I have had a satisfactory interview with “Mr Tobin” of the “Paving committee”. They are to appoint tomorrow a small committee to decide on the sites for the trees. So that we shall have the joy of seeing something grow in Dublin!Letter from Hugh Lane to Sarah Cecilia Harrison, 28 December 1905
A Donation of Trees
In 1905, artist and social campaigner Sarah Cecilia Harrison wrote to Dublin Corporation on behalf of an anonymous donor, offering 2,000 young trees to be planted ‘between the four bridges’ of Dublin. The donor was Hugh Lane, an Irish art dealer and the subsequent founder of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. Harrison and Lane shared a close friendship, as revealed in a collection of letters spanning the decade from 1905 to Lane's untimely death in 1915. Several of Lane's early letters to Harrison refer to his donation scheme. On 9 December 1905 he writes:
‘About the trees we have done our best! & it is “an ill wind” etc. as I am very hard up. I will I hope be able to afford it better next year.’
However, just a few weeks later Lane is ‘very busy about the trees etc.’ and in correspondence with members of the Paving Committee:
‘I have received a letter from Mr Tobin (of the paving comtt) saying that they are getting estimates for the cost of planting & that a small committee has been found to choose the places & to see Mr Moore of the Botanical Gardens!’
I have written to Mr Tobin & to Mr Moore of the [Botanic] Gardens – asking the latter to order the trees at once – 2000 – of the best.Letter from Hugh Lane to Sarah Cecilia Harrison, 12 October 1906
The Expense of Planting
Evidently there were some delays in accepting the donation, and a letter dated 7 November 1906 indicates a degree of ambivalence in Dublin Corporation about Lane's scheme:
‘The last thing I hear about the tree planting is that they only wrote to see whether I still wanted to give trees. The Corporation was not considering the subject at present – owing to the expense of planting! I am glad that I did not order them.’
The Dublin quays and narrow streets of the inner-city were apparently ill-suited to trees, and the process was ultimately rolled out over a number of years by the Corporation to spread the costs involved. Some of Lane's trees were eventually planted on Hollybrook Road, Clontarf in 1907-08. A letter written by Lane in 1908 indicates that his trees were also planted on Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street – although Lane appears to have been under pressure at the time to pay the money owed:
'I am also pressed to pay £15 for trees, as they apparently have planted a few in Sackville St, I suppose I must send it then.'
What a splendid idea the “Gardening” for the unemployed it sounds so much more permanent than the wood chopping & altogether more respectable. I do hope that it can be managed.Letter from Hugh Lane to Sarah Cecilia Harrison regarding her unemployment initiatives, 5 August 1907
The Vacant Land Cultivation Society
Harrison shared Lane’s interest in ecology. She was an early promoter of the allotment movement, believing in the health benefits associated with the presence of nature in the city, and from working outdoors with soil, in the fresh air. In 1909, she became Honorary Secretary of the Vacant Land Cultivation Society, which provided families in Dublin with the opportunity to grow their own food on unused land within the Dublin metropolitan area. The scheme was initially established by the Dublin Unemployment Committee, as a means of supporting those struggling to find regular and sufficient work during a period of extremely high unemployment in the city. As founder and Honorary Secretary of the Labour Yard – which provided employment to those who failed to secure relief from Dublin Corporation's Distress Committee – Harrison had already demonstrated her strong commitment to helping the unemployed in Dublin.
Hugh Lane's letters to Sarah Cecilia Harrison are held in the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art, and feature in the Decade of Centenaries exhibition, Roller Skates & Ruins, on view in Room 11 at the National Gallery of Ireland until 10 March 2024.
‘Vacant Land Cultivation Society’, The Weekly Irish Times, 16 July 1910
Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘Harrison, Sarah Cecilia (‘Celia’)’, The Dictionary of Irish Biography
Margarita Cappock, et al. Sarah Cecilia Harrison: Artist, Social Campaigner, and City Councillor. Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2022
Marie Lynch, ESB CSIA Fellow
Published online: 2023