We all know every city has a heartbeat, but have you ever heard your city speak?
Ghost Signs are old building signage – subtle, silent souvenirs and glimpses into a city’s past. They represent changing times, trends and trading patterns.
They are the little clues to how the city and its people evolved, reminding us that we are one part of a long story.
Dublin Ghost Signs is dedicated to ‘capturing Dublin’s history through its old and fading signs’, recording signs that are often replaced, covered over or forgotten. I met up with founder Emma Clarke to find out more.
When I moved to Dublin (I’m from Cork originally) I used to be on boards.ie just to get information on things. One of the threads on the Dublin City forum was Ghost Signs from Dublin and I started following that and spotting them as I was wandering around the city.
I started taking photographs of them and soon started to realise that they would disappear. There was one, in particular, that was up by Portobello College at the Georgian Restaurant so I took a photo of that one day and about a week later it was covered in hoarding.
That was when I started thinking that there was more to this.
I would find information about the signs that I was taking photographs of in bits and pieces, here and there, so I thought it would be great to bring that info and my photos together in one place.
As the site grew I realised I was documenting way more signs than I had time to fully research so the site has become more of a catalogue now, recording these signs for posterity, with basic information, location and that sort of thing, sometimes linking out to other sites.
At the same time as I was working on Dublin Ghost Signs, Antonia Harte was working on her book. We met at the launch and I was really happy to see her book out because she has done amazing research into about 50 signs around the city, with a lot of nice anecdotes and photographs as well. That’s a great resource to have.
When researching, I do an initial Google search. Often nothing comes up so then I check the street directories, I check the National Library in Trinity Library, I look at Antonia’s book, and in the Thoms Street Directory.
Dublin Ghost Signs really took off on Instagram. It’s a great way to raise awareness and it’s where I get most of my traffic from. It’s taken on a bit of a life of its own with people posting their own shots under the tag #dublinghostsigns. I think I’ve only put up around 700 images but there are over 1500 on that hashtag which is great. People come on and say ‘I never noticed them before’ or ‘now I can’t stop seeing them!’, which is great to hear
The wisdom of the crowd online is really useful too. I have had a few times where I’ve taken a picture of a sign in bad condition, have been unable to make it out, have posted it on Twitter and in 2 minutes someone has deciphered it!
Loads of people have also shared their memories of the signs with me in the comments sections. I think this is really important, to record this kind of social history, the sort that doesn’t get typically recorded in the history books.
Some of my favourite signs are the hand painted ones. On Parnell Street, above the Post Office, there is The Well Known Boot and Shoe Retailer. I haven’t been able to find out any information about that but it’s one of my favourites because of when you walk down the steep hill on North Great Georges Street it’s there in front of you in full view.
I understand the need to modernise but conserving these signs is an issue. There is some effort on the part of DCC and developers to conserve old buildings and ghost signs but I do think they could do more. Bewleys on Westmoreland Street is an interesting example of this – it’s now a Starbucks but they were ordered to keep the old mosaics and sign. It’s great that they can both keep the building in use commercially but also retain the links to the past.
McBirneys (now Supervalu on Aston Quay) and the old Switchers signs on Brown Thomas are further good examples of protecting the building’s history and hopefully Clery’s on O’Connell Street – one of Dublin’s longest established family businesses, an iconic building, on a street which has so much history yet has seen so much decline and bad decision making – will receive the same special treatment in its upcoming redevelopment.
Emma’s Favourite Signs
Alex’s, George’s Street Upper & Stoneview Place, Dún Laoghaire
Alex’s was a once the “24 hour magazine king” of Dún Laoghaire. Now, pretty much all that remains of Alex is two ghost signs hand-painted on the side of the building.
Apollo House, Tara Street/Poolbeg Street, Dublin 2
I’ve always been intrigued by the Greek-style lettering of the much-hated Apollo House. Of course, Apollo House will now go down in history following the Home Sweet Home movement’s takeover of the building.
The Barley Mow, Francis Street & Mark’s Alley West, Dublin 8
The Barley Mow is a derelict pub which street artist, Fink uses as his canvas. Every time I walk past there is a different artwork adorning what would otherwise be a pretty sad building.
Beggs, Railway Road, Dalkey
I love the detail which you see in some of the doorway mosaics around Dublin such as this one in Dalkey.
J.O’G, Lower Mount Street, Dublin 2
This beautifully detailed mosaic entrance was uncovered during a refurbishment on Mount Street last year.
The Central Dairy, Stephen Street Upper, Dublin 2
This city centre shopfront regularly changes colour and purpose. One thing that always remains the same, however, is the old sign.
Williams & Woods Ltd., Loftus Lane / King’s Inn Street, Dublin 1
This fantastic corner sign is for Dublin’s old sweet factory, now home to The Chocolate Factory creative community.
The Irish Firm, Capel Street, Dublin 7
By day, you’d barely notice this sign above a sex shop on Capel Street. However, by night your eyes can’t help but be drawn to the neon ROCK shining above The Irish Firm ghost sign.
Kennan & Sons Ltd. Fishamble Street, Dublin 8
The Kennan & Sons ironworks was established on Fishamble Street in 1934. If you keep your eyes peeled as you stroll around Dublin, you’ll see their nameplate on gates and railings.
Ghost Sign, Lincoln Place, Dublin 2
I get very excited when ghost signs reveal themselves. I always hope that they can be somehow integrated into the refurbishment.
Ghost Sign, Lincoln Place, Dublin 2
Another part of the ghost sign uncovered at Lincoln Place in 2016 – the Irish Industries Association
Weaver’s Square, Dublin 8
Peeping out from under the render of a house on Weaver’s Square is the P l of an old advertisement.
City Saw Mills, Thomas Street, Dublin 8
The City Saw Mills (Kelly’s Timber) arch was originally built in 1881 and was a restoration project undertaken by Chadwick’s Builders Providers and supported by Dublin City Council’s Shopfront Improvement Scheme for the Liberties and the Built Heritage Investment Scheme. It would be great to see more initiatives like this one!
St. Patrick’s Female National School, North Brunswick Street, Dublin 7
I lived close to Smithfield Square for about five years and spent plenty of time in the area, but only noticed this sign after I’d moved away and happened to be there one summer’s evening!
J. Tallon, Fairview Strand, Dublin 3
I love this old shopfront and faded ghost sign in Fairview.
The Moy, Dorset Street Upper, Dublin 1
This is one of my all-time favourite old and forgotten signs in Dublin. I’ll be genuinely upset if it disappears. I love everything about it – the lettering, the colours, the broken light. I wonder what it’s like behind the shutters….
Thomas Keogh Family Grocer. Tea, Wine & Spirit Merchant, Leonard’s Corner, Dublin 8
Following Thomas Keogh’s death in 1912, he was remembered in the Freeman’s Journal as “a man of keen judgment, successful in business, and at all times prepared to give assistance and advice to those engaged in the [licensed] trade”.
W. & R. Jacob & Co. Limited, Bishop Street, Dublin 2
The lettering of the old Jacobs Biscuit Factory sign was repainted last year and it has given it a new lease of life.
McBirney & Co. Ltd., Aston Quay, Dublin 2
A few months ago, I noticed that the I in this doorway had come away and a few cigarette butts had made their way into the space. I was happy to see recently that it had been restored to its former glory.