Practical Palladianism

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Palladian is a much-abused term in this country, frequently applied to buildings which visibly have no link with Palladio but which happen to be old. Rather than attempt to re-write an already admirable summary, I here quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘Palladianism, style of architecture based on the writings and buildings of the humanist and theorist from Vicenza, Andrea Palladio (1508–80), perhaps the greatest architect of the latter 16th century and certainly the most influential. Palladio felt that architecture should be governed by reason and by the principles of classical antiquity as it was known in surviving buildings and in the writings of the 1st-century-bc architect and theorist Vitruvius. Palladianism bespeaks rationality in its clarity, order, and symmetry, while it also pays homage to antiquity in its use of classical forms and decorative motifs.’
Palladianism as we see it in Ireland emerged in the early 18th century, heavily influenced by English practitioners and theorists such as Colen Campbell whose Vitruvius Britannicus was published in 1715, and his patron Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (and also, let it not be forgotten, 4th Earl of Cork, since he was a large landowner in this country). The first indisputably Irish Palladian house is Castletown, County Kildare on which work began c.1722 with its facade designed by Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737), today best known for his work at the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.

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One aspect of Palladianism often overlooked is its functionality: seduced by the beauty of the overall design we are inclined to forget these buildings were intended to serve a practical purpose. In the 16th century many of Palladio’s clients were wealthy Venetians who owned country estates on which they wished to spend the summer months. The estates were working farms, and the houses Palladio created at their centre reflect this reality. Because of his admiration for classical design and the importance of symmetry, rather than permit a variety of stand-alone farm buildings scattered across the site as had customarily been the case, he consolidated them into a single unit.
Thus the archetypal Palladian villa is dominated by a central residence with a facade inspired by Roman temples (hence the frequency of pedimented porticos). On either side of this block run a series of lower wings symmetrical in appearance and practical in purpose. Behind their calm and orderly exteriors a quantity of different activities would take place, whether the preparation of meals or the storage of grain, the housing of livestock or the washing of clothes. There would be stables and dovecots, piggeries and chicken coops, all of them part of a single harmonious unit. The concept was both simple and yet sophisticated, rational yet handsome. In the late 19th century the American architect Louis Sullivan proclaimed ‘form ever follows function.’ Palladio’s villas demonstrate the truth of this maxim. As his influence spread beyond Italy, so too did his designs and the practical philosophy that underlay them. This approach found a particularly warm reception in Ireland where from the late 17th century onwards landowners sought to bring order to their estates and to create new residences at their core.

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One such estate was Ardbraccan, County Meath. This had been the seat of a bishopric for over a thousand years and in the 16th century a large Tudor house called St Mary’s stood there. However by the early 18th century the old residence had become so dilapidated that a new house was deemed essential. In 1734 then-Bishop of Meath Arthur Price made a start on the project but within a few years he had been transferred to the Archbishopric of Cashel (where incidentally he was responsible for unroofing the old cathedral, seemingly because he found his carriage could not easily be driven to the top of the hill on which it stands). It would be another 30 years before the work initiated by Price was brought to completion, but the two wings of the building he commissioned were completed before his departure.
The architect employed for this task was Richard Castle, whose personal history remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. He is believed to have grown up in Dresden, where his father, an English-born Jew named Joseph Riccardo, served as Director of Munitions and Mines to Friedrich Augustus, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. By 1725 Castle, sometimes called Cassels, had come to England where he is likely to have encountered Lord Burlington and his circle of Palladians. Three years later he moved to Ireland, supposedly at the request of Sir Gustavus Hume, to design Castle Hume, County Fermanagh. Not long after Castle began working as a draughtsman for Sir Edward Lovett Pearce on the plans of the new Parliament House then being built in Dublin. Following Pearce’s death in 1733 Castle took over some of his unfinished commissions and also became the most notable designer of country houses in Ireland. He was, therefore, the obvious choice when Bishop Price sought an architect for the new residence at Ardbraccan.

