commission, it couldn’t quite achieve it.
Here for example is my former colleague Frank McDonald, from his most recent book, A Little History of the Future of Dublin, describing the results of the building of Parliament Street and the widening of Grattan Bridge in the 18th century,
“Terminating the vista towards Cork Hill, but not quite on the axis (a typical Dublin trait, not inspired by Paris) is the domed neoclassical City Hall . . . "
The latter was originally the Royal Exchange, built as part of the original alignment, to “close” the view. You’d think they would have put it exactly in the middle.
Elsewhere, somebody might also have considered putting the Rotunda at the northern end of O’Connell Street, rather than tucked away around the corner, or ensured that the National Maternity Hospital was in a direct alignment with Merrion Square East, not off-set.
The quintessential Dublin public space, meanwhile, is College Green, where the fronts of Trinity College and the old House of Parliament half-face each other while apparently avoiding eye contact.
The complete absence of straight lines there is now further confused by the chaotic traffic arrangements, combining bus and bike lanes, tram-lines, and pedestrian crossings in such a way that, especially at rush hour, if you’re not careful, you can meet yourself coming.
Speaking of squares, of course, most of Dublin’s aren’t. The perfectly proportioned Mountjoy Square is an exception. Merrion Square is a rectangle and so is Fitzwilliam, although both of those are more square than Brighton Square, birthplace of James Joyce, which is a triangle.
Perhaps ironically, Leinster House is one of the more symmetrical alignments in the capital city, as viewed from Molesworth Street anyway. But as a rule, rulers do not seem to have much involved in the city’s. If there was a beacon on the hill in the Dublin, it would be just over the summit somewhere, partly obscured.
It’s a long road that has no turning, as you’ll have heard. And then there’s the aforementioned Cork Hill, which despite being one of Dublin’s shortest streets – a mere punctuation mark in the sentence that starts with Dame Street and ends with Christ Church – makes a right-angle turn half-way through.
Or so I’m told. Although it’s not marked by signs, the miniature road leading into the upper yard of Dublin Castle is officially an extension of Cork Hill. And as short as it is, the (lap)dog-leg street has had some important users over the years, most recently President Joe Biden en route to his Castle reception.
Short streets seem to be a Dublin specialty. Near St Patrick’s Cathedral, for example, there used to be a Canon Street, which housed precisely one premises, a pub, and was acclaimed by The Irish Times (circa 1954) as the “shortest street in Europe”.
That has since become extinct. But there remains in the same neighbourhood an entity called Cross Kevin Street, that makes Cork Hill look like a long story.
There is also Palace Street, at another entrance into Dublin Castle, which despite extreme brevity boasts both one of the city’s finest ghost signs (for the “Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society”) and a candidate for Dublin’s most picturesque restaurant, Chez Max.
Cork Hill, for its part, can boast of being the subject of one of James Malton’s famous views of Dublin, via the Royal Exchange building.
Indeed, there is a tourist sign there now featuring the picture and giving some of the street’s history. Alas, and again perhaps ironically, the transparent plastic covering it is in a state of extreme disrepair.
As a result, the reproduction of Malton’s vista is now largely invisible.