The former Market House in Killucan, County Westmeath. Dating from the late 1830s it was seemingly built by local stonemason Thomas Keegan. An architect called Patrick Keegan, listed as living in Dublin in the early 1820s, designed a gothick game larder for Knockdrin Castle which is not far from Killucan: might the two men have been members of the same family? In any case, the old Market House is today a sorry sight, despite occupying the most prominent position in the centre of this town and being sturdily constructed of dressed limestone on the ground floor with the remnants of a clock at the top of the pedimented breakfront centre bay. How to ensure the future of a place like Killucan: begin by restoring its historic core and bringing new purpose to old buildings.
It is impossible to miss the castle in Cahir, County Tipperary, and nor should it be missed. Most likely the town – the name of which derives from the Irish ‘an Chathair’ meaning stone ringfort – would not exist but for the castle. Occupying a rocky island in the river Suir the present building’s core dates from the 13th century when it was constructed by Conor O’Brien, Prince of Thomond most probably on the site of an earlier native fortification. In 1375 as a reward for his loyalty to the English crown the castle was granted to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond and remained in possession of branches of this family for almost six centuries. Henry VIII created Thomas Butler Baron Cahir in 1543. It was during the lifetime of his great-nephew Thomas Butler, second Lord Cahir (of the second creation) that the castle was besieged and then captured in 1599 by a force of 18,000 under the command of the Earl of Essex. However since Lord Cahir surrendered, he received a pardon and was able to hold onto his lands. Cahir Castle was once more threatened with a siege in 1647, this time by Murrough O’Brien, sixth Baron Inchiquin but its occupants quickly surrendered, as they did also in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell advised ‘If I be necessitated to use my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremities usual in such cases.’ Capitulation thereby saved the castle from a potentially ruinous assault. It remained in use, although not always by its owners, until the 19th century: in the second half of the 18th century the Butlers built for themselves a classical residence in the town (today the Cahir House Hotel). But they maintained the old castle and even carried out some restoration on the property in the 1840s. Following the death of the last member of the family in 1961 Cahir Castle was acquired by the state and is now open to the public.
The town of Cahir largely owes its present appearance to two men, Richard Butler, tenth Lord Cahir who was created first Earl of Glengall in 1816, and his son also called Richard, the second earl. To the first of these Cahir is indebted for such charms as the Swiss Cottage (of which more on another occasion) and the Anglican St Paul’s Church, the former attributed to John Nash, the latter certainly designed by him 1816-18. It replaced an older church, the ruins of which can still be seen, as can those of an Augustinian priory founded in the 13th century. The former Erasmus Smith School adjacent to St Paul’s and now used as local authority offices is likely by Nash also. In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837, the author notes that Cahir ‘owes its rise to the late earl of Glengall, and has been enlarged and greatly improved by the present earl whose seat is within its limits; it is pleasantly situated on the river Suir, is well built and of handsome appearance, and now consists of 588 houses.’ His words were echoed by other visitors to the town during this period, and especially after 1843 when, the majority of leases issued in the previous century coming to term, the second earl embarked on an extensive programme of rebuilding which saw Castle Street and the Square, as well as various approach roads, assume their present form. The architect responsible was the Clonmel-based William Tinsley who gave the place a coherence rarely found in this country. As G.H. Bassett commented in his 1888 publication County Tipperary: A Guide and Directory, ‘The houses of Cahir devoted to business as well as residential purposes, are superior to those found in most country towns in lreland.’ Remodelling Cahir was estimated to have cost Lord Glengall in the region of £75,000. Unfortunately as a consequence of this and other expenditure on the eve the Great Famine, and despite marriage to an heiress, Cahir’s owner found himself heavily indebted and the family’s fortunes never recovered from his expenditure on Cahir. In 1853 the town was sold on the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court.