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Understandably visitors to Ardbraccan focus their attention on the main house, finished in the 1770s to the designs of no less than three architects: James Wyatt, Thomas Cooley and the Rev. Daniel Beaufort. As a result, the rest of the structure receives less notice, even though it offers one of the purest examples of Palladianism in Ireland. To north and south of the central block run arcaded quadrants that link to two-storey, five-bay wings, their entrances facing one another across the house’s forecourt. The facade presented to the world is one of order and equilibrium, harmony and proportion. In classic Palladian fashion Castle provided facilities for a wealth of complementary domestic and agricultural activities, all housed in splendidly constructed outbuildings that remain intact. These include stables and carriage houses, kitchens and laundry yard, pump yard and slaughter house, piggeries, granary, dovecotes, cattle sheds and fowl yards, accommodation for the large community of workers who engaged in diverse activities, and rising above them all a clock tower to ensure time was kept on the day’s tasks.
One of the pleasures of these buildings is the quality of their finish, a tribute to Irish workmanship at the time. It is worth noting the way different sections interact; the mixture of cut and uncut stone within the stable block to the north, for example, is surprisingly successful. On this side of the house a Gibbsian door permitted the bishop to descend to the yard via a flight of handsome steps, and then climb another short sequence to the mounting block for his horse. Inside the wing itself look at the superlative groin vaulting in the stables, the vaults carried on solid Tuscan column. Elsewhere the interplay of curved wall and staircase is another delight. These were all practical spaces, intended to ensure the estate operated smoothly and would be almost self-sufficient. Nonetheless as much attention was paid to their design and construction as to the episcopal residence. Here are the tenets of Palladianism put into practice and showing their mettle.

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Mythical Beasts

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A panel from the pedestal on which rests one of the lions at the four corners of the casino at Marino, County Dublin (see Casino Royale, March 25th). Although the building was designed by Sir William Chambers, the work here was overseen by Engish sculptor Simon Vierpyl who had first met his patron, the Earl of Charlemont when both men were in Rome in the 1750s. Chambers gave due credit when he wrote of the casino that it ‘was built by Mr Verpyle [sic] with great neatness and taste.’ The Portland stone used for the exterior was imported from England and presumably carved on site under Vierpyl’s supervision. It is astonishing to see that some 250 years later despite exposure to the elements the two figures of winged fauns are still as sharp as ever, down to the curls on their respective heads.

Spring is Here

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As is evidenced by these new-born lambs in a field beside the Cathedral of St Laserian in Old Leighlin, County Carlow. The building occupies the site of a monastery founded here by St Gobban in the early 7th century and takes its name from one of the first abbots, Saint Molaise of Leighlin whose feast day fell last week. The core of the present cathedral was begun by Donatus, Bishop of Leighlin around 1152-1181 and completed by the end of the 13th century but there have been various changes made since. Today St Laserian’s is one of the country’s smallest cathedrals.

Putting on a Good Front

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Broad Street, Limerick, November 1949

Thirty years ago I was involved in the production of a little book about the traditional shopfronts of Roscrea, County Tipperary. A typical midlands market town, Roscrea had many old stores the appearance of which both inside and out dated back to the late 19th century. Largely due to insufficient funds the majority of these properties had since remained unaltered. However from the late 1960s onwards retailers here as elsewhere embarked on a determined programme of modernisation for their premises. Anything old was regarded as outmoded and a bar to progress, and so the old shopfronts with their painted fascias were swept away. Up in their place went expanses of plastic and fluorescent lighting, the same as could be found in innumerable other towns around the world. It may be that on strictly economic grounds the decision to discard the old made sense, but at what cost to the town’s character?
Awareness of this rapidly vanishing element of Roscrea’s heritage led to the project to record its still-extant shopfronts. The book contained pen and ink drawings of each premises included, together with as much information as could be ascertained about the shop and its history. It was a timely exercise: last time I passed through the town very few of the old shopfronts were still to be seen. Had the book not been published, today there would most likely be no record of what had gone.

