Maiden Street is the longest and oldest street in Newcastle West. Sean Kelly, its resident historian, says that it was built piecemeal on the edge of an ancient glacial moraine. This moraine benefited the town and there were at least three working sand pits in production at one time along the street. Sean Kelly states that ‘It was a street renowned for its trades of all kinds; shoemaking and repair; tailoring and dressmaking; printing; baking; coopers; tinsmiths; blacksmiths; and harness-makers to name a few.’ Patrick J. O’Connor who has also written eloquently about the street confirms this. Speaking of the new proprietors who bought out their leases during the sale of the town in 1910 he says that ‘there was colour aplenty in Maiden Street’. These included Michael ‘Boss’ Culhane who traded in ‘hides, skins, feathers and eggs’! He also mentions George Latchford who had launched a family business circa 1874 which later developed into the well-known bakery and cinema. This family business thrived well into the twentieth century under the stewardship of his sons Jackie, Paddy and Willie.
Poverty was rife in Maiden Street – particularly Lower Maiden Street – and Michael Hartnett makes constant reference to this fact in both his prose and poetry:
We rented a mansion down in lower Maiden Street,
Legsa Murphy our landlord, three shillings a week,
the walls were mud and the roof it did leak
and our mice nearly died of starvation.
The etymology of the street name has always posed problems. Again Sean Kelly says that there is no mention of the street name among the earliest known street names going back to 1584-6, although it was in existence by then, ‘what is clear is the street’s graceful, curvilinear form adorning the earliest available town plan, the Moland Survey of 1709’. Patrick O’Connor suggests that the street name may be derived ‘from the medieval cult of Mariology (Sráid na Maighdine Mhuire)’ (O’Connor:56).
The lower part of the street was sometimes known as Dock Road, in accord with the low status attributed to it. The gardens of the houses on the south side abutted on to a track known locally as ‘the back of the Docks’. At intervals, there were ingresses with steps leading down to the River Arra, where the local women came to do their laundry.
Sean Kelly waxes lyrical about this place: ‘Lengthy, capacious and capricious, Maiden Street was – according to the punchline of a popular rhyme – a favoured place for lodgers’. And while the name of the street remains an enduring enigma, its lower appendage, the Coole (cúil, from the Irish meaning corner or nook) poses no interpretative problem whatever. Sean Kelly himself often claims to belong to Middle Maiden Street and from the records, there is evidence of these subtle divisions as far back as 1776. The street had a distinct Upper, Middle and Lower division and was, in effect, a microcosm of the nuanced social divisions also evident elsewhere in the town!
Hartnett, the street’s very own Poet Laureate pokes further fun at the perceived reputation of the street when he writes in the Maiden Street Ballad:
Tis said that in Church Street no church ever stood,
and to walk up through Bishop Street no bishop would,
and tis said about Maiden Street that maidenhood
was as rare as an asses pullover.
In his Preface to that famous ballad, Hartnett says that ‘Everyone has a Maiden Street. It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics: also a street of hot summers, of hop-scotch and marbles: in short the street of youth’. However, he also adds a disclaimer saying that ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’ and we should not forget that the street was but a ‘memory distorted by time in the minds of all who lived there’. Generations to come will continue to show their gratitude to the poet for his wonderful evocation of the street of his childhood, the nearest Newcastle West will ever come to having its own Steinbeck or, indeed, its own Cannery Row! As he said himself: ‘Ballads about places however bad they may be, unite a community and give it a sense of identity’.
In his shorter poem, Maiden Street (1967), there is a reference to the ‘small voices on the golden road’ and later he says about the days of his childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’. This may give us some clues as to the etymology of the name originally given to the street. Maiden Street runs west to east, so the morning sun shines up the street and so a young poet’s imagination turns it into his very own ‘yellow brick road’. Many of those family names, synonymous with the street, who bought out their leases in 1910 still have links to the town to this day: Reidy’s, Houlihans, Gormans, Morrisons, Mullanes, Byrnes, Aherns, Nashs, Murphys, Fitzgeralds, Bakers, Hartnetts, Quins, Healys, Hartes, Massys, Moones…..
Hartnett says that the street finally ‘gave up the ghost’ in September 1951 when most of the inhabitants were rehoused in one of the 60 new houses in Assumpta Park. Hartnett describes the operation epically in the Maiden Street Ballad – likening it to the hazardous journey of the Israelites escaping from Egypt to the Promised Land!
The old street it finally gave up the ghost,
and most of the homes there they got the death-blow
when most of the people were tempted to go
and move to the Hill’s brand new houses.
The moving it started quite soon after dark
and the handcars and wheelbars pushed off to the Park
and some of the asscars were like Noah’s Ark
with livestock and children and spouses.
For we all took our furniture there when we moved,
our flowerbags and teachests and threelegged stools
and stowaway mice ahide in our boots –
and jamcrocks in good working order.
And our fleas followed after, our own local strain –
they said “We’ll stand by ye whatever the pain,
“for our fathers drew life from yere fathers’ veins”
“and blood it is thicker than water”!
For many, this transition was effortless and opened up a whole new vista while for others the change of location was a step too far and they found it very difficult to settle in their new environs. Again Hartnett puts this very colourfully:
In nineteen-fifty one people weren’t too smart:
in spite of the toilets they pissed out the back,
washed feet in the lavatory, put coal in the bath
and kept the odd pig in the garden.
They burnt the bannisters for to make fires
and pumped up the Primus for the kettle to boil,
turned on all the taps, left the lights on all night –
but these antics I’m sure you will pardon.
Following their move to the Park residents soon found that there was no ready access back down to Maiden Street other than across often wet fields and down through Musgroves and Gorman’s sandpits. Eventually, after much lobbying of local Councillors, the Mass Path and Mass Steps were constructed. As Patrick O’Connor says, their arrival ‘opened up a vital line of communication to town’. It is interesting that this vital piece of infrastructure was ostensibly procured under the pretext of providing ready access to the church, hence their name, but many would argue that these steps were more often used to visit other old haunts such as Latchfords and The Siver Dollar!
However, as a final footnote, or maybe to add fuel to fire, and totally in keeping with his mischievous nature, Michael Hartnett, in his ‘scholarly’ notes to the Maiden Street Ballad, has his own theory about the etymology of the street’s name. He theorises – and only he would get away with this scurrilous suggestion – that ‘the street was originally called Midden Street’!
Hartnett, Michael. The Maiden Street Ballad, The Observer Press, 1980.
O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.
You might also like to read this prose piece by Michael Hartnett where he describes a typical Christmas in the Maiden Street of his childhood here
Check out my analysis of Hartnett’s poem ‘Maiden Street’ (1967) here