From the 18th century on Cahir thrived thanks to lying at the centre of a prosperous agricultural region, witnessed by a large market house erected in the 1770s on the north side of the square facing Cahir House. The town’s prosperity was further increased by the establishment of a number of large mills on the banks of the Suir, including the Manor Mills on the Bridge of Cahir, the Suir Mills (Cahir Bakery), and the Cahir Abbey Mills. These buildings still exist and are a dominant presence in the town, although redundant and badly in need of alternative use. When Henry D Inglis travelled through Ireland in 1834 he visited the town and after remarking on the beauty of its situation he observed that ‘Cahir is rather an improving place. The flour trade is pretty extensively carried on, both in grinding, and in carrying to Clonmel. Very extensive cornmills have recently been erected; and they are in full employment.’ The mills were mostly run by the town’s substantial Quaker population, their significance evident by the fine Meeting House in the town, dating from the early 1830s. Almost directly opposite is a terrace of exceptionally large houses erected during the same period, another testament to Cahir’s former importance in the area, as is a similar terrace of four, three-storey over basement residences called the Mall close by the castle. In the 1820s the second earl leased the land on which they stand to a Dr Thomas Beale specifically for the purpose of building an hotel and a row of townhouses, the first three of which were completed by 1830, two of them serving as the Cahir Castle Hotel. The advent of famine in the 1840s put paid to the completion of this scheme and others similar planned for the town.
Cahir now suffers from the same problems as so many other Irish towns, not least the disappearance of the industries that once provided employment. Today it gives the impression of existing because it did so in the past. Those substantial mills, in their shabby vacancy, are witness to changing circumstances that have not been to the advantage of the town and testify to the departure of former prosperity. On the other hand, Cahir enjoys benefits not enjoyed by many other Irish towns, having a splendid castle and attractively laid-out streets. In other words, Cahir has an opportunity to exploit its potential as a tourist magnet, and to some extent already does so. The castle clearly attracts tourists and has an attractive and well-maintained park to one side. But on the other, close to the centre of the town, is a vast car and bus park. One understands the importance of offering visitors somewhere to leave their vehicles, but to create a desolate expanse of tarmac right beside the castle seems self-defeating: why not conceal it behind buildings that follow the original line of the street, or engage in extensive planting that would soften the prospect and avoid conflict with Cahir’s principal attraction? The same failure better to exploit opportunities is found throughout the town. In the main square, for example, far too many properties are vacant, an inevitable consequence of planning authorities permitting supermarkets to be constructed on the outskirts. But the square’s appearance is not helped by the former Butler residence, the 18th century Cahir House Hotel with its fine first-floor Venetian window, being disfigured by the insertion of uPVC windows, as are so many other properties in the area: does nobody see what damage this does to the perception among visitors of Cahir as a supposed heritage town? On the other side of the square, another significant building, the 18th century former Market House, underwent a grotesque ‘renovation’ in the 1980s when original arched openings were replaced with over-sized plate-glass windows, thereby destroying the integrity of the design. Visiting Cahir one is conscious of missed opportunity and a failure to exploit potential, with inevitable consequences for the town and surrounding region. Not very different to anywhere else in the country so.
In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837 Samuel Lewis observes that Downpatrick, County Down ‘is built upon a group of little hills, on the south shore of the western branch of…Strangford Lough, and consists of four principal streets rising with a steep ascent from the market place in the centre, and intersected by several smaller streets or lanes: on the eastern side the hills rise abruptly behind it, commanding views of a fertile and well-cultivated tract abounding with richly diversified and picturesque scenery. It is divided according to ancient usage into three districts called respectively the English, Irish and Scottish quarters, and contains about 900 houses, most of which are well built: the streets are well paved, and were first lighted with oil in 1830; and the inhabitants are amply supplied with water.’ Lewis then proceeds to give a very full account of Downpatrick’s history, deservedly since this is one of the most ancient urban settlements in Ireland, mentioned by Ptolemy in the second century as Dunum. Originally it was called Rath Celtair, after the mythological warrior Celtchar who was said to have lived there and who appears in many old texts, not least The Táin. Later the town served as the chief royal site and religious centre of Ulster’s dominant dynasty, the Dál Fiatach. By the 13th century it had been given the name of Downpatrick after the country’s patron saint, Patrick who was said to have been buried on Cathedral Hill in the year 461; later he was joined there by Saints Bridget and Columkille, ensuring the town became the base for several religious settlements and a place of pilgrimage. Towards the end of the 12th century the Anglo-Norman John de Courcy took possession of the place and established the Benedictine order on the site reputed to hold the remains of the saintly triumvirate, where a cathedral was then built. Like the rest of the country, Downpatrick was attacked, changed hands, suffered spoliation during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries but somehow survived to enjoy prosperity from the late 1600s onwards.