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Cigar Divan, Carlow, October 1958

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Shopfronts, Askeaton, County Limerick, February 1978

I remembered the little book of Roscrea shopfronts when looking through a recently published collection of photographs taken by the late Maurice Craig. For the best part of a half century wherever he travelled about Ireland Maurice brought his camera, and the result was a wondrous record of a country which within living memory has all but disappeared. ‘I do not think of myself as a photographer,’ he writes in his Introduction, ‘merely somebody who has taken a great many photographs, usually with a purpose in mind…Unconsciously I was collecting the materials for a history of buildings, which I came to realise were at risk of destruction or mutilation.’
A brief biography of Maurice will be helpful for those to whom his name is unfamiliar. Born of Presbyterian stock in Belfast in 1919 he was educated at Shrewsbury before winning a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge where he occupied the same rooms as had the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell some eighty years earlier. Maurice then went on to write a doctorate on the poet Walter Savage Landor at Trinity College, Dublin. His first book, a biography of the Earl of Charlemont (see Casino Royale, March 25th) appeared in 1948 but four years later he wrote the work with which he has ever after been associated: Dublin 1660-1860. It took 13 years for the 2,000 copies of the book’s first edition to sell but since being republished in 1969 Dublin 166-1860 has rightly been regarded as a peerless piece of architectural history. Impeccably written, packed with information and anecdote, more than sixty years after first appearing this remains the best work to read about the city’s evolution during the Georgian period. If I were to choose only one of his other books to recommend it would have to be Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976), a volume as distinctive – and memorable – as its title indicates.

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Shopfront, Rathcormick, County Cork, March 1979

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Hacketts Shop, Killkenny, June 1948

At the close of his preface to Dublin 1660-1860, Maurice comments, ‘I have done my best to get out of the way of the buildings and let them be seen for themselves, relying on a possibly fallacious belief that architecture cannot lie.’ He adopted the same approach to his photography, allowing buildings to make their own eloquent case. Amateur though he was Maurice proved an instinctively gifted photographer. Other people, of course, were taking pictures of Irish architecture before he started doing so in the 1940s, but usually the focus was on friends or family standing in front of or inside a building, or the place was being photographed for commercial purposes, most often to be reproduced as a postcard. Maurice was interested in a structure’s inherent qualities and in capturing these for posterity (somehow he knew of the wave of demolition that lay ahead). But he brought a romantic’s eye to his self-imposed task. Look at the way he frames the house in Limerick in the first picture by enclosing it with the sides of a lane on the other side of the street. And one must be either brave or perhaps foolhardy to devote so much of an image to empty roadway as in the photograph immediately above. Yet that expanse enhances appreciation of the building, not least because the outlines of this are lightly echoed on the surface of wet tarmac.
At the age of 91 Maurice died some eighteen months before the publication of the book from which these pictures are taken, having spent his last years in a little house in Monkstown, County Dublin. Anyone who visited him there will recall walls densely packed with books, Maurice contented in the midst of them with his pipe and a cat called Minna, seemingly surrounded by chaos but actually anchored by a wealth of index cards on which all necessary information on countless subjects was inscribed in impeccable script. Like the old shopfronts of Roscrea he has now gone, but there remains ample testimony to his presence on this earth in words and pictures alike. The photographs shown here are just a handful of those featured in his last book, which includes buildings great and small, many of them long since lost, all of them worthy of being immortalised by Maurice’s camera.

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O’Carroll Street, Tullamore, County Offaly, July 1957

Maurice Craig: Photographs is published by Lilliput Press (www.lilliputpress.ie)

Follow the Light

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The first floor bedroom corridor of Birr Castle, County Offaly, essentially a simple classical passage overlaid with Gothic decoration such as the Perpendicular sprung ceiling which contrasts with the plain panelled doors. The other pleasure of this space comes from the way it has been decorated with a mixture of family portraits, mahogany furniture and blue & white china to form a harmonious whole.

