And in 2013…

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…The Irish Georgian Society is due to move into its new headquarters on Dublin’s South William Street. This building, the City Assembly House, is of great historical significance: it includes the oldest purpose-built exhibition gallery in Ireland and Britain. Dulwich Art Gallery was only constructed in 1817 whereas work began on the City Assembly House in 1766. Yet until recently its importance was almost unknown and certainly uncelebrated. Even today, hundreds of pedestrians pass by without knowing anything of the structure, or its elegant interiors. This will change once the IGS is installed.
The origins of the City Assembly House lie with a short-lived organisation called the Society of Artists in Ireland. An idealistic venture, its purpose was to increase awareness of and appreciation for the visual arts and for its indigenous practitioners, many of whom believed they had to move to London to receive sufficient notice. So in February 1765, the Society organised an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture, held in Napper’s Great Room on George’s Lane, on the north side of the Liffey. There were 88 exhibits, including work by the likes of John Butts (who would die that same year) and Robert Hunter (fl.1748-1780).

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The debut exhibition was such a success that a month later the decision was reached to build a permanent home for the Society. The site chosen for the new premises was taken on a long lease from Maurice Coppinger, whose name is commemorated by Coppinger Row which runs down the 110 feet side elevation of the City Assembly House; its three-bay frontage of 44 feet on South William Street rises three storeys over basement with a weathered rusticated ground floor below mellow brick. On the other side of Coppinger Row stands the well-known Powerscourt House, built a decade after the City Assembly House as a town residence for the third Viscount Powerscourt and now a shopping mall.
The driving forces behind the Society of Artists’ endeavour were carver Richard Cranfield and sculptor Simon Vierpyl, both of whom combined creativity with entrepreneurship, since they also worked as speculative property developers. But within a short time Vierpyl had ceded his interest in the scheme to Cranfield who was thereafter the building’s sole owner. As so often is the case, we do not know who was responsible for the design of the City Assembly House, although one possibility is that Oliver Grace (dates likewise unknown) was involved in some way, since in the Society’s 1768 show he submitted a drawing of ‘An elevation, proposed as a front to the Exhibition Room.’ It is also speculated that Grace worked on both the designs for St John’s Cathedral in Cashel, County Tipperary and Lyons, County Kildare, the house built at the very end of the 18th century for Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry.

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Naturally the principal space in the City Assembly House is its exhibition gallery, a top-lit octagon 40 feet wide and 33 feet high. This shape of room had been popular for spaces used to display works of art ever since Bernardo Buontalenti designed the Tribuna in Florence’s Uffizi Palace in the late 1580s. It was also used on several occasions in buildings by the 18th century Scottish architect Robert Adam, not least the original London premises of auctioneer James Christie on Pall Mall, begun the same year as the City Assembly House. An octagon not only permits more hanging space but also makes viewing of diverse works easier since they are divided between a greater number of walls than would be the case in a cube.
Initially the Society of Artists enjoyed considerable success: having shown just 88 works of art in its first exhibition, by 1780 that number had risen to 214, with every painter and sculptor of note during this period featured. But then the organisation dissolved into rancour and internal feuding, which is so often the case in Ireland. So the building’s owner, Richard Cranfield, had to find alternative uses for the property and following his death in 1809, the leasehold was sold on to Dublin Corporation which used the City Assembly House’s gallery as its meeting chamber until moving into City Hall (formerly the Royal Exchange) on Dame Street in the 1850s. Thereafter the building on South William Street served a variety of purposes, most recently as Dublin’s Civic Museum until that was closed a decade ago.

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Now the Irish Georgian Society, which has a long tradition of working to ensure the future of Ireland’s architectural heritage, has assumed responsibility for the City Assembly House and for ensuring the building as a vibrant future fully reflecting the dynamism of its original developers. At the moment the building is encased in scaffolding and undergoing extensive restoration, during which all kinds of discoveries about its original form are being made; some especially charming decorative features lost for decades are coming to light and will be given due attention. Both the exhibition gallery and the rooms in front, the two linked by a staircase winding towards a glazed oval dome, will once more become known by and accessible to the public. This will ensure that the City Assembly House’s importance in the history of 18th century Dublin will be duly celebrated and the building become a destination for all tourists interested in learning more about the city’s most enterprising era. The IGS’s aspiration is that the City Assembly House’s doors open during spring 2013. The Irish Aesthete hopes everyone will enjoy similarly momentous events in the year ahead.

