A Lamentable Waste

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For a variety of reasons, some of which have been discussed here before, Ireland possesses a disproportionately small number of domestic dwellings from the 16th and 17th centuries. One might expect therefore that any remaining examples of architecture of this period would be especially cherished. The case of Carstown Manor, County Louth demonstrates the fallacy of such a supposition. As will be shown below, much about Carstown’s origins are, as so often, unclear. However, two pieces of on-site evidence help to date the building even if not exactly in the form it has today. These are a pair of carved limestone plaques, one at the centre of a massive chimney piece in what would have been the main reception room, the other directly above the entrance door. Although differing in shape, they carry the same details, namely the date 1612, a coat of arms combining those of two families, and the initials OP and KH. These stand for Oliver Plunkett and his wife Katherine Hussey, who came from Galtrim, County Meath. Both families were long settled in this part of the country, Oliver being the grandson of another Oliver Plunkett, first Baron Louth and also related to the slightly later Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh who was executed in 1681 and canonised in 1975. The alliance between the Plunketts and the Husseys was thus one linking two important dynasties of the Pale. The plaques may be presumed to indicate either the couple’s marriage or the date on which they completed work of some kind at Carstown.

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Carstown is a south-facing five-bay single-storey house over raised basement, the attic lit by gabled dormer windows believed to have been inserted at some date later than the main building’s construction. The façade is notable for a number of oddities, among them the substantial protruding chimneystack on the west gable: that on the east is incorporated into the house. The raised doorway, reached by a flight of stone steps projecting some twenty-four feet out from the house, is off-centre, closer to the east than the west. Add the intermittent use of brick and the fact that some of the dormers are taller than others and it is easy to see why all these anomalies have encouraged speculation into the origins of Carstown, the lands of which appears to have been in Plunkett ownership long before 1612. The most common explanation for the building’s unusual appearance is that it began as a late 15th/early 16th century tower house which stood on the site of the two eastern bays. This theory is strengthened by the existence of a cut-stone arch surviving in the north-west corner of this part of the basement, suggesting it was the tower house’s entrance; a curve in the wall immediately to the north would also propose this was where the spiral staircase began. Throughout the country there are examples of similar buildings being modernised by incorporation into later structures, the whole often then rendered so as to conceal where the old work ended and the new began. Clearly at Carstown the latter started fairly early because the internal plaque of 1612 serves as keystone of a chimneypiece measuring almost nine feet wide and five feet high; this would have heated a space serving as the house’s great hall. Additional work carried out in either the late 18th century or early decades of the 19th century – when it seems most of the fine yard buildings were erected – have further muddled matters, not least because at that time a three-bay, three-storey extension was added behind the main block, thereby giving Carstown a T-shaped plan.

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In 2011 Michael Corcoran published a paper proposing an alternative narrative for Carstown. Based on evidence from other contemporaneous buildings in Ireland and England, he suggests the core of the structure could be a late-mediaeval house dating from the late 15th or early 16th century. It would have been a relatively modest gabled rectangular domestic residence but not so greatly different from what can be seen today. The main floor would already have been over a raised basement with attic space above, accessed as now through a door approximately two-thirds along the front towards the eastern end. ‘It is uncertain whether the original entrance would have been elevated, accessed by a staircase for which the current one is a replacement. It is quite possible that the original entrance was at ground-level, possibly through the opening beneath the current stairs. The building would have been heated by at least three fireplaces, one at each gable end and another – the largest – along the back wall of the house, possibly serving a great hall.’ Thus, Corcoran submits, Carstown most likely underwent a remodelling around 1612, with the two stones carrying this date being inserted to mark that occasion, as well perhaps as the marriage of Oliver Plunkett and Katherine Hussey. Jacobean taste would have led to the insertion of larger windows and perhaps the gabled dormers were added at the same time, both to increase light and to provide additional living space. ‘It is at this point, also, that we see probably the earliest appearance of brick at the site, which was used in carefully selected places such as at the tops of the chimneys and in a thin course beneath the eaves of the roof. It is likely that the building remained in this form up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which there were successive periods of remodelling and extending.’