Post No Bills

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Last year there was a flurry of correspondence in Irish newspapers about the national postal service’s tendency to remove charming old post boxes without notice and substitute drearily standardised replacements. Well here is one that has so far survived the attentions of An Post. Set into a stone wall in front of the former Church of Ireland parish church (now a private residence) in Drumcree, County Westmeath, the box’s two initials indicate it dates from the time of George V, the last British monarch to claim authority in this part of the country.

Holding the Fort

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Next week, on Tuesday 23rd April the contents of Fort William, County Waterford are due to be auctioned (see http://www.fonsiemealy.ie for more information). The sale will close a memorable period in many people’s lives; there have been few Irish houses in recent years more welcoming, more filled with joie de vivre than this.
Located a couple of miles west of Lismore and on a superb site above the Blackwater river, Fort William dates from the 1830s when it was erected to the designs of those prolific brothers James and George William Pain, both of whom worked as apprentice architects for John Nash in London before moving to Ireland. The Pains produced houses in whatever style was requested by their clients and at Fort William they came up with a benign form of Tudor Revival. Faced in local sandstone which has a wonderfully mottled appearance, the exterior is ornamented with an abundance of gables and pinnacles and angled chimneys but these are decorative flourishes on what is essentially a classical building, as can be seen by the regular sash windows.
Fort William was built for John Bowen Gumbleton whose family, originally from Kent, had settled in the area by the early 18th century. Their main residence – once called Castlerichard but later renamed Glencairn – lies a little further upriver. The property on that site was substantially transformed around 1814 by John Gumbleton’s father into fashionable High Gothic (complete with faux cloister) and this may be the explanation for Fort William’s appearance: in every sense a chronological continuation of the parent house.

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Ever since being built, Fort William has regularly changed hands. On John Bowen Gumbleton’s death in 1858, the estate was inherited by his son 17-year old John Henry but he died at sea eight years later. Ownership of Fort William then passed to his two sisters but they lived elsewhere and so the house was rented to tenants. In 1910 the place was taken by Lt-Col. Richard Keane, whose older brother Sir John Keane of nearby Cappoquin I discussed a few weeks ago (Risen from the Ashes, 4th March). A note in the forthcoming auction catalogue notes that Richard Keane and his wife Alice ‘had two cars, one of which – replete with a cocktail cabinet – was commandeered by the IRA during the War of Independence and never returned.’ Furthermore during the subsequent Civil War the servants’ wing at Fort William was occupied by Free State troops; this may help to explain why Sir John Keane’s house was burnt out in 1923 by the opposition.
Richard Keane died in 1925 following the accidental discharge of his shotgun and seven years later the estate was sold to a local man who continued the established pattern of renting the house; among the tenants at this time was Adele Astaire, sister of Fred, who in 1932 had married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the ninth Duke of Devonshire; for centuries the Devonshires have owned the neighbouring estate of Lismore Castle.

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The ducal connections continue because after a brief Gumbleton interlude in 1946 Fort William was bought for £10,000 by the second Duke of Westminster. This was the famed Bend’Or, one-time lover of Chanel (among many others) who following the failure of his third marriage had fallen in love with Nancy Sullivan, daughter of Brigadier-General Edward Sullivan. An outstanding horsewoman she had grown up in Glanmire on the outskirts of Cork city. This may explain why the Duke acquired Fort William, although it is worth remembering that a daughter from his first marriage, Lady Ursula Grosvenor, together with her second husband Major Stephen Vernon lived at Fairyfield outside Kinsale, County Cork. Whatever the explanation, the Duke certainly spent some time in the house: the dining room panelling is said to have come from the interior of one of his yachts and he is also believed responsible for installing the French painted and gilded boiseries in the drawing room. Following his death in 1953 his widow (who only died in 2003) retained Fort William but spent the greater part of her time at Eaton Lodge, Cheshire where her stables held many fine racehorses, not least Arkle who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in succession.
Fort William was sold again in 1969 to an American couple, Murray and Phyllis Mitchell. Following her death, it was bought by Ian Agnew, one-time Deputy Chairman of Lloyd’s. Ian acquired the place on a whim but he had strong Irish connections through his mother, Ruth Moore who had grown up at Mooresfort, County Tipperary. The Moores were an old Roman Catholic family. Ian’s great-grandfather, Arthur Moore was created a Papal Count in 1879; the previous year he had provided most of the funds necessary to establish the Cistercian monastery of Mount St Joseph outside Roscrea, County Tipperary. Curiously Glencairn, the estate immediately adjacent to Fort William is today occupied by Cistercian nuns.
Ian and I never spoke much of his forebears but among the most remarkable was his maternal grandmother, Lady Dorothie Feilding. A much decorated volunteer nurse and ambulance driver during the First World War, in September 1916 she became the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. After she died in 1935 her husband Captain Charles Moore moved to England to become manager of the Royal Stud. Continuing those links, Ian’s father Sir Godfrey Agnew was for 21 years Clerk of the Privy Council.

