The changing history of Merrion

Photo: Charles Lysaght, former barrister, local historian and author. Photo courtesy of Edmund Ross.

Photo: Charles Lysaght, former barrister, local historian and author.
Photo courtesy of Edmund Ross.

Local historian, Charles Lysaght, former barrister and author of the book ‘Brendan Bracken’, which is now the feature of a current exhibition at the Little museum of Dublin, spoke to NewsFour about a lesser-known history of Merrion, including famous denizens of the old regency houses in the area and the changes of boundary between Sandymount and Merrion.

The local Lord was Lord Fitzwilliam who resided in Merrion Castle. Today it is the Merrion Home for the Blind. He had dominion over this entire area which was once known as the District of Merrion.

“Merrion traditionally began at Sandymount Tower and the upper part of the Strand Road, through Sydney Parade, St. Albans Park and they are all in Merrion and yet they are now described by estate agents as Sandymount, which is incorrect. The consciousness of Merrion as a district has diminished,” said Lysaght, trying to rebuke the current trend of confusing Sandymount for Merrion as apparently Seamus Heaney had once done.

“Local historian Hugh Oram wrote an excellent book on Sandymount, which included a lot of photography and featured the old baths of Merrion,” added Lysaght. These baths existed from the 1880’s until the 1920’s. There was once a pier out to the baths and with a much wider strand for the pedestrians of the time, but the Strand Road has now widened.

When the Pembroke District Council was abolished, Dublin Corporation was not prepared to subsidise these baths in addition to the cost of upkeep and they were abandoned. The promenade facing the Strand Road had not been developed until the 1970’s and it was apparently put in place to cover pipes.

Many of the old regency houses that once lined the Strand Road from Merrion to Sandymount have been demolished, and these spacious estates were used for further residential development. Over many years, decay set in as certain houses had been neglected.

“There were four houses including Kirkville, Frankfort, Acourt Lodge and Surrey Lodge. These houses were built by Terence O’Brien of Johnson Mooney and O’Brien’s bakers in 1850. He was a fancy-cake baker based on Clare Street, Dublin, who later went on to establish the famous baking company we know today. Kirkville house was the home of the Foley family, where Lily Foley, wife of the famous tenor John McCormack resided.”

Lysaght lives at number 147 Frankfort House on the Strand Road, Merrion and has done so since 1942. Stating that Frankfort House was once a nursing home run by a Mrs Barrett and before that it was owned in the early 20th century by a Dr. Andrew Cooney who lived there. Cooney was a member of the IRA and a friend of IRA leader Sean Russell.

“In this house in 1937, Sean Russell the IRA leader was court marshalled by IRA commandeer Sean MacBride. In response to the 1936 constitution, Russell was caught misappropriating money presumably for weapons. Russell was the man who initiated the bombing campaign in the UK.”

Lysaght also records how “De Valera used to walk along the Strand Road with his bodyguard coming up from Cross Avenue, Blackrock with his car crawling behind him – this was for security reasons after he had ordered the execution of IRA members during WW2.”

During the 1940’s a man called Tommy Burns, lived on the Strand Road at number 165 Lough Na Vale (now demolished). He was married to Mrs. Polly Burns who was the female boxing champion of the time, accustomed to weight lifting, circus performing and apparently known to have lifted a pony by the power of her teeth!

Burns was known to host wild and entertaining parties of which the great Irish championship boxer Jack Doyle used to attend with his Hollywood actress wife Movita, who appeared alongside Clark Gable in the original Mutiny on the Bounty.

“The bus conductor on the number 3 bus would go to the Merrion Tower and would get people to go upstairs by telling people ‘Jack Doyle and Movita are upstairs!’”

This house had been used by its previous owner, Mylo McGarry, as a safe house for Eamonn De Valera, during the Irish War of Independence.

“Later on, the house was bought and owned by a Mrs. Montgomery whose husband was a cousin of Bernard Montgomery, the famous hero of El Alamein. She left the house to Lincoln College as a residence. It was sold with 2.4 acres attached to it, which is now part of Merrion Strand.”

Both Kirkville and Adelaide House have been replaced by different townhouse developments. “It was a hotchpotch of developments done over time, but at least most of the old houses that represented this area have survived.”

By Robert Fullarton