The City as Theatre: O'Connell Street
O'Connell Street is Dublin's main thoroughfare running through the centre of the city on a north-south axis and terminating by the river Liffey. It is between 46m and 49m in width and 500m in length, The greater part of historically significant buildings and monuments are located on Lower O'Connell Street.
The first street to occupy the present location was Drogheda Street, dating from the 17th century and laid out by Henry Moore, Earl of Drogheda. About a third in width compared to modern O'Connell Street, it extended from today's Parnell to Abbey Street, therefore not running up to the river. When property speculator Luke Gardiner acquired a part of the street in the 1740s he demolished the western side of it to create a residential square of 46m in width, establishing the size of the modern-day thoroughfare and renaming the development, which he eventually planned to break through to the Liffey, Sackville Street.
However work to realise the breakthrough only began in 1777 (after Gardiner's death) when the Wide Streets Commission obtained a grant from Parliament. Demolishing the buildings separating the street from the river, laying out a roadway and building new terraces took over 10 years, by the end of which a fine thoroughfare had been created. The facades were well proportioned and presented a unified picture, near the centre the General Post Office (GPO) was build from 1814-1818, a mayor classical building.
Lower Sackville Street very quickly became a commercial success, hosting a multitude of popular shops, while Upper Sackville Street lost it's prominence and the houses wore down. The progressing 19th century saw a great many changes come to the boulevard, high-Victorian hotels and department stores were created or remodelled such as the Gresham (opened in 1817) and the 1953 "Monster Store", which was later bought up by the Clery family. The monument to Daniel O'Connell (by sculptor John Henry Foley), leader of the Catholic Emancipation Movement, was unveiled on the central median facing the Liffey in 1882. Shortly afterwards and in time with a popular rediscovery of Irish identity at the end of the 19th century, changing the thoroughfare's name to O'Connell Street was first suggested, but the scheme faced opposition from some of the residents. However the city population gradually accepted the new name in perception and it was officially changed in 1924 after the formation of the Free State.
At the beginning of the 20th century much of the street was reduced to rubble when the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising seized the GPO and were subsequently bombarded by a British gunboat and other artillery pieces. The "Dublin Reconstruction Act" was drafted very quickly and an expert group was appointed to modernise the thoroughfare in a way that would establish coherency among the buildings. This aim was largely achieved, recreating commercial grandeur in a neo-classical style between 1918 and 1923. The GPO's former design was maintained, adding new substance behind the 1818 facade. Among the almost completely redesigned buildings were the Gresham hotel and Clery's department store.
In July 1922 during the Civil War the boulevard once again saw fighting between Free State members of the provisional government and Republican anti-treaty combatants, who had seized the nearby Four Courts, but none of the reconstructed buildings were damaged.
In 1966 the Nelson Pillar, a granite Doric column of 36.8m erected in 1808, was blown up by republican activists. In the early 2000s it was replaced by the Spire of Dublin, the world's tallest sculpture.
In the 1970s and 80s O'Connell Street was victim to property speculators, a number of historic buildings were demolished and replaced by kiosks and the like. As a reaction to this the City Council presented the O'Connell Street Integrated Area Plan in 1998 and designated it as an Architectural Conservation Area. The road space was reduced to two traffic lanes, the central median narrowed, a central square-like area created in front of the GPO, the monuments were restored and conserved. As a result O'Connell Street is once more one of, if not the main street of Dublin.
I feel O'Connell Street to be the Dublin location with the strongest connotation towards theatre. It is the main route for the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and the site for the commemoration on the 1916 Easter Rising, including the centenary celebrated this year, as well as a popular passage for State funeral corteges.
The thoroughfare has also served as a theatre in which to showcase one's political and national identity, being stage to the Easter Rising (1916), Civil War (1922), destruction of the Nelson Pillar (1966) as well as many more minor demonstrations and protests.
Leaders of such declarations , eventually adding up to a success as independence was achieved, are commemorated through monuments along the central median such as Daniel O'Connell, socialist political leader James Larkin (unveiled in 1980) and 19th century Home Rule politician Charles Steward Parnell (Parnell Monument, unveiled in 1911).