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A wonderful man with seemingly boundless gusto, Ian Agnew went to enormous trouble to restore and modernise Fort William while ensuring none of the patina it had accumulated was lost. (He also put in some time trying to teach me the finer nuances of fly fishing on the Blackwater, with less successful results.) The outcome was a house of tremendous comfort and warmth, very much a reflection of his personality and that of his beloved wife Sara. Sadly Ian died four years ago and since then Sara has been literally holding the fort, and continuing the tradition of abundant hospitality already established while her husband was alive. I could not begin to enumerate the charmed days I have spent at Fort William, but I have also managed to work there with equal delight: more than one piece for this blog has been written while sitting at the George III secretaire which can be seen in a corner of the morning room above.
I cherish all those memories because the time has now come for Sara regretfully to pass on the baton, hence next week’s sale. Without question she is going to be enormously missed by everyone in the area but one wishes the new owners as much delight in Fort William as was enjoyed by Ian and Sara – and their lucky houseguests. Below is a final image summing up Fort William in recent years: a passage leading to the ever-welcoming kitchen bathed in sunshine (something the house’s spirit has seemed to radiate even on days of rain). And there on the rug is Alfie who despite his recumbent pose for the camera has been ever a faithful and tireless companion on Fort William walks no matter how far the distance or how bad the weather.

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All photographs by James Fennell (www.jamesfennell.com)

Avert Your Gaze

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Here is 20 Kildare Street, Dublin, a house dating from around the mid-18th century. The large first-floor Venetian window recalls a similar building that once stood almost directly opposite on Kildare Place, the design of which was attributed to Richard Castle. This was demolished for no good reason by the government in 1957 and replaced by a nondescript blank wall (see below for photograph of the building during its demolition). Decades ago 20 Kildare Street suffered the indignity of having its groundfloor turned into a hotel car park, but in recent years even that function has gone. Now, as can be seen, the house is falling steadily into decay. So too is no.19 to the immediate left and it cannot be long before this duo’s future becomes imperilled. Ironically the Department of Heritage occupies premises almost immediately to the right of this picture; one must assume its officials are far too busy with other matters to notice the dereliction on their doorstep.

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She That To Us Was Loveliest

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In April 1904 Cecil and Maude Baring bought Lambay Island, off the coast of north Dublin, for £5,250. The couple had met a few years earlier in New York where he had gone to work for the family bank and she was married to one of his partners: having eloped together and following her divorce, they married. But given public attitudes at the time, it is understandable the Barings should have remained somewhat aloof from society and relished their life on Lambay where they commissioned Edwin Lutyens to restore and extend an old castle. Together with their three children, they lived a paradisal existence until almost exactly 18 years after buying the island, Maude died of cancer in April 1922. She was buried on Lambay, Lutyens designing a large curved mausoleum inside the rampart walls. The memorial is both austere and yet highly personal, and at the centre of its front her grieving husband placed the plaque shown below.

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I shall be writing more about Lambay Island in a few weeks’ time.