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If Michael Corcoran’s hypothesis about Carstown’s origins holds up under further investigation, then as he writes, ‘it would not only make this rural dwelling unique within the north Pale region, but would place it within a site-type that is vastly under represented in the Irish countryside and under-appreciated in Irish academia.’ The likelihood of that further investigation taking place grows slimmer by the day because Carstown is now in perilous condition. The house was occupied until relatively recently (the photograph top was taken in the 1940s) and it still has electricity; there is even a television aerial on the roof indicating occupancy in the not-too distant past. But as always in our damp climate, lack of constant residency rapidly takes its toll on a building, not least because it then becomes vulnerable to vandalism. This clearly happened at Carstown, so the present owners took the step of blocking up all openings with cement blocks, although limited access to the interior is still possible. Limited because it is no longer safe to venture above the basement and therefore impossible to know the condition of 18th century joinery and plasterwork still in place less than twenty years ago, not to mention the great chimneypiece with its keystone carrying the date 1612. At some point in the past six months lead was stripped from the roof, along with a set of gates beyond the yard, probably by metal thieves. This has exacerbated the house’s decline as large numbers of slates have come free, leaving the floors below exposed to the elements. Time is running out for Carstown, a house that in other jurisdictions would be cherished for its rarity. Unless intervention occurs within the coming year the building is likely to slip into irreversible decline. All those who could and should play a part to ensure its survival, not least the owners and the local authority, need to understand that by failing to act now they are not only diminishing the nation’s architectural heritage but depriving future generations of better understanding our complex history. Take a good look at that date stone: it could soon be replaced by another marking the demise of Carstown.

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Garden Guardians

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Two pieces of statuary in the grounds of Ballyfin, County Laois. To the rear of the main block and flanked by obelisks, the figure of a river god reclines in a basin. The cascade behind him concludes in a Doric temple. Meanwhile in front of the house a pair of crouching sphinxes observe the arrival and departure of guests.

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For more about Ballyfin, see The Fair Place, July 21st 2014.

When Salvation is at Hand

 

 

 

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The debt which Ireland owes to members of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers, is insufficiently appreciated. Although always relatively small in number, members of their faith were often outstandingly industrious and possessed of exceptional foresight. One of the most notable among them was Anthony Sharp, born in Gloucestershire in 1643 before moving to this country in 1669 to escape religious persecution in England. He settled in Dublin where he became involved in the wool trade and quickly gained success: by 1680 he employed some 500 workers and eight years later the Weavers’ Guild elected him Master; he also became an Alderman of Dublin. As well as allowing him to acquire extensive property in the capital, Sharp’s business acumen provided him with the necessary funds to buy land elsewhere in Ireland, notably in what was then known as Queen’s County, now Laois. Around 1685 he purchased from Thomas Sharkey of Abbeyleix some 1,700 acres in Killinure based around a small dwelling house. Using the land to graze sheep and thus produce more wool, Sharp established a small community in Killinure which came to have the informal name Friends Town and it appears there were other buildings in the vicinity including mills. Even before buying the estate in Ireland Anthony Sharp had been one of the original shareholders in the purchase of West New Jersey in 1677 (in which William Penn, who had converted to Quakerism while in Ireland, was also involved). Likewise, when East New Jersey was bought by the Quakers in 1682 Sharp was an investor.  While he remained in Ireland, in late 1700 his eldest son Isaac Sharp moved to America where he settled in Salem County, New Jersey, naming the district Blessington after the County Wicklow town (the area in New Jersey is now known as Sharpstown).

