Leeson Street is an iconic place in Dublin, known even by people who have never visited the city and associated with a vibrant late-night culture. This book is about another Leeson Street, nearby, but separated from its neighbour by the Grand Canal. It is a leafy area of largely nineteenth century residences, many of them very fine, and a lovely place to wander on a quiet Sunday afternoon. On such a walk, the visitor might wonder how the area has survived the pressures of the late-twentieth century and the first decades of our century. It lies in the prime commercial belt of the city and in other places such locations have long since been transformed by the developers’ bulldozers.
Its survival is not by accident but rather because of the dedicated, even dogged, efforts of many of its residents over the past half century. This book celebrates the Upper Lesson Street area and tells the story of the Upper Leeson Street Residents’ Association (Ulsara). The book contains almost forty essays over its 250 or so pages from seventeen contributors, including an introduction by Senator Michael McDowell, providing the reader with a great number of perspectives and views. Some are personal reflections of life and issues in the area, some are academic discussions; all are fascinating and they are well woven through the main themes of the book.
The first section deals with the five decades of campaigning by the association and it draws on the wealth of material which fortunately has been preserved. Keeping the area’s integrity was a tough fight. Many of us will remember reading of some of the issues, such as the proposal by the ICTU in 1976 to construct a huge extension to the rear of its house on Raglan Road. In this case, it was a battle won but the book takes us into the detail of the responses to this and other challenges.
In the next section, we are introduced to the character of the area. It is quite extensive and reaches (approximately), south of the Grand Canal from Ranelagh Road in the west to Northumberland and Pembroke Roads in the east and bounded by the Dodder to the south. Not surprisingly, the place attracted many of the major figures of their times such as Eoin MacNeill, Marguerite Palmer, Samuel Haughton, Sarah Purser and, of course, Patrick Kavanagh. It is not just about people; a particular joy is the little vignette of the shops on the traffic triangle on Upper Leeson Street where ‘Joe Byrne Bets Here’ has fascinated the casual passer-by for decades.
Despite its organic evolution, the district possesses a distinct and cohesive character and this is explored in the section entitled ‘The Built Environment’. The houses in the area reflect the trends and tastes of the era in which they were built and the essays explain the distinguishing features of each style and by whom they were built; the importance of the Pembroke Estate is evident. We are provided with a wealth of information and detail. Fewer people, though will have heard of St Pulchre’s Farm and its connection to Dartmouth Square.
The book ends with a discussion of prospects and challenges. It is a living area and, while preserving what is best from its past, it needs to embrace the future. The final set of essays addresses these questions and it is clear that the interests and concerns that motivated the foundation of ULSARA some fifty years ago remain as relevant as they ever were.
As interesting as the chapters are, the experience of reading is greatly enhanced by the quality of the book. It is beautifully produced, with great skill and care and the production team, and especially the editor Fiona Slevin, deserve high praise. The design is clear and bright and it is generously laid out on the page. The photographs are superb, both informative and atmospheric. They give us a great sense of place and those which introduce each section are particularly stunning.
This is a well-considered, well-designed and well-written book. As its title promises – it is about Cherishing Heritage – Preserving Community. The different styles and approaches blend well and it is both an enjoyable and educative read. While, doubtless, it will appeal to anyone who lives in the area, it will also appeal to anyone who has an interest in the city. The reader will not only understand better the particular nature of Upper Leeson Street and environs but also the wider issues that affect many other locations of note. Make sure to get a copy!!