Dublin streets are filled with history, drawing in travellers from around the world who want to explore the past in the city on the river Liffey. But take a quick look up from the cobblestones and you’ll see history written – often faintly – in the fading signs that adorn many of the city’s shopfronts.
For travellers who can’t make it there in person, the remnants of old businesses and institutions that have closed down are collected on Dublin Ghost Signs, a website and social media accounts dedicated to rounding up images from around the city. The website was started by Emma Clarke, a Cork native-turned-Dubliner, who began Dublin Ghost Signs back in 2013. She had been taking photos of old signs for years and deciding to launch the site, then went on to create a Twitter and Instagram accounts where people could also share their images.
Now, the feeds are filled with pictures that show the city as the past and present collide. Emma told Lonely Planet that there are different interpretations of what makes a true “ghost sign” but they are generally hand-painted signs on brick of businesses that are long gone. “I am drawn to old and fading signs primarily because of their link to the past. It’s a past which is often forgotten while these signs remain hidden in plain sight on our streets. Some signs have stood the test of time, and can be a century old or even more. When you go digging in newspaper archives or old street directories, stories about the businesses and their owners emerge”.
Seeing the signs inspires a bit of nostalgia, says Emma, who says she thinks about what the streets of Dublin would have looked like back when shops all had hand-painted signs and awnings in the front. Certain regions of the city have more ghost signs than others, particularly areas that were not developed in the 2000s, like along Thomas and James’ streets.
This summer has seen a number of new signs uncovered and Emma says some of them only see the light for a few hours before they are covered or demolished. However, some businesses are making an effort to preserve the history through signs. After a sign was uncovered, a new restaurant, couldn’t incorporate the sign into its shopfront, but instead made it a feature inside the restaurant. Another new business plans to incorporate as many elements of the existing shopfront as possible.
“It’s good to see the sign being reused in a nod to the building’s past,” said Emma. “The city has to undergo change – we can’t expect to retain every piece of the past that is uncovered”.
But even as the Irish capital continues to grow and change, there are plenty of people who love to enjoy the fragments of the past left throughout the city. Emma says the response to Dublin Ghost Signs has been “overwhelmingly positive” with plenty of people getting in touch with their own signs and stories.