Herbert Park home of The O’Rahilly faces demolition

Dermot Carmody

A decision is due by August 24th from An Bord Pleanála on a Social Housing Development (SHD) planning application by the owners of The Herbert Park Hotel. If plans for a 12-story apartment development on the site go ahead, it would mean the demolition of the house at 40 Herbert Park that was home to Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, the only person among the leaders of the Rising who was killed in action in 1916.

The early life of The O’Rahilly
Born Michael Joseph Rahilly in Ballylongford, Co. Kerry on April 22nd 1875, he later adopted the surname O’Rahilly, presumably to connect the name more closely with its ancient Gaelic roots and later still styled himself “The O’Rahilly” in the manner of a tribal chieftain.
He was educated at Clongowes, leaving in 1893, the same year that he met his future wife Nancy Brown. He was a medical student at the Royal University of Ireland but he gave up his studies to run the family business in Ballylongford when his father died in 1896.
Two years later he sold the business and sailed to New York, where he married Nancy in 1899. Their son Bobby was born in New York, but O’Rahilly moved back to Ireland in 1902.
He also spent a time in England, where he was involved with the United Irish League and with the Irish Home Rule Party. His friend James O’Mara was a member of the party and an MP. Later, after O’Mara had resigned and joined Artur Griffith’s Sinn Féin, O’Rahilly himself was also to be a Sinn Féin supporter.
The move to Herbert Park and political activism
After spending a few years in Philadelphia, where he helped with his wife’s family’s business, he returned finally to Ireland in 1909 and in 1910 signed the ground lease on the as-yet uncompleted house at 40 Herbert Park. He lived there from 1911 until his death in 1916.
Herbert Park was previously the site for the Great Exhibition of 1907 and No. 40, along with Nos. 36 and 38, was built on the site of The Exports Hall. Herbert Park itself was opened in the same year
The O’Rahilly’s house was completed, 1911. In June of that year The O’Rahilly was prominent in protests at the celebrations of the coronation of King George V and against his visit to Dublin subsequently. This was the last visit by a British Monarch until the King’s granddaughter Elizabeth II visited in 2011.
O’Rahilly worked on Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin newspaper and was acting manager of The Gaelic League’s publication An Claidheamh Soluis. He played a significant role in the founding of the Irish Volunteers in 1913. It was he who sent invitations to the meeting in Wynn’s Hotel at which the Volunteers were formed. He went on to act as Treasurer and Director of Munitions for the Irish Volunteers and was instrumental in the organisation of the purchase and landing at Howth and Kilcoole of guns for the Volunteers in 1914.

The 1916 Rising
In the run-up to the Easter Rising in 1916, The O’Rahilly supported Eoin MacNeill in opposition to the insurrection, threatening Pearse with a gun at St Enda’s school when he heard that Clarke and McDermott had arrested O’Neill’s ally Bulmer Hobson, and purportedly telling him that whoever tried to take him “had better be quicker on the draw!”.
When O’Neill issued an order countermanding the rising, The O’Rahilly drove around Munster carrying the order. He believed the rising to have been averted but when he realised the fighting had begun on Easter Monday, he nevertheless donned his uniform and headed in his car to join the rebels at the GPO, declaring “Well, I’ve helped to wind up the clock, I might as well hear it strike!”
The O’Rahilly was shot in the face as he led a small detachment of men towards Moore Street from the GPO. He bled out for hours, and efforts to move him as he lay bleeding out were thwarted by English officers.
He wrote a note to his wife Nancy as he lay dying, and that note is addressed to their home at 40 Herbert Park. He’s also said to have written his name in his own blood where he lay in what is now named O’Rahilly Parade in his memory. He was the only leader of the Rising who died in action and he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Arguments for the preservation of 40 Herbert Park today
Despite being the home of one of the leaders in the 1916 rising, documents lodged with An Bord Pleanála in connection with the SHD planning application for the site refer to an “Architectural Heritage Assessment, prepared by Cathal Crimmins Conservation Architects, which also includes a report on the historical associations of No.40 Herbert Park by Professor Charles Townsend, FBA.”
In this report Professor Townsend, while acknowledging to some extent the historical significance of the building, puts forward the opinion that “it would be hard to argue that its significance was on a par with other key sites associated with the 1916 Rising, including St Enda’s or any of the sites of fighting.”
There are contrary opinions, of course. In June of this year The O’Rahilly’s grandson, Proinsias O’Rahilly claimed that the house should be on the Record of Protected Structures and ought to be a National Monument, claiming in an Irish Times interview that “the meetings which took place in the house played a pivotal role in the foundation of the State.
Another relative of the 1916 leaders, Honor O Brolchain, grand niece of Joseph Mary Plunkett, who herself lives close by Herbert Park in Donnybrook, has lodged a formal objection to the application on the grounds of both the cultural and historical importance of the building and on its architectural merit.
In her written submission, Ms O Brolchain says that “The O’Rahilly house had constant traffic, particularly of the Rising Leaders, Volunteers and members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood,” but also argues that the houses built on the boundaries of Herbert Park represent an example of the “beginning of family-friendly architecture as well as having varied and entertaining facades.”
She claims that the houses represent “an announcement to Ballsbridge that this is a lived-in area, surrounding its own park.” She points out that one of the key guidelines in considering the conservation of buildings is that those which have served over a hundred years of useful life should be conserved, and argues that if 40 Herbert Park is demolished, as 36 and 38 adjacent to it have already been, it could set an undesirable precedent and threaten more examples of the Crampton built Arts and Crafts buildings like it in the area.