Street of Fame 5: O'Connell Street, Dublin

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Indy Lifestyle Online
PASSING THROUGH Dublin's O'Connell Street on a rainy day, amid the mish-mash of fast-food chains, cut-price shops and choking traffic, you could easily be forgiven for assuming that the city's principal road is simply a route to somewhere else - the medieval charms of Temple Bar, perhaps. You could even be pardoned for not believing that the course of Irish history was changed here at the beginning of the century.

But for all its gridlock, crime and signs of poverty, it is this street that strikes a chord with its inhabitants. Once the fashionable haunt of 18th-century Dubliners, only its gracious proportions and the historical General Post Office building, mid-way down the street, hint at its elevated status. Previously known as Drogheda Street and Sackville Street, in the mid-18th century the northern section was replanned by a wealthy banker, Luke Gardiner, to include a fashionable, tree-lined central promenade, Gardiner's Mall. In 1784, the southern section of the street was laid out on the same scale by the Wide Streets Commissioners.

The General Post Office is the street's architectural gem. Built in 1815, at a cost of pounds 50,000, its front portico juts out onto the street for a length of 80ft. The decorated frieze above the portico is topped off with three statues - Hibernia, Mercury and Fidelity - and visiting tourists used to be told by local wits that these were the 12 apostles. When it was observed that there were only three, the reply was that the others were inside, sorting the letters.

The GPO was also the temporary headquarters of the Irish Free State. Patrick Pearse and 1,500 rebels from the Irish Volunteers staged a rebellion on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916. A week of fighting ensued, until Pearse and his followers were forced to surrender, and the rebel leaders were very publicly executed. The building was destroyed by the gunfire but, in 1929, it was rebuilt by the office of Public Works - along with a memorial to the events of 1916 in the form of the Death of Cuchulainn, a mythical Irish character.

The central section of the street has been home to statues of Charles Stewart Parnell, celebrated Home Rule leader; Father Theobald Matthew; Sir John Grey, proprietor of The Freeman's Journal; William Smith O'Brien, Young Ireland leader; Daniel O'Connell, The Liberator, and, perhaps the most controversial of all, Nelson's Pillar. This 134ft column was erected in 1808-1809, forming the focal point of the street, but was famously blown up by the IRA in 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the events of 1916. Still embroiled in controversy, plans are currently afoot to replace the monument with a 120-metre steel spire, symbolising Dublin as it enters the 21st century and already dubbed "The Spike" by wry city residents.

Discussion still erupts occasionally, albeit of a less political nature. Several years ago, a statue of Anna Livia - the female embodiment of the city's River Liffey - lying in a fountain was rechristened "the floozy in the Jacuzzi", and the latest quarrel concerns the opening of the first Anne Summers sex shop directly opposite the GPO building. Woe betide anyone who questions the propriety of the street. The inebriated Dubliner who was arrested for urinating on a cash machine on O'Connell St was ordered by the judge to stand at the scene of the crime, with a sign saying "I apologise".