A Potted History
Meath Street emerged in the later 17thC as a planned residential and commercial street speculatively laid out by the Earls of Meath on land to the south of Thomas Street that had hitherto remained undeveloped. In 1680, the Brabazons commissioned a stone mason by the name of Wheeler to draw up plans for a spacious new thoroughfare to run from The Coombe to Thomas Street. The street was intended to be a fashionable residential enclave that would draw merchants and the well heeled to what was then the largely rural western suburbs of the city. The street measured 44 feet and was straight and regular (in contrast to medieval streets within the walled city), but the Earl’s limited ownership meant the street narrowed at either end, due to existing buildings. It was only when the Wide Streets Commissioners looked at the street in the 19thC that the junction with Thomas Street, known as Meath Row, was widened and improved.
The street developed quickly and led to a series of organic smaller streets and lanes off it that were all largely intact by the 1720s. The development of the street coincided with the growth of Dublin itself, and particularly the post-Restoration push to entice ‘Protestant Strangers’ to Dublin, such as Huguenots and Quaker settlers. Meath Street quickly became a centre for these emigrant communities, developing quickly as a commercial street. The Quakers founded their first meeting house at No 27 in the 1680s (the remains of the arch entrance of the complex can still be seen). In its early years, the street would likely have included a curvilinear gable buildings, known as Dutch Billies. As was common at the time, merchants would have lived above their place of business, lending Meath Street a bustling and busy air.
In the mid 18thC the street went into decline, as many of the thriving manufacturing industries in the area were decimated by competition and restrictive trade laws from London. The push of the city to the east also made the western quarters less fashionable. Wealth left the area. Poverty and overcrowding increased. Meath Street, which has once been a pleasant contrast to the crowded medieval city, now became a disheveled quarter of the grander Georgian Dublin. In the 19thC improvements to the street were made, the entrances into the street were widened and new terraces were built, particularly along the east side. The Liberty Creche (now the Dublin Steiner School) was one of these buildings – originally established as the Sick Poor Institute and Dorset Nourishment Dispensary to provide much-needed relief to the area’s poor. In the 1850s, Meath Street’s most imposing building was started – St Catherine of Alexandria’s Catholic Church, to designs by JJ McCarthy. The church was built in fashionable gothic style, although without its originally intended spire.
Meath Street in the 19thC was a street of provisions shops, with bakeries and dairies listed in trade directories of the time. However the street was also given over to tenements, and overcrowding was rife. The veneer of commercial respectability on the front masked upper floors often given over to multiple families, with squalid cottages set out to the rear. The area was the focus of much effort in the late 19thC to build quality housing, including by the Earl of Meath and the Iveagh Trust , and Nos 19-20 would date from this period.
The 20thC history of Meath Street is colourful and varied. Despite the urban decay of the street, it continues to thrive as a commercial hub for many decades. Business tended to local needs: groceries, general provisions, covered markets and clothing retailers, all of which lent the street a lively bustling nature. The street saw much rebuilding in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly along its southern end, as well as on adjoining side streets. In the last 20 years, the street has lost some of its heyday bustle. Clothing retailers have declined, suffering from the competition of the main city centre and large shopping centres in the suburbs. Food and provisions face competition from supermarkets. Tastes and shopping habits change. And as with every period of its history since it was first laid out, Meath Street adapts and changes. New businesses have come to the street in recent years and a sense of optimism for the street has increased.
Dublin City Council is now proposing to undertake public realm improvements to Meath Street and its environs as part of the ongoing programme of renewal in The Liberties. The Council is looking at how best to preserve and enhance the unique commercial and residential character of Meath Street while creating a more attractive street, with greater accessibility and improved functioning of the street. A design team led by Haslam & Co Architects has been appointed to develop a scheme for the street as an action of The Liberties Greening Strategy.
The plan objectives include:
- the future role for the street
- how to improve facilities for shoppers and other using the street
- how to improve the balance between accessibility to traffic and services for the street and the needs of pedestrians
- how to create a more inviting and attractive street with a positive future
The first stage of an ongoing public consultation began in October. A draft plan for the street will be available in January with the intention to submit a formal Part 8 Planning Application later in 2019. The ambition is to refurbish Meath Street within the next 3 years.
(With thanks to Dublin Civic Trust for the history outlined above, taken from Meath & Francis Street: A Study of the Past, A Vision for the Future, 2008).