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Anthony Sharp died in 1707 and was buried in Dublin. The bulk of his property was bequeathed to his son Isaac who at the time was still living in Salem County where he served as a judge and a colonel of the local militia; he would also be a member of the New Jersey General Assembly from 1709-21. In 1714 he married a local woman, Margaret Braithwaite, with whom he had six children. Thus although being the principal beneficiary of his father’s estate, he remained in America and only returned to Ireland around 1726, together with his eldest son Anthony. The latter thus inherited the Killinure property on his own father’s death in 1735 (he conveyed the East New Jersey lands to his younger brothers five years later). Anthony Sharp remained on the Killinure estate, now called Roundwood, until his death in 1781; he had two children, a boy and a girl but the former Isaac Sharp died while still a minor and the estate passed to the son of Anthony Sharp’s daughter Frances’ son, one Robert Anthony Flood who in accordance with the terms of his grandfather’s will assumed the surname Sharp. Soon after the family’s decline began, Robert Sharp taking out a mortgage in 1784, a year after his marriage to Mary Horan of Dublin, on all his properties in the capital. He died in 1803 leaving a one year-old heir William Flood Sharp under whom the deterioration of finances accelerated to such an extent that in 1835 the house and demesne of 1,680 acres were assigned to a Dublin attorney to cover the family’s debts. One of the witnesses to the deed of transfer was a first cousin once-removed William Hamilton of Peafield in the same county. Two years later Hamilton was shown to be in possession of Roundwood and his descendants remained there until 1968 when Major Maurice Chetwode Hamilton sold house and remaining 200 acres to the Land Commission.

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The Land Commission, as was ever that body’s wont, displayed no interest in the house which was left boarded up, its condition soon deteriorating. It might have been lost altogether had the Irish Georgian Society not stepped in to buy house and surrounding fourteen acres for £6,250 in the summer of 1970. There was no water supply or electricity but thankfully the building had not been vandalised and its chimneypieces and other features were intact. Brian Molloy, one of the IGS’s most spirited members at the time moved into Roundwood and aided by a band of volunteers set about rescuing Roundwood. A diary he kept during those first months indicates just how dilapidated the house had become and how much had to be done. In an entry for July 15th 1970, he notes that a 19th century extension to the rear of the house ‘was consumed with dry rot, wet rot and decay’ (it was soon demolished) and three days later, ‘Mr Maloney the electrician is coming on Tuesday, thank God. He gave an estimate of £218, very reasonable as it includes 47 thirteen amp sockets.’ Gradually the house was refurbished and decorated at a cost of just £15,000: the drawingroom’s Victorian chimneypiece was replaced with a fine 18th century example from Bert House, County Kildare but otherwise little was added to the building. Similarly the overgrown grounds and stable yard were cleared and tidied. The house was officially opened on June 6th 1971 after which Brian Molloy lived there while overseeing the restoration of the Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary (for more on that property, see Bon Anniversaire, September 23rd 2013). Two years later it was bought from the society for £35,000 by one of the organisation’s keenest American supporters, John L Tormey of Akron, Ohio. He was happy that Brian Molloy should continue to live there as he did until his untimely death in 1978, after which John Tormey generously donated Roundwood back to the Society. It was then occupied for a time by Brian Molloy’s friend, the artist’s muse Henrietta Moraes before being leased from the IGS in 1983 by Frank and Rosemarie Kennan. Five years later they bought Roundwood from the society and today their daughter and son-in-law Hannah and Paddy Flynn live there and, like her parents, run the house as a family guesthouse.