When Richard Pococke made his extensive tour of Ireland in 1752 he described Downpatrick as being a spot ‘where the hills form a beautiful Amphitheatre; on two of these hills the town is built, and the third side is covered with the wood and gardens that are about a house…and on the western hill are the walls of the ancient Cathedral, called the Abby, which is not large but has a very venerable aspect; near it are the remains of a round tower. [for more on the travails of Down Cathedral, see Down Patrick’s Way, December 23rd 2013]…Below the Abbey is a very handsom brick building, in the middle part an apartment for six men, and six women, and at each end a School for ten girls, at the other for as many boys, who are to be fed and lodged as well as cloth’d and taught. All the foundation of Mr. Southwell of Kings Weston. At the lower end of the town is the Townhouse, and above it a handsom portico of twenty-four Arches for the linnen Market, which is very considerable at this place, and adjoyning to that is a School, to teach the poor children of the town, who are not in the other Schools. Near this is a good new-built Church, and beyond that a free School house for teaching Latin, which seemed to be in a ruinous way. The chief support of this place is a market and Fairs for linnen. This is the proper place of Residence for the Bishop and Dean of Down, but neither of them have houses here. I had almost forgot to mention four Apartments for Clergymen’s widows, which are maintained as well as I could be informed by subscription…Near Down Patrick is a famous horse course for races; here two or three plates are run for, which are given by the Corporation of Horse Breeders in the County of Down, erected by King James II under a charter into a Corporation, with liberty to purchase £200 a-year in lands, and a power to have a treasurer, register and other officers, and that a fair should be held for six days at the time of the races, Customs to be paid belonging to the Corporation, during which fairs, they have power to hold a Court for certain purposes.’
Among the structures to which Pococke refers are the red brick Southwell School, named after its eponymous founder and dating from 1733 and, further down English Street, a terrace of four houses built during the same period for the widows of diocesan clergymen. As he also notes neither the Bishop nor Dean of Down then maintained permanent residences in the town, perhaps because its cathedral had fallen into such a ruinous state. At the time of his visit, the Dean was Patrick Delany, appointed to the position in 1744 not long after his marriage to Mary Pendarves (née Granville) today often better remembered than her husband. When he took up the post Dr Delany discovered his predecessor had only stayed in Down for two days over a six-year period. He and his wife on the other hand tried to spend their summers in the area (the rest of the year they lived at Delville outside Dublin) renting a now-ruinous house called Mount Panther just a few miles outside the town. Despite being only in attendance for a few months annually, the Dean was assiduous in his duties: ‘Never did any flock want more the presence and assistance of a shepherd than this Deanery where there has been a most shameful neglect,’ wrote his devoted wife. ‘I trust in God it will be a very happy thing for the poor people that D.D. is come among them.’ No doubt he had to compete with the clergy of other denominations for the attention of his flock: Downpatrick contains an especially handsome Presbyterian church built in 1711. It was a century of expansion for the town, a new gaol being erected, again on English Street: after the construction of a new gaol in the 1790s (now the County Museum) the former premises became, and continue to be, the meeting rooms of the Down Hunt. Elsewhere houses were built up and down Downpatrick’s hills as the excellent land in the surrounding area made this a prosperous market town, testified by the presence of Denvirs Hotel, first established in 1641 and still with the appearance of an old coaching inn.