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If you would like to know more about the City Assembly House or the Irish Georgian Society and its work, please visit the organisation’s website: http://www.igs.ie

A Capital Idea

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Decorative capital marking the origin of a segmental arch on the first floor landing of Cappoquin House, County Waterford. What makes it especially attractive is the outburst of rococo plasterwork on the wall immediately beneath, an ornamental flourish serving both to soften the capital’s advent and to delight the eye.

Christmas Greeting

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About a mile north-east of Navan, County Meath lie the remains of the once-important monastic settlement of Donaghmore. A witness to Christmas for more than 1,500 years, it was supposedly founded by St Patrick; he later passed on responsibility for the site to his disciple St Cassanus. All that remains of the monastery is this round tower, believed to date from the 12th century. Next to it are the ruins of a former parish church probably early 16th century, with a double bell cote on the west gable.

Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been?*

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Located midway between Slane and Drogheda, and immediately north of the river Boyne Dowth is today known as the site of one of a number of important Neolithic passage tombs in County Meath, others in its immediate vicinity including Newgrange and Knowth. But Dowth deserves to be renowned also for an important mid-18th century house which is due to be auctioned at the end of January.
Dowth Hall dates from c.1760 and was built for John, Viscount Netterville (1744-1826). His family, of Anglo-Norman origin, had been settled in the area since at least the 12th century: in 1217 Luke Netterville was selected to be Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. That religious streak remained with them and come the 16th century Reformation the Nettervilles remained determinedly Roman Catholic. For this adherence some of them suffered greatly; when Drogheda fell to Oliver Cromwell in September 1649 the Jesuit priest Robert Netterville was captured and tortured, subsequently dying of the injuries sustained. Nevertheless, the Nettervilles survived, and even acquired a viscouncy. They also held onto their estates, one of a number of families – the Plunketts of Killeen Castle and the Prestons of Gormanston spring to mind – who retained both their religious faith and their lands, thereby disproving the idea that Catholics automatically suffered displacement during the Penal era.

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The sixth Viscount was only aged six on the death of his father, the latter dismissed by Mrs Delaney as ‘A fop and a fool, but a lord with a tolerable estate, who always wears fine clothes’ and otherwise only notable for having been indicted the year before his son’s birth for the murder of a valet (he was afterwards honourably acquitted by the House of Lords).
The young Lord Netterville was raised by his widowed mother and spent much time in Dublin where the family owned a fine house at 29 Upper Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. The old castle in Dowth seems to have fallen into ruin and so a few years after coming of age Viscount Netterville undertook to construct a new house on his Meath estate.
As is so often the case, information about the architect responsible for Dowth Hall is scanty. The common supposition is that the building was designed by George Darley (1730-1817), who had been employed for this purpose by Lord Netterville in Dublin where he was also the architect of a number of other houses. And indeed from the exterior Dowth Hall, rusticated limestone ground floor and tall ashlar first floor with windows alternately topped by triangular and segmental pediments, looks like an Italianate town palazzo transported into the Irish countryside; not least thanks to its plain sides, the house seems more attuned to the streets of Milan than the rich pasturelands of Meath.