Queen Maeve

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“From the time I was almost five until I was almost eighteen, we lived in a small house in a part of Dublin called Ranelagh. On our street, all of the houses were of red brick and had small back gardens, part cement and part grass, separated from one another by low stone walls over which, when we first moved in, I was unable to peer, although in later years I seem to remember looking over them quite easily, so I suppose they were about five feet high. All of the gardens had a common end wall, which was, of course, very long, since it stretched the whole length of our street. Our street was called an avenue, because it was blind at one end, the farthest end from us.” (The Morning after the Big Fire, 1953)

Last Thursday’s property pages in the Irish Times carried a rather overwrought piece about a house for sale in Ranelagh, a suburb of Dublin to the immediate south of the Grand Canal. The origins of the name Ranelagh are rather curious. It derives from the Irish “Gabhal Raghnaill”, an area of what became County Wicklow centered around Ballinacor. Until the early 17th century, this region was under the control of an especially truculent branch of the O’Byrne family; Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne who was mentioned here a few weeks ago (The Cosby Show, March 11th) and who the altogether more unassertive Irish Aesthete likes to claim as an ancestor, was known in the 16th century as Lord of Ranelagh.
However, following the defeat of the O’Byrnes and the seizure of their lands, that title went to an interloper. In 1628 Sir Roger Jones, whose English-born father had been both Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was ennobled as Viscount Ranelagh. In turn his son Richard was created Earl of Ranelagh in 1677. The latter’s London residence, immediately adjacent to Chelsea Hospital, was called Ranelagh House and some time after his death without a male heir the property was bought by a syndicate who converted the site into a fashionable spot called Ranelagh Gardens (the same ground now hosts the annual Chelsea Flower Show).
So when in 1766 a Dublin entrepreneur called William Hollister decided to open a similar open-air place of entertainment on the outskirts of his native city, he chose to emulate London by naming it Ranelagh Gardens. Thus a name which had crossed the Irish Sea returned to its own country. Well-travelled readers will know there is also an area in Paris close to the Bois de Boulogne called Ranelagh. It too is named after the Earl of Ranelagh (the French were then more anglophile than later became the case) and was the site of the Château de la Muette where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette spent their first years of married life. It was from here that the Montgolfier brothers made their debut ascent in a hot air balloon in November 1783. Coincidentally the first Irishman to take off in a balloon, Richard Crosbie, did so from Dublin’s Ranelagh Gardens just fourteen months later in January 1785.

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“Beyond the wall Mrs Bagot and Mrs Finn shared, a row of identical walls stretched off into the distance. All the gardens were attached, like all the houses. A grove of trees, forty diminishing walls away, completed the view to the sky. It was a narrow side street, a dead end, in the suburbs of Dublin. There were shops around the corner, on the main road, but none on the street itself. Schoolteachers, shopkeepers and minor civil servants lived on the street, and a policeman had recently moved into one of the houses with his family.” (The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary, 1966)

Dublin’s Ranelagh Gardens, like their London equivalent, eventually fell from public favour and the site came to be occupied by a convent of Carmelite nuns. They turned part of the grounds into a large kitchen garden that allowed them to be almost self-sufficient since they also kept poultry and even cattle. After the nuns departed in 1975 some of the site was retained as a public park and named Ranelagh Gardens, so retaining the link with the 18th century. Meanwhile the surrounding area had been gradually developed for housing as the city expanded and the prosperous classes moved out to what they judged the more salubrious suburbs. Ranelagh had the advantage of being outside and yet close to the commercial centre, allowing easy access especially after the advent of trams from 1872 onwards: many of Ranelagh’s red-brick terraces date from the decades immediately following the arrival of public transport.
In the 18th century there were a few fine houses in the area surrounded by large gardens but inevitably these were lost as demand for development land rose. Despite the best efforts of the Irish Times writer, the resultant streets cannot claim much aesthetic merit. The houses are formulaic in style, all with the same narrow entrance halls opening onto two reception rooms before a short flight of steps descends to the kitchen with a door to the garden. A flight of stairs leads up to a couple of bedrooms, passing a bathroom en route. Built for the petite bourgeoisie, the Mr Pooters of Dublin, their design consciously avoided originality lest it frighten prospective buyers. Conformity was critical to their success.