Sadly Downpatrick today appears to enjoy little enough of its former prosperity. This is a town replete with opportunities, not least the association with St Patrick. Since 2001 a centre at the base of Cathedral Hill has been dedicated to celebrating the town’s link with Ireland’s patron saint but the building is unsympathetically brutalist and furthermore tucked to the rear of a shopping plaza. As a consequence it is easy to overlook, like so many of Downpatrick’s other charms. The most obvious damage done to the town has been the construction of new retail outlets outside the historic core. As elsewhere, the effect has been to draw footfall away from the older district and to encourage consumers to travel by car: typically a large Lidl outlet almost directly across the road from the St Patrick Centre is set far back from the original street frontage to allow for ample parking. Meanwhile former retail premises in the heart of the town are boarded up and falling into decay, often in key locations such as at the junction of Irish, English and Scotch Streets. It does not help that all traffic must go via this location, making the area hazardous and unfriendly for pedestrians: Downpatrick ought to have been by-passed many years ago. Instead the preferential treatment given to cars means visitors attempting to move around the town on foot must constantly be on their guard. However Downpatrick’s problems don’t just spring from a want of concern for pedestrians; more seriously there appears to be an indifference to safeguarding the town’s broader built heritage. While certain key buildings like the Cathedral are given due attention, many others – especially examples of 18th and 19th century domestic architecture – have been allowed to slide into decay. A house on Irish Street next to the police station, for example, is completely ruinous. Further out on Pound Lane, the old Downe Hospital, vacant since 2009, has fallen prey to vandals and, given its location, is now a prominent blight on the urban landscape. Furthermore, these buildings suggest official indifference, a want of interest in preserving evidence of Downpatrick’s history. Residents and visitors alike will draw their own conclusions. While the real thing slips into dilapidation, ersatz Georgian townhouses are being constructed on the outskirts of the town. Downpatrick’s past looks more distinguished than its future.
The area around Frenchpark, County Roscommon contains little of any architectural note: the remains of the great Palladian house designed by Richard Castle in the late 1720s were demolished more than forty years ago. Now it would seem that the town’s one remaining historic building is destined to go the same way. Dating from 1840, the two-storey, three bay former market house has for a long time stood forlorn on Frenchpark’s main street. Although listed in the county survey as being of ‘social and historic importance’ no one seems troubled that this final remnant of the locale’s history is on the verge of being lost forever.
The remains of the principal gate lodge at Castleboro, County Wexford. The main house (burnt in 1923) had been built around 1840 for the first Lord Carew to the designs of Daniel Robertson of Kilkenny. The single-storey lodge, marking the entrance of a new approach to the house through its parkland, dates from some twenty years later and features a tetrastyle Roman Doric portico. Sad to see this crisp limestone building slip into what appears to be irreversible decay.
In December 2006 the Alfred Beit Foundation sold a collection of more than sixty 15th and 16th century Italian bronzes at Christie’s for some €3.8 million. There was no public outcry.
In November 2013 the Alfred Beit Foundation sold a collection of antique Chinese porcelain at Sotheby’s for €1.2 million. There was no public outcry.
Last month the Alfred Beit Foundation announced its intention to sell eight old master paintings at Christie’s next July. An outcry ensued.
In 1952 Sir Alfred Beit and his wife Clementine moved to Ireland following their purchase of Russborough, County Wicklow. Designed by Richard Castle, the 18th century Palladian house was originally built for the Leesons, subsequently Earls of Milltown. In the 20th century it had passed through two other owners before being acquired by the Beits. The couple had no immediate connection with Ireland, although Lady Beit’s maternal grandmother had been raised in this country and being a Mitford, she was first cousin of the Hon Desmond Guinness’s mother. Sir Alfred had inherited a fortune derived from South African mining and an art collection created by his uncle (likewise called Alfred) and father Otto. This collection was displayed in Russborough and, as is well known, was subjected to a series of robberies, the first taking place in 1974. Despite these outrages, the Beits remained loyal to their adopted country and eventually donated seventeen of the best pictures, including works by Vermeer, Metsu, Murillo, Hobbema and Ruisdael, to the National Gallery of Ireland: in 1993 their generosity was acknowledged with the conferring of honorary Irish citizenship.