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Roundwood has often and rightly been described as having the appearance and character of a doll’s house and is certainly one of the prettiest such properties remaining in Ireland. The building must date from before 1741 which is when the name Roundwood first appears in registered deeds instead of Killinure. One can therefore presume it was built by Anthony Sharp shortly after he came into his inheritance in 1735. The main elevation is of five bays and three storeys with a break front, the central projecting bay crowned with a pediment. There is only a part-basement and unusually the kitchen has always been on the ground floor behind the dining room. The entrance doorcase is Gibbsian, flanked on both sides by narrow windows and composed of limestone, unlike the rest of the facade which is of sandstone with side and back being rendered. The design of the house has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon but what might be described as the clumsiness of certain elements make this unlikely. It has been noted, for example, how the detailing of the first floor Venetian window lacks sophistication and its coursing differs from that of the quoins. As Maurice Craig wrote in 1976, ‘I prefer to believe it was just put together by somebody: master-builder or even owner.’ One suspects this was often the case in 18th century provincial Ireland.
The greater part of the interior remains unaltered, the rooms still with their carved timber architraves to window openings, lugged doorcases and panelled wainscotting, as well as some primitive rococo plasterwork in the former study. All the chimney pieces remain except, as already mentioned, that in the drawing room which came from Bert, County Kildare, a house of similar date. But the great delight of Roundwood is its double-height entrance hall with a bow-fronted first-floor gallery once described as swelling out like a pair of opera boxes, their balustrades made of distinctive Chinoiserie fretwork. No matter how many times one visits Roundwood, the sight of its entrance hall lifts the spirits up and beyond the ceiling’s stucco foliate centrepiece. Forty-five years ago the future of this house looked decidedly uncertain and many others of its ilk were lost then and in the intervening years. Thankfully in this instance salvation was at hand in the nick of time. Roundwood has survived and now serves as an wonderful example of how such properties can be both a family home and financially viable.


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Elevation and sectional drawings by architect John O’Connell.
Roundwood welcomes guests. For more information, see: http://www.roundwoodhouse.com

The Length and Breadth Of It

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Two views of the late 14th century cloisters at the former Franciscan friary in Askeaton, County Limerick.  Founded by Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond the friary is notable for the excellently preserved condition of this feature; each of its four still-vaulted sides features twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with moulded capitals.

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For more on Askeaton Friary, see A Cloistered World, February 10th 2014.

A Pair of Literary Giants

 

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One of the stained glass windows in the 16th century tower house at Tulira Castle, County Galway. This is in Edward Martyn’s former private library, redecorated by George Ashlin when he made over the whole property in the 1880s. The windows, featuring luminaries such as Chaucer and Shakespeare shown here, were designed by English artist Edward Frampton in 1882. The irony, of course, is that within decades of the windows’ installation many key figures in Ireland’s literary revival – not least another pair of giants, Martyn’s neighbour Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats – would gather at Tulira. Their presence there went unrecorded, at least in glass.
For more on Tulira Castle, see The Ascetic Aesthete, October 13th 2014.

On the Town I

During 2015 the Irish Aesthete will visit an Irish town once a month and comment on the state of its architectural heritage. January’s town is Drogheda, County Louth.

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As has often been pointed out the name Droichead Átha – meaning Bridge of the Ford – indicates Drogheda is the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea. This made the place strategically important. Although St Patrick is said to have landed here and Viking raiding parties wintered in the area, Drogheda was only founded, as two separate towns on either side of the Boyne, in the late 12th century when Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey in the Millmount area. For two centuries rival corporations faced each other across the river but were united as one in 1412. As evidence of its prosperity, Drogheda was subject to raids by both the Scots and the native Irish, leading to the construction of walls some twenty feet high and with a circumference of more than one and a half miles. These defences were strong enough to repulse an attack in 1315-16 by Edward the Bruce’s Scottish army in 1316-16. The most visible remnant today is St Laurence’s Gate on the eastern side of the old town. While the medieval religious establishments were closed during the Reformation, otherwise Drogheda continued to blossom until caught up in the wars of the 1640s. In November 1641 the Irish Confederate army under Sir Phelim O’Neill laid siege to the town and three times attempted to take it, without success; eventually the following spring relief forces from Dublin forced O’Neill to retire. Seven years later the town was again besieged, this time by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army which after three days gained possession and slaughtered many of the citizens. But Drogheda recovered from this terrible event and thanks to a revival of trade enjoyed something of a golden age in the 18th century when some of its finest extant buildings were constructed. Commercial decline began in the second half of the 19th century and has continued ever since; with improved transport links, such as the arrival of the railway and then the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin (less than 35 miles) has been to its disadvantage. The consequences of this are evident to anyone visiting the place.