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“Thinking about all that walking had given him a sense of energy and well-being. He felt in good health and good humor, and contented to be coming home after his day’s work, and he was smiling as he stepped into the hall. There were red glass panels in the side frames of the front door, and he was always aware of the glass and always closed the door carefully. At the same instant that he was hanging his raincoat on the rack, he looked down the hall and saw the kitchen door close quicly and quietly, but not quickly enough to prevent him from seeing that Rose was down there.” (Family Walls, 1973)

Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917 and at the age of five she and her family moved to Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh, a street immediately identifiable in the many short stories she would later write. Her parents were both republicans and at the time of her birth Robert Brennan had been in jail for leading the 1916 Rising in Wexford. In post-independence Ireland he became part of the new establishment and in 1934 was sent to the Washington as the Irish Free State’s first minister to the United States. Ten years later he returned to Dublin but his daughter Maeve remained, moving to New York where initially she worked for Harper’s Bazaar; it’s worth pointing out that at the time this was unquestionably the most influential women’s magazine in the world and had another Irishwoman as editor, the Dublin-born Carmel Snow.
In 1949 Maeve Brennan was offered a staff job at The New Yorker where she remained for the rest of her writing career. Although she mostly produced social pieces under the title of The Long-Winded Lady, from 1950 onwards The New Yorker also carried her short stories, the best of which are set in Ranelagh. These tales, mostly featuring the same handful of characters although written decades apart, are as redolent of the world she had known in her youth as are James Joyce’s stories in Dubliners. In particular she possesses a remarkable ability to evoke sense of place; read her Irish stories (many of them collected together and published as The Springs of Affection in 1999) and you are immediately transported to Ranelagh.
Maeve Brennan’s Ranelagh is not today’s self-consciously chichi “village” but an altogether more modest suburb of Dublin whose residents, as she makes plain, possess few ambitions other than to ensure their immediate neighbours remain unaware of the tempests brewing behind those glass-paned frontdoors. This is, of course, scarcely new territory but what sets her work apart is its ability to turn the mundane into the exceptional. Thanks to her adroit yet simple use of language, the regular red-brick terraces are filled with drama even while nothing remarkable takes place. Nobody is killed, or engages in adultery, or behaves violently or even shouts, but still those streets pulsate with passion.

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“They were Mr and Mrs Derdon, and they had been married to each other for twenty-seven years. He was the senior by five years. They slept in the back bedroom upstairs, and their window looked over their little walled garden, not much different from the other gardens in the terrace, and beyond that over a strip, grey and corrugated, of garage roofs.” (The Poor Men and Women, 1952)

Maeve Brennan’s later years were not happy. The pall of melancholy that hangs over her stories spilled over into her life. In 1954 she married The New Yorker‘s managing editor St. Clair McKelway, an alcoholic womaniser with three divorces behind him. A few years later she became his fourth ex-wife. By the 1970s she had developed her own drink problem and by then also suffered from declining mental health which required hospitalisation on a number of occasions. Having lived in a series of rented apartments and hotel rooms over the previous decades, she now became homeless and took to sleeping in the women’s lavatory at The New Yorker‘s office. Destitute and unwell, eventually she was admitted to a nursing home and died in Brooklyn in November 1993 at the age of seventy-six.
A few years after her death, Maeve Brennan’s stories were republished, leading to her discovery by a new readership; she has since been the subject of a biography and a play. While neither of these especially caught my fancy, I can recommend her Dublin short stories without reserve. No writer better conveys the spirit of the city in the aftermath of independence and in particular the character of Dublin’s then-burgeoning suburbs. Thanks to Maeve Brennan attributes hitherto hidden become apparent and the seemingly ordinary streets of Ranelagh appear beautiful. This is the transformative power of great prose.

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“Still, he could not believe that even a human being as ineffectual as she had been could vanish from life without leaving any trace of herself at all. Any trace would be a sign that might guide him to the grief he wanted to suffer for her. But there was no sign.” (The Drowned Man, 1963)