Sunday, 14 February 2010

John McDonnell of Dublin - a remarkable man

My thanks to Sean Whelan, who is my mother's cousin in Dublin and the son of John Whelan who was my grandmother's oldest brother. Further to the fascinating information and photographs sent to me over the past month by Gaye Muholland about family of my grandmother, Lily Lawlor, nee. Whelan, Sean has sent me more photographs and scanned documents which give us a fascinating insight into the life my great gradmother's father (my g-g-grandfather), a blind man named John McDonnell who became a successful businessman and land and property owner in late Victorian / Edwardian Ireland.

But if the story of John McDonnell's successful basket making business is not enough, it appears that this fascinating blind man had several other strings to his bow, which included working to get better conditions for other blind people across Ireland. Sean Whelan expands on the life and achievements of our remarkable ancestor:

"I am Sean Whelan son of John Whelan who is referred to in the web pages as (Granny Whelans eldest son John). Many interesting documents came into my possession after my dads death which may be of interest and some old photographs. Some of these date back over 100 years and referred to John Mc Donnell my great grandfather".

"As was mentioned, John Mc Donnell was a basket maker and had a factory in Chancery Street in Dublin"

"As you can see from the above document dated 1895 we think Chancery Street, which is beside the Four Courts, was Pill Lane at one time. This document is dated 1895. Earlier on you will recall that Granny (Ann) Whelan drove him around in a pony and trap made by the basket makers at his factory. A lot is recorded about the many properties he had but he was also A Poor Law Guardian. The following documents are his election flyers from which we can see they ask support for his re-election".

"The Elections of 1905

The 1905 list of names and supporters are very extensive in seeking the reelection of John McDonnell. This would suggest that he was a Poor Law Guardian for many years and seeking reelection in 1911 would be this third time to be elected that would be 18 years in office. You can also see that he did a lot of work for the Blind which is not surprising.

"The flyers also make reference to Linenhall Barracks which was situated in Constitution Hill. It is also worth noting that just off Bolton St was Yarnhall Street, the site of the Linen trade. The Printing works which printed the election flyers is situated there and to this day is still trading.

Other points of note are:

The only pub in Dublin to run the entire length of a street is Bodkins on Yarnhall Street.

Bolton Street is named after the Duke of Bolton who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1717-1721 and was formerly part of Drumcondra Lane with Dorset Street but was renamed around 1724 after the development of Henrietta Street.

DIT Dublin Institute of Technology - Department of Metal now situated in the Linenhall, Yarnhall Street, Dublin 1.

Yarnhall Street (Opposite the main Bolton Street College building this was built as a college in 1911. Before that it was the site of the European Hotel.

" THE STREET NAMES OF Linenhall Street and Yarnhall Street, off Bolton Street, are the only reminders that for much of the 18th Century, Dublin was of central importance to the countryís linen trade.

Linen weaving has been a feature of Irish life from as far back as the late Bronze Age and it was a particularly important industry during the 18th and 19th Centuries. In those days, linen manufacture was a cottage industry and it provided a regular source of income for families in rural areas throughout Ireland.

The first Linen Board was established in 1711 to control the sale of linen, and it was originally based in a small rented room on Cork Hill.

At a meeting of the Linen Board on St Patrick's Day in 1722, the question of building a centralised Linen Hall was addressed and several prospective sites around the city were considered. One or two sites in Drumcondra were looked at and rejected because they were too far away from the city and more importantly from the Liffey. Another site near Ballybough was rejected for the same reason.

The board eventually decided in favour of a three-acre site, which was located at the top of Capel Street, which was then on the perimeter of the city. This site was chosen because of its proximity to the inns and taverns on Church Street and Pill Lane, where many linen traders lodged while on business in Dublin. Over the next six years, the Linen Hall gradually took shape and it opened for trade on November 14th, 1728.

The Dublin Linen Hall was modelled on the famous Cloth Hall of Hamburg and the great London market, Blackwell Hill. The Linen Hall contained a large trading floor and 550 compartments or bays for the storage of linen. There was also a large boardroom for the use of the trustees and what was described as "a large and elegant coffee-room for the accommodation of factors and traders who daily crowd its courts".

Security was tight in the Linen Hall. The market began and ended with the ringing of a large bell and anyone still on the premises after closing time was liable to be kept there overnight. The whole operation was overseen by a chamberlain, whose main task was to look after the hundreds of keys required for the Linen Hall's numerous linen lockers and chambers.

Other staff included a uniformed gate-keeper, a clerk and several porters and during the night, the premises were guarded by night watchmen who were issued with firearms.

With the opening of the Belfast Linen Hall in 1783, the Dublin industry went into terminal decline and the Linen Board was abolished in 1828.

During the 1870s the Linen Hall was used as a temporary barracks by the British Army and it was taken over by the board of works in 1878. One of the last events held in the Linen Hall was the Dublin Civic Exhibition of 1914 and it was destroyed by fire during the 1916 Rebellion.

"Two views of Bolton Street. I wonder who the two boys are outside 49, the style of the car gives some idea of the date of when these photos were taken".

The family of John McDonnell in the 1911 Census for Ireland

Residents of house number 49.1 in Bolton St. (Inns Quay, Dublin)

McDonnell, John
aged 70
Head of Family
Roman Catholic
Born in Dublin City
Retired Basket Manfr
Married for 46 years

McDonnell, Catherine
aged 63
Roman Catholic
Born Dublin City
Can read and write
Married for 46 years
Given birth to 16 infants - 5 surviving

Banett, Catherine (this should be Barrett)
Aged 31 Female
Roman Catholic
Born Dublin City
Can Read and write
Married for 13 years
No children

McDonnell, John
Aged 23 Male
Roman Catholic
Born Dublin City
Can read and write

Note that John and Catherine had an incredible 16 children, 11 of whom had died. One of the survining children was my great grandmother Anne Whelan, another was Catherine Barrett who was a witness to my great grandparents marriage and the third child here was John McDonnell junior whom I believe also became blind.

We can therefore conclude that there must have been two more surviving children of John and Catherine McDonnell, one of whom may have been the son sent packing to America after he allegedly set fire to the family's country farm house.

More information about 49 Bolton Street

The Building Return from the 1911 Census provides more information about 49 Bolton Street:

49 Bolton Street comprised a shop and dwelling. There were no outbuildings and had between 10 and 12 rooms with 5 windows at the front of the building.  The building was considered to be first class house.

There were 4 distinct families living at 49 Bolton Street:

John McDonnell's family of 4 (see listed above) occupied 3 rooms
Edward Maher and family of 4 occupied 3 rooms
John Whelan (my great grandfather) and family of 6 occupied 2 rooms
James Byrne and family of 3 occupied 2 rooms

John Leonard and family of 5 occupied 1 room in 51 Bolton Street

Details from my great grandparents marriage certificate

31 August 1904

John Whelan of full age, a bachelar and a grocer from 93 Capel Street
Anne McDonnell of full age, a spinster from Cloghan Sands, County Dublin

at Pro Cathedral in North Dublin

John's father was Richard Whelan, farmer
Anne's father was John McDonnell, also a farmer

Witnesses were Catherine Barrett and Joseph J Lucen


  1. I work in Bolton St College and I'd love to know more about you and your connections with the area of Bolton St. Feel free to contact me at Do you have more photos or better images of what you have on the site?

  2. My grandparents, Thomas and Teresa Brennan lived at 49.3 Bolton Street in 1901. I would like to know if anyone has a record of them before that time.

    1. Thanks for your comment I will have a look for you. I think the problem is for us people researching Irish family history there is no 1891 or 1881 census records available.