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As already mentioned, the most tangible attestation of Drogheda’s medieval defences is St Laurence’s Gate. The print at the top of this page, taken from John D’Alton’s History of Drogheda and its Environs (1844) shows how the gate, with its little toll houses on either side, looked in the first half of the 19th century looking eastwards up St Laurence Street with the old grammar school (of which more below) to the north and a series of handsome houses to the south. Originally built in the 13th century and St Laurence’s Gate survives but is difficult to inspect or appreciate, both because surrounded by a jumble of telegrath wires and other clutter, and because it is used by traffic as a point of entry from this side of the town. Immediately to the south on Featherbed Lane is a section of the old walls with its series of elliptical arches: both the walls and the lane are in poor condition and look as though little has been done for many years to improve their state. Moving northwards and to the periphery of the old town one reaches the Magdalene Tower, all that remains of the Dominican Friary founded by Lucas de Netterville, Archbishop of Armagh in 1224. It is likely to be of a later date, the upper windows judged to be from the early 14th century. At the end of the same century it was here that the Ulster chiefs acknowledged their submission to Richard II. Today it stands isolated amid housing estates. The Magdalene Tower’s environment is considerably better than that of Drogheda’s other medieval ecclesiastical remains, those of the Abbey and Hospital of St Mary d’Urso, aptly described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan in 1993 as ‘a perfect expression of the State’s lackadaisical attitude towards its historic buildings.’ More than two decades later, nothing has changed. Found at the end of Abbey Lane, despite its central location the tower is surrounded by derelict buildings, rubbish and graffiti: an apt metaphor for how Drogheda treats its architectural heritage

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After the depredations of the 17th century, much of Drogheda had to be rebuilt. But in addition the town’s regained prosperity encouraged something of a building boom as affluent citizens wished to live in better premises than had their forebears. One of the most notable additions of the period was Barlow House on Drogheda’s western perimeter. The building dates from 1734 when Alderman James Barlow married Althemia Leigh, daughter of another alderman and merchant; its prominence even at the time is attested by an appearance on Joseph Ravell’s map of the town which was produced in 1749. The architect is unknown but it has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon. Of three storeys over basement, and five bays wide with a stone eaves cornice, the focus of the house’s facade is a pedimented Gibbsian doorcase with the first-floor window above flanked by scrolled volutes topped by a segmental pediment. In the mid-19th century the building became a police station and continued being used as such until 1997. In 2000 a three-year restoration programme began and the house is now used as a venue by the local arts centre. Some thirty years after James Barlow began building his new residence and as evidence of the town’s mercantile prosperity, in 1765 Drogheda Corporation ordered the demolition of the old wooden tholsel and the construction of a new replacement. Completed in five years, this was designed by George Darley and faces onto two thoroughfares with a plain four-bay front on Shop Street and an entrance front around the corner on West Street. With an exaggeratedly high first floor this rises just two storeys before being crowned by a cupola tower ending in an octagonal belfry and dome. The Tholsell was converted into a bank in 1890 and continued as such until a few years ago: it is now a tourist office. Between them, the Barlow House and the Tholsel reflect the confidence and ambition of Drogheda’s citizens in the 18th century, qualities that are much less apparent in the town today.

