Nassau Street is named after William of Orange, ruler of Nassau. Previously it was called St Patrick’s Well Lane, after a much-used well located under the wall of Trinity in what is now the Provost’s Garden. Indeed, what could be the old well can still be seen from the Nassau Street entrance to Trinity. The original name is retained in the Irish name of the street, Sráid Thobar Phádraig.
In earlier times the well was an important source of fresh water in the area, the salty Liffey not being of much use in this regard. Dublin lore records that the ground was struck by the saint, to whom the locals had explained their problem, and that fresh water flowed from the spot thereafter. It became a holy well because of the association with Patrick and apparently crowds would come to drink its waters on St Patrick’s Day. According to an article published in Trinity News in 2009, one dismissive English visitor commented on local enthusiasm for the waters on that feast: “The water is more holy than it is all the year after, or else the inhabitants of Dublin are more foolish upon this day than they be all the year after ... thither they will run by heaps, men, women and children, and there, first performing certain superstitious ceremonies, they drink of the water.”
References to the well are recorded in a twelfth century Latin manuscript that has survived. There have been suggestions that the Anglo Norman ecclesiastical elite was less than enthusiastic about St Patrick and that the locals’ enthusiasm had a political dimension. One commentator in the mid-twentieth century remarked: “From various accounts it may be gathered that the Dublin people ran stark mad keeping up the revelry for nine days, getting water from the well, washing in it and using it as if it were to produce miraculous effects of some sort on either their souls, minds or bodies.”
In 1729 it dried up temporarily, an event which was the subject of a verse from Dean Swift: “On the sudden drying up of St Patrick’s Well, near Trinity College, Dublin”. Whether as a result of Swift’s poem or not the corporation cleaned and restored the well.
At the time of the eighteenth century expansion of the city, the stream that ran down towards the river along the path of Dawson Street from the marshy ground around the area which is now St Stephen’s Green was culverted. Dawson Street itself was set out at this time and many prominent figures associated with the parliament lived there, which is why it has such nice big houses.
Morrison’s hotel, a highly fashionable spot in Regency and Victorian Dublin, stood almost opposite the Provost’s Garden. The Geraldine or possibly the Fitzgerald arms are said to have hung above the door. The door of Morrison Chambers ‑ built on the site in 1905‑ now serves as the entrance to a Costa Coffee premises. Above the Costa door are the coats of arms of the four provinces carved in limestone. Unlike Morrison’s, the present occupants probably do not draw their water from St Patrick’s Well, their skinny lattes sadly untouched by the holy waters.
Charles Stewart Parnell based himself in and did much of his political business from Morrison’s when he was in Dublin and it was there he was arrested in 1881. That event, of course, was to turn out to be just a mild misfortune compated to the bad luck he was later to encounter.
A little further up from Morrison’s some others had a superior experience of political martyrdom. Macken’s hotel, which stood on the corner of Dawson Lane, was the ticket agent for the many packets which sailed from Howth to Holyhead before Dun Laoghaire was chosen as the main point of departure. In 1798, after the battle of Ballinamuck, General Humbert and his French officers were housed in Macken’s while on bail. The Irish involved in the battle, of course, met a different fate. It has been said that when the French officers left they presented some swords to the proprietor who with commendable thrift had them remodelled for use as carvers in the dining room. Less imaginative types would have simply put them above the mantlepiece.
Further up again, Lord Newton Butler. who lived opposite St Ann’s church, bequeathed a sum of money for the purchase of bread for the poor which was first to be displayed in St Ann’s and then distributed to the needy. The stipulation that it be displayed may have involved the sin of pride, which we must hope was cancelled out by the underlying act of charity. The practice continued at least until the mid-twentieth century, by which time inflation had reduced the amount of bread which could be purchased. I am not sure if it continues today; if it does the deacon at St Ann’s could easily get his hands on a few sliced pans at a reasonable price in the Spar opposite the Provost’s garden. How acceptable they would be to the poor who now collect alms in paper cups along Nassau Street is less certain.
Just beyond St Ann’s is the Royal Irish Academy, originally Northland House and once the residence of Thomas Knox, whose son was a close friend of Wolf Tone. Later it became the Reform Club. In 1855 the late Thomas Moore’s wife donated the poet’s library to the academy. Moore’s sister was apparently a good friend of the Protestant ideologue Mortimer O’Sullivan who often dined in a house opposite with a group which included Father Thomas Maguire, the Catholic theological champion who would engage in marathon public debates on the relative merits of Roman versus Reformation Christianity. Apparently Maguire and O'Sullivan got on very well socially. Maguire once debated in public for nine days on the trot with the Reverend Tresham Gregg, founder of the Protestant Operatives Society which was based in the liberties. The well attended debate took place in the Rotunda Assembly Rooms, later the Ambassador cinema and more recently home to the Human Body exhibition. Both sides, as one might expect, claimed incontestable victory. Gregg was a fundamentalist monomaniac, which would probably have excluded him from the dining group on Dawson Street. If that didn’t do it his humble origins surely would have.
A few doors away stood the Hibernian Hotel, which in the nineteenth century was the Dublin base of the Bianconi coaches. Fifteen coaches left daily for country destinations with the average price of a penny-farthing per mile. Bianconi, who came to Dublin as an imigrant plasterworker, become very wealthy, his cheap coaches being enormously popular. His business was a sort of Ryanair of its time. One German visitor commented that Bianconi’s success, which was owing to his reasonable prices, had made him very wealthy, “ ... and yet his well earned fortune is not the slightest object of envy, particularly as he is extraordinarily charitable towards the poor and carries out his entire travel system at such a cheap price ... almost half of what one pays on the frequently very slow and mediocre Irish stage- coaches.”
Read the Dublin Review of Books on Mortimer O’Sullivan and Thomas Moore.