By Colm Power
For hundreds of years Dublin’s lord mayors had no official transport and many of them had to suffer the embarrassment and humiliation of having to walk behind the carriages of the aristocracy.
The situation changed in 1732 when Lord Mayor Humphrey French decided that he was going to travel in a manner befitting the dignity of his office. He made a spectacular appearance on the occasion of the celebrations to mark the birthday of King George II. The Lord Mayor arrived in a coach which was pulled by six horses and was accompanied by several elaborately dressed footmen. As Lord Mayor, French was a man of considerable wealth and he had no problem in providing the coach himself. However, when he finished his term of office, he took his stylish carriage with him.
The office of Mayor of Dublin goes back to 1229 when King Henry III issued a charter allowing the citizens to elect a mayor every year, and it is surprising that it wasn’t until 1776 that the holder of this ancient office could call on an official means of transport.
The title of mayor was actually changed to lord mayor in 1641, but it wasn’t until 1665 that Dublin City Assembly decided that Sir Daniel Bellington should be the first person to take the new title.
Amongst the notable lord mayors of Dublin was Daniel O’Connell, who was elected in 1841. He was the first Roman Catholic to be Lord Mayor since 1690. The Lord Mayor is the first citizen of Dublin city and ranks second only to the President of Ireland in the city.
Around 1757, an elaborate coach was built for the Lord Mayor of London. The civic authorities in Dublin, which was regarded as the second city of the empire, felt that the Lord Mayor of Dublin should also have a coach befitting his position.
Through the generosity of the Duke of Leinster, a ‘Berlin’ coach was presented to the city and, for twenty years, it served as the official transport for a succession of lord mayors until the City Assembly decided to scrap it when it became too costly to keep in a proper state of repair.
At that time, Dublin had a considerable coach building industry in which nearly two thousand men were employed in up to forty factories, and in 1789 it was decided that a replacement coach should be built and the order for the new mayoral coach was placed with William Whitton, one of a number of coach-builders located in Dominick Street, Dublin.
The new coach was to be a highly decorative carriage which would showcase the skills of Irish workmen. Many different crafts were involved in the project, including upholsterers, harness-makers, carvers, gilders, and ironmongers. The cost was originally set at £600, but it was soon discovered that this would be insufficient, and a new price tag of £1,200 was agreed.
The coach was ready to be delivered in November, 1790, but at that point, Lord Clare, the Lord Chancellor, unveiled a new coach he had commissioned in London at a cost of £7,000. Lord Clare’s coach was put on public display in the stable yard behind his house in Ely Place, and the Corporation were none too pleased that they had been deliberately upstaged by the Lord Chancellor.
Determined to show that Irish coach-builders could match anything that came from London, the Corporation decided to postpone the unveiling of their new coach for a year. In the meantime, the design of the coach was revised and a more elaborate decorative scheme was put in place to ensure that it would not be inferior in any respect to Lord Clare’s coach. The end result was a splendidly decorated coach 24 feet long, 8 feet wide and 11 feet and 6 inches high. When the coach-builder’s bill arrived, it totalled £2,690, an enormous sum of money in those days. Whitton offered to accept the £1,200 originally agreed, but the Corporation were so impressed by the finished coach that they voted to pay him in full.
So it was that on 4th November, 1791, the stunning new State Coach of the Lord Mayor of Dublin made its first appearance on the streets of the city.
In 1974, Dublin Corporation decided to restore this coach which had been in cold storage since 1932. Its last outing had been during the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. It made its first re-appearance in 1976 in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Since then it has continued in use in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, and bringing the Lord Mayor to the R.D.S. to open the Dublin Horse Show.
Coincidentally, a coach, known as the Irish State Coach, is an enclosed traditional horse-drawn coach used by the British Royal Family. It was built in 1851 in Dublin for Queen Victoria. It is traditionally used by the British monarch to travel from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster to formally open the new legislative session of parliament each year. It was also the coach in which Princess Elizabeth arrived at Westminster Abbey for her wedding.