The Battle of Pill Lane, 1829

The site of the former Pill Lane, Dublin 7, just behind the Four Courts.
in 1829, this location was the scene of a spirited verbal confrontation between the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Jacob West, and the wholesale fish dealers he sought to clear from its sidewalks into a yard at Boot Lane nearby.

From the Clonmel Herald, 24 October 1829:

“On Wednesday morning, at an early hour, a vast concourse of persons had assembled in Pill Lane, to witness the battle royal which was expected to take place between the Lord Mayor and the Fishmongers.  At a few minutes before six, his Lordship, attended by his personal staff, and accompanied by a strong party of the horse police, arrived on the ground; and having duly reconnoitered the position taken up by the fish women and their adherents, and having the fear of dead cats before his eyes, his Lordship, acting upon the suggestion of his portly henchman, thought it more prudent to observe the battle from a neighbouring alehouse, than to expose his person by mixing in the melee.

About seven o’clock, a car, laden with fish, and consigned to Mr. Coleman, came into Pill Lane by the direction of Mary’s-abbey.  Upon its entrance into Pill Lane, one of the staffmen laid hold of the bridle, and endeavored to turn the horse; Mr. Cantwell, who attended to direct the course that the trade should pursue, interfered, and declared that the staffman or any other person should not interfere until the Lord Mayor should come down.  After some altercation, the staffman continuing violently to drag the horse, the Lord Mayor called upon the horse police to act, and drive the people out of the street. 

Mr. Cantwell called upon the people not to be intimidated but stand and act firmly, for that his Lordship and police were violating the law.  He conjured the people to be temperate, and not to follow the illegal example set by the police – the Lord Mayor, who was standing at the door of the ale-house, called out twice, ‘I am the Lord Mayor, or I am not;’ to which Mr. Cantwell replied, ‘but, like every other citizen, you are subject to the laws of the land. ‘

Mr. Cantwell again called on the people to stay firm, and said he was rejoiced they were so firm; and since the Lord Mayor would prevent their entrance into the market, he advised them to go to Mr. Classon’s concerns.  The Lord Mayor protested strongly that the car should not go to any place but to Stephen’s market.  Mr. Cantwell insisted that it should proceed to Classon’s and called upon the owner to bring his horse there. 

His Lordship again called upon the police to act, two of whom immediately seized hold of the horse, and the rest commenced riding about, dispersing the people in every direction; finally, the police forced the car into Stephen’s market.  His Lordship directed that two of the horse police should go and stand at the gate of Mr. Stephen’s market and prevent any fish from coming out that had gone into it. 

Mr. Cantwell went upon the flag-way of Boot Lane, to his Lordship, and conjured him if he valued the peace of the City to prevent the police from riding down the people.  The Lord Mayor said, ‘Do you want to insult me, Mr. Cantwell?’ to which Mr. Cantwell answered, ‘I want you to act as a Magistrate ought.’ – His Lordship vehemently protested that he would not permit anyone to stand on the flagway, upon which Mr. Cantwell said, he understood his Lordship’s object by the order, but he had a right to stand where he was, and there he would until ridden down.  The Lord Mayor declared he would commit him if he continued to insult him.  Mr. Cantwell denied that he had insulted him and defied his Lordship to arrest him. 

The Lord Mayor called upon the horse police to make everyone leave the flags, upon which they rod up to the flags, where Mr. Cantwell alone was standing, against whom one of the policemen rode, and pressed him against the wall, eventually seizing hold of, and dragging him into the centre of the street.  Mr. Cantwell again called upon the people to be quiet and avoid giving the police any pretence to use their swords. 

The majority of the fish dealers then proceeded to Classon’s market, where the business will continue to be conducted until the right of the Lord Mayor shall be decided by an appeal to the higher authorities.

Pill Lane originally led to a harbour at the edge of an originally much wider Liffey, and fish had been sold along its sidewalks for centuries prior to this incident. The Lord Mayor’s intervention of 1829 ultimately got rid of most of Pill Lane’s bigger, wholesale fish-sellers into a yard at nearby Boot Lane, which then became known as the Fish Market.

An 1838 newspaper notice placed by Philip Hoare, wholesale fish agent, who kept stand no 3. in Boot Lane Fish Market.

In 1834 Mr Todd, the then owner of the Fish Market, brought a case before the Dublin Magistrates Court against a Mr. O Shaughnessy, who had made use of a stand in it contrary to his instructions.  Mr. JM Cantwell again features, representing Mr. O’Shaughnessy.  He submitted that the yard was a public market and not private property, as the public rights of the Pill Lane fish dealers had transferred to it.  The magistrate Mr. Cole was of the opinion it was a case in which he ought not to interfere and dismissed Mr Todd’s complaint.

There were, however, smaller fish dealers, mostly women, who continued to ply their wares on the sidewalks of Pill Lane after the wholesale fish dealers had been moved on, selling inferior fish to poorer citizens.  Another battle, this time a legal one, would take place between these women and the city authorities a couple of generations later.  One of the weapons employed by the fishwomen in their campaign would be the opinion of a leading Senior Counsel, whose descendants still practice in the Law Library today. 

More to come!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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