Editors note: Barry Kennerk is an historian and freelance writer. His latest book is 'Moore Street - The Story of Dublin's Market District'. He remains a committed campaigner onbehalf of the market traders.
The aftermath of Easter Week 1916 – In a silence broken by sniper fire, Annie O’Flanagan stood in an upstairs room of No. 16 Moore Street. She didn’t need her hall key because the front door had been smashed in. She was there to right the upended home of her employers, the Plunkett family. Amid the rubble, she found a silver flask inscribed with the name ‘P.H. Pearse’. Nearby lay a draft of the rebel leader’s surrender, scrawled on the cardboard backing of a photograph. Outside, the street was littered with slates, fallen masonry and the bodies of civilian dead.
For the most part, No.16 was spared by the fighting but in fact, the Rising was only one of many dramatic incidents in its 150-year-old history. Having started life in 1760 as a ‘Dutch Billy’ (a building style common to the Netherlands), the house was the scene of a brutal murder in 1822. Thereafter, it was leased to a stained glass maker before falling into the hands of a succession of china and delft merchants who traded there for over half a century. In 1902, it almost burned down when a fire started in a back lane shed but all the residents were evacuated to safety.
A decade later, Pat Plunkett, a jarvey from County Meath was sufficiently inspired by his brother’s success in the trade to open a butcher’s on the same site. He kept pigs at the back and his son John recalled collecting slops for them every morning from the local hotels.
In an era before supermarkets, the Plunketts catered for some of the poorest people in the Dublin. Saturday was their busiest day when they could be found hard at work, cutting the meat with handsaws and sharp knives. Cheap cuts like brisket, tail end and ox-tongue sold particularly well. Without refrigeration, much of the meat was pickled in a barrel of saltpetre out in the yard.
‘I remember a retired butcher telling me they started work at 8am but they used to go in early’, Pat’s grandson Brendan recalls. ‘They had to kick hell out of the front door to frighten the rats. One of the butchers who had a terrible dislike of them used to grease a rafter and put a barrel underneath. When he arrived the next morning, the rats would be swimming around in it; he used to put his pick in and drown them’.
Under the Plunketts’ steady control, the business prospered. Pat, like many other butchers of his era, was a smart dresser. His shirts, suits and shoes were all handmade. One Capel Street firm even kept a wooden mould of his feet for prospective purchases. He employed a maid servant and collected rent from several upstairs tenants – among them the McDonaghs and the Doyles.
When the 1916 Rising broke out, the Plunkett children, Ciss (7), Evelyn (5) and three-year-old John were sent to the family farm in Meath by horse and cart but their father stayed behind to keep an eye on his livestock. As they attempted to flee the premises, tenants John Doyle and his wife Teresa were both shot. John later died from his injuries but Teresa survived.
By Saturday 29th April, the rebel leaders had left the GPO and tunnelled through the houses on Moore Street as far as No. 16 where they made their final, desperate stand. Witnessing the awful civilian toll in the street below him, Republican Commander Patrick Pearse wrote a message of surrender to General Lowe. ‘He made a draft copy on a cardboard support that had a photograph of my grandmother in it’, Brendan Plunkett explains. ‘My grandfather told me that after the ceasefire, Cumann na Mban came down to the shop with some fresh sheets because hers had been used to dress James Connolly’s wounds’.
In the months that followed, Mary Plunkett tried unsuccessfully to claim from the Dublin Fire and Property Losses Commission for this linen along with an outside electric lamp, a child’s cot and a drawing room table but unfortunately she missed the deadline. Perhaps she was preoccupied with the challenge of trying to resume life in the shadow of the battered GPO.
During the 1920s and 30s, the Plunketts continued to feed the city’s poor. In 1934, they handed out a tonne of meat every week as part of the Government’s ‘free beef’ scheme. They made some alterations as the shop prospered but in 1945, a strike by the butchers, porters and messengers of the Worker’s Union resulted in some damage to the premises.
Mary Plunkett died in 1932 but Pat carried on trading until 1951. ‘When my father married, he moved out to Whitehall’, Brendan says. ‘He took an old iron bed which I used as a child – it could well have been the one that James Connolly slept in’.
Afterwards, No. 16 was leased to the Tyrell brothers. Stephen Cassidy, who worked there during the early 1980s recalls: ‘It was a really wonderful place to be on a Saturday afternoon. I used to stand at the front door from about 3.30pm with a microphone shouting out the prices. Our shop would have a queue of people all day. We used to have some craic with the customers. Sometimes old country ladies would just give me a small bottle of Poitín for serving them; maybe thinking they would get a better cut of meat. We used to clean sheep skins on the roof and there were stone curing baths in the basement where the corned beef was made.’
Today, this little three-storey house, once described by the Freeman’s Journal as ‘situated in the best part of the street’ is an eyesore. Boarded up and dilapidated, it and the other houses along the terrace form part of Dublin’s broken tooth. It belies an interior that retains some original eighteenth-century features – a newelled staircase, wooden architraves and a diagonal corner chimney-breast (typical of Dutch Billy houses). All are at risk from exposure to the cold and damp and in some parts the ceilings threaten to give way.
Developer Chartered Land has asked for permission to build a new retail development on the National Monument site – a plan that would spare Nos. 14-17 Moore Street but leave other parts of the terrace and historic lanes at risk of demolition.
On Wednesday 27th March, after several months of deliberation, Dublin City Council’s Advisory Committee made its final recommendation. It refused the developer’s proposal and requested a full assessment of the designated ‘battlefield site’ area. Councillor Nial Ring who heads up the committee says: ‘We welcome a museum or interpretative centre but it will have to be done in a careful way. The need to protect the national monument cannot be over-emphasised; its preservation is of the utmost importance’.
Meanwhile, Brendan Plunkett can only watch as his family shop falls further into dilapidation. ‘My grandfather fed the people of Dublin for many years’, he says. ‘It’s shameful to see the state of neglect it is in. If a building of such cultural importance was situated in any other city, it would be preserved. No. 16 has a great cultural history attached to it. That should never be forgotten.’