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The real delight of Dowth lies in its extravagantly decorated interiors, where a master stuccadore has been allowed free hand. The drawing room (originally dining room) is especially fanciful with rococo scrolls and tendrils covering wall panels and the ceiling’s central light fitting suspended from the claws of an eagle around which flutter other birds. None of the other ground floor rooms quite match this boldness but they all contain superlative plaster ornamentation, with looped garlands being a notable feature of the library. Again, the person responsible for this work is unknown, but on the basis of comparative similarities with contemporary stuccowork at 86 St Stephen’s Green in Dublin (on which George Darley is supposed to have worked) Dowth Hall’s decoration is usually attributed to Robert West (died 1790).
Although not as extensive, there is even a certain amount of plasterwork decoration in the main bedrooms on the first floor, which is most unusual. And the house still retains its original chimneypieces (that in the entrance hall even has its Georgian basket grate), along with fine panelled doors and other elements from the property’s original construction. This makes it of enormous importance, since many other similar buildings underwent refurbishment and modernisation in the 19th century during which they lost older features.

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There are reasons why Dowth Hall has survived almost unaltered since first built 250 years ago. The sixth Viscount Netterville, somewhat eccentric, fell into dispute with the local priest and was banned from the chapel on his own land; in retaliation, he built a ‘tea house’ on top of the Neolithic tomb from which he claimed to follow religious services through a telescope. But then he seems to have given up living at Dowth and moved back to Dublin. He never married and on dying at the age of 82 left a will with no less than nine codicils. One of these insisted that the Dowth estate go to whoever inherited the title, but it took eight years and a lot of litigation for the rightful heir, a distant cousin, to establish his claim. He did so at considerable cost and so, despite marrying an heiress, was obliged to offer Dowth for sale; the last Lord Netterville, another remote cousin, died also without heirs in 1882 and the title became extinct. Meanwhile Dowth was finally bought from the Chancery Court in 1850 by Richard Gradwell, younger son of a wealthy Catholic family from Lancashire. His heirs continued to live in the house for a century, but then sold up in the early 1950s when the place changed hands again. It did so one more time around twenty years later when acquired by two local bachelor farmers who moved into Dowth Hall. Following their respective deaths (the second at the start of last year), a local newspaper reported that the siblings had gone ‘to Drogheda every Saturday night, would attend the Fatima novena at 7.30pm then would walk over West Street to see what was going on, although they never took a drink or went to pubs.’
Now Dowth Hall is for sale, and there must be concern that it finds a sympathetic new owner because the house is in need of serious attention. It comes with some 420 acres of agricultural land, which means a sale is assured but that could be to the building’s disadvantage: it might fall into further desuetude if the farm alone was of interest to a purchaser. Too many instances of this have occurred in the past and it must not be allowed to happen here. One feels there ought to be some kind of vetting process to ensure prospective buyers demonstrate sufficient appreciation of the house. Only somebody with the same vision and flair as the sixth Lord Netterville should be permitted to acquire Dowth Hall.
This last image is taken from Georgian Mansions in Ireland by Thomas Sadleir and Page Dickinson published in 1915.

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*From a poem by John Betjeman, written after he had visited Ireland as an Oxford undergraduate and met the last surviving members of the family responsible for building Dowth Hall.

A Template for Temples

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Birr, County Offaly is one of Ireland’s most perfectly planned towns. From 1817 onwards St John’s Mall was developed in an easterly direction by local landlord, the second Earl of Rosse. In 1833 at mid-point between two terraces of houses on the mall he built this impeccably simple, single-storey limestone Ionic-porticoed temple to commemorate his second son, the Hon John Clere Parsons, who had died five years earlier of scarlet fever just days before his 26th birthday. Since then John’s Hall, as it is called, has served a variety of purposes but almost 180 years after construction the building now stands empty awaiting a new use.

Worth a Squint

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Delvin, County Westmeath is one of those small Irish towns through which it is easy to pass without paying attention to the place. In other words, except for residents it is never a point of destination. This is regrettable, because Delvin does have interest, although – again like so many small Irish towns – first impressions would not indicate that to be the case. Essentially a single straggling, untidy street Delvin lacks coherence and order, lacks the kind of communality of vision and presentation that make its equivalents in other countries so satisfying. The town has some fine buildings – there are a number of pretty early 19th century houses – but just as many, if not more, that destroy whatever chance Delvin might have of detaining visitors.
Those prospective visitors would be interested to know that among the reasons they should linger is the town’s appearance in a novel which caused a sensation almost a century ago. Published in 1918, The Valley of the Squinting Windows was written by Brinsley MacNamara (1890-1963), the pseudonym of a local man, John Weldon whose father James was principal of a national school elsewhere in the county. The book is a rather overwrought tale of a young teacher seduced by a wealthy, dissipated man and how a trainee priest who has fallen in love with her avenges this outrage. It owes more to 19th century melodrama than 20th century realism, and is closer in spirit to Peyton Place than to Madame Bovary, the latter presumably being what MacNamara had hoped to emulate.