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At least both the Barlow House and the Tholsel survive. The fate of Drogheda Grammar School provides a salutary instance of how easily a town’s architectural heritage can be lost. This institution occupied what had been Mr Clarke’s Free School on St Laurence Street (founded 1669) and the neighbouring Singleton House. The former building begun in 1728 was attributed to Michael Wills who at the time worked as an assistant to Thomas Burgh. The latter, possibly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, was built circa 1740 as a residence for Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland; it contained one of the finest oak-panelled interiors in Ireland including a magnificent staircase. Both were used by the grammaer school until it moved to modern premises in 1975. Thereafter the two houses stood empty for several years until 1978 when a consortium of local businessmen set up a company called DGS Ltd. This acquired the old Grammar School for £70,000 and looked for an opportunity to demolish the buildings even though they had been listed since 1967 as ‘worthy of preservation.’ A small group of civic-minded local residents established the Drogheda Grammar School Preservation Committee in an effort to counter DGS Ltd’s systematic neglect, a policy based on the expectation that eventually the site would be deemed irreparably dilapidated. To add insult to injury in April 1980 the company claimed £12,500 from Drogheda Corporation for vandalism to the old Grammar School, a property the DGS Ltd had done nothing to protect. Indeed the local authority, while insisting it wanted the old Grammar School to survive and discussing the possibility of the buildings’ use as a public library, signally failed to utilise its statutory powers compelling the owners to safeguard listed properties. Over the next decade a series of court cases followed, during which the condition of the buildings continued to deteriorate. Then one Sunday morning in July 1989 a demolition contractor hired by DGS Ltd moved onto the site and proceeded to knock down the old Grammar School. The local preservation committee immediately went to the High Court in Dublin where the presiding judge issued an order preventing any further demolition or the removal of building materials and requiring the protection of the remains of the building. It proved to be a Pyrhhic victory, as the damage done during the unauthorised work was so great not even the original facade could be salvaged. Eventually a replica of this was built behind which DGS Ltd developed its intended shops and offices. This is what one sees today. What should have been a valuable tourist asset to all Drogheda and the surrounding region was obliterated so that a handful of speculators might gain.

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Drogheda’s former prosperity deserted it some time ago: when Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term that would not be out of place today: last week in the annual nationwide survey of towns organised by Irish Business Against Litter Drogheda had fallen to 35th place out of 40. The links between urban decay and litter, together with such associated problems as graffiti, are too well known to need repeating here. What really shocks a visitor to Drogheda is the flagrant neglect of the town’s historic fabric, the fact that so many old buildings are being permitted to fall into desuetude. There is scarcely a street in the centre which does not have several houses in advanced stages of the decay cited by Thackeray, and the consequences are inevitable: the property is not treated with respect, becomes subjected to vandalism, slips further into ruin and likely drags neighbours with it. After all, who wants to live or conduct a business in an area on its way down?
To pick one example of many possible, Fair Street, which has many fine 18th century townhouses and should be cherished, is today anything but fair in appearance despite the former Francis Johnston-designed Cornmarket having housed the local authority since the end of the 19th century: if those in charge don’t see the problems on their doorstep, what hope anyone else will? Likewise while Barlow House has been restored, many other buildings in the vicinity are in an advanced stage of decay, giving a very poor impression of the western entrance to the old town. With its enviably rich architectural history, Drogheda has the potential to rival Kilkenny in terms of becoming a popular tourist destination. It needs both literally and metaphorically to clean up its act and start appreciating the advantages it has been bequeathed. But at the moment, the town is failing to reap the benefits of its heritage, preferring instead to squander them. When explanations are sought as to why Irish towns should be in seemingly inexorable decline, Drogheda can provide a ready and regrettable explanation.

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An Incomplete Project

Dublin print

A view from Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge looking south. This was one of twelve topographical images of the city executed in watercolour and pencil by Samuel Brocas and then engraved by his brother Henry between 1818 and 1829. The caption reads ‘Published July 1st, 1820, by J. Le Petit, Printseller,  20 Capel Street, and Bell and Wright, Duke Street, Bloomsbury, London.’ The print was to be part of an intended Book of Views of Ireland which never materialised, probably due to lack of sufficient support but it gives us a wonderful idea of how Dublin looked two centuries ago, and how successful had been the work of the Wide Street Commissioners. Imagine a similar view taken today, and how little of the coherence of design and intelligence of layout visible here still remains.