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The Valley of the Squinting Windows would likely be forgotten now but for the stir it caused on publication in Delvin. MacNamara always claimed that Garradrimna, the village in his novel, was representative of any small community in Ireland: ‘I used certain descriptions of characters and events because they were typical, were easily identified with local people and happenings. But people in Clare and Limerick have been able to do exactly the same in the case of their own villages. So could people in any county in Ireland.’ However, Garradrimna’s topographical details fix it so precisely as Delvin that locals understandably took umbrage, especially as there are really no attractive characters in the book, everyone being small-minded and greedy, obsessed with discovering and relishing the misfortunes of their neighbours. Seemingly when the novel was published there was great excitement in the region but this quickly changed to indignation once its contents were known: obviously no one thought to notice the title provided a fair warning of what lay inside. Instead of sensibly allowing the work slip into oblivion, the people of Delvin publicly burnt a copy in the centre of the village. Worse, they organised a boycott of children attending James Weldon’s school, as though he were responsible for his son’s novel. In response, Weldon brought a law suit for £4,000 against Delvin’s parish priest and seven parishioners for arranging the prohibition. He lost the case and was forced to emigrate. The Valley of the Squinting Windows has ever since been synonymous with small town pettiness.

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Among the features of Garradrimna that made it easily identifiable as Delvin are several references to a de Lacy castle at one end of the village. Just such a structure remains in place to this day, popularly believed to have been built by the Norman soldier Hugh de Lacy who came to Ireland with Henry II in 1171 and over the next 15 years erected many such structures in this part of the country. Delvin Castle is supposed to date from a decade later, after which it was given to de Lacy’s son-in-law, Gilbert de Nugent whose descendants, later Earls of Westmeath, remained in the area until 1922. Originally a massive keep with four circular corner turrets, the castle is now only half its former size, the north wall having long since gone. The owner of the abutting corner house told me his grandmother who used to live there, on being informed she was responsible for the castle and its upkeep, handed the property over to the Office of Public Works, which seems to have done little since.
Nearby, and even more dejected in appearance, is St Mary’s, the former Church of Ireland church which incorporates a mid-16th century belfry into an otherwise predominantly early 19th century building. Deconsecrated and unroofed in 1963, the building and graveyard have recently undergone refurbishment at the hands of industrious residents, which was necessary for its well-being but has had the unintentional effect of removing much of the site’s romantic charm.

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Goodness knows, otherwise romantic charm is hard to discover in Delvin; opposite the stretch occupied by castle and church, for example, a large site is occupied by a private house presumably dating from the 1970s, never attractive and now an derelict eyesore.
At the other end of the town stands the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption, unlike its Anglican counterpart still very much in use, designed by George Ashlin in 1873 and described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan as ‘an accomplished small-scale essay in French Gothic’, although one imagines the French original would not be surrounded by quite so much tarmac. In fictional guise it also appears in The Valley of the Squinting Windows.
MacNamara had little good to say about Garradrimna/Delvin, damning not just the local populace but also the physical appearance of the village itself, describing it as mean and fly-blown, with ugly houses. No doubt the resident population today is quite different to that he castigated: there is even an annual Delvin Garradrimna Book Fair. But it remains the case that the novel was as much a condemnation of place as people. MacNamara’s observations on how Delvin looked – and still looks – have yet to be addressed. If that happened, even visitors unfamiliar with The Valley of the Squinting Windows would be encouraged to linger for longer than is now the case.

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