Many years before, in 1976, having no heirs to whom Russborough could be bequeathed the couple established the Alfred Beit Foundation. This is an educational trust with charitable status, its members charged with responsibility for the house and estate so that both are preserved for the benefit of the Irish people. Unfortunately at the time neither the Beits nor their advisors nor the original trustees appear to have realised the necessity of providing the Foundation with an adequate endowment. If an historic house is to have a long-term, sustainable future it must be partnered with an endowment. In Britain for example, the National Trust will not consider taking on a property unless it conforms to what since 1968 has been known as the ‘Chorley Formula’ which calculates the endowment lump sum required to sustain the building(s), taking into account expected levels of maintenance and ongoing repairs, likely revenues, wages and many other factors. The NT has long recognised that even houses which attract large numbers of paying visitors still need additional financial resources if they are to survive. The same is true of Russborough where the trustees of the Beit Foundation must now establish a permanent, ring-fenced endowment to guarantee the future of house and estate.
In March of this year the owners of Castle Howard, Yorkshire announced that in July they intend to dispose of some £10 million of artworks in order to pay for the building’s upkeep and to secure the estate’s future. Internationally famous thanks to its appearance in the 1981 television series of Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard sits on almost 10,000 acres and receives some 250,000 paying visitors a year. Yet still the owners are obliged to sell some of its contents in order to stay open.
Compare this scenario with Russborough, which now stands on some 250 acres – not enough to generate any revenue of substance – and last year attracted 24,000 paying visitors for tours of the house. The figure is barely one tenth of that at Castle Howard but has increased from around 11,000 eight years ago. Likewise the number of overall visitors to the estate during the same period has risen from at best 20,000 to over 100,000. Since 2007 a considerable amount of work has taken place both within the house and throughout the grounds with the aim of improving visitor numbers. The more visible evidence of this includes reordering and redecorating of the main rooms, the basement exhibition devoted to the Beits, artisan workshops and outlets in the courtyards, the ongoing restoration of the walled garden thanks to the participation of the RHSI, and the creation of new paths and walkways around the estate. Less visible but more critical work over the same period covers substantial repair of the roof and main drainage system, the replacement of a fifty-year old boiler and of unsafe waste water treatment plants, the creation of a new coach entrance, road and coach park, as well as the current creation of a new (paying) car park. A lot more remains to be done.
The Foundation’s trustees have sought to improve and upgrade Russborough in order to encourage more visitors and thereby generate additional income. This has covered everything from holding concerts and valuation days to converting the west wing into two self-contained apartments which are now let. Nevertheless, the amount of money raised by such endeavours is, and will remain, finite and does not begin to cover the annual operating deficit which in 2013 ran to €564,213 (in 2012 it stood at €425,984: these figures are taken from the filed financial statements and are in the public domain). Repairs and maintenance, security, light and heat, staff salaries, insurance and professional fees are just some of the costs that result in a shortfall but which are essential to keep Russborough open to the public, in a safe environment, and in order to fulfil the objectives of the Foundation. However the losses are clearly unsustainable and if continued they must, sooner rather than later, lead to the closure of Russborough.
Comparisons have been made in some quarters with Powerscourt, County Wicklow but they do not stand up to scrutiny. According to its website Powerscourt attracts 250,000 visitors annually – the same number as Castle Howard. But Powerscourt permitted a sprawling housing estate to be built immediately inside its main gates. It has two golf courses covering large portions of its once-intact demesne. It has given over additional land to a 200-bedroom hotel. Its main house contains a shopping arcade and food outlets. Every property must seek its own best means of staying open and the trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation have hitherto preferred not to embark on a range of commercial ventures such as those seen at Powerscourt. Yet the need to create an endowment fund remains.
In April 2007 the Marquess of Bute announced his intention to sell Drumfries, Ayrshire and its contents, the majority of these commissioned for the house when it was first built in the 1750s. Understandably the news caused consternation in many quarters but made no difference to the vendor’s decision. The sale almost went ahead – Christie’s had printed the catalogue for the furniture auction – before a consortium headed by the Prince of Wales stepped in and saved everything for the nation.
Ireland sorely lacks an equivalent high-profile champion of our country’s cultural heritage. Such a person is certainly not to be found in government. In recent years relevant ministers and their departmental officials have been apprised of Russborough’s predicament. No offer of help has been forthcoming from that quarter, despite the outstanding generosity of the Beits to the Irish state. The trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation have therefore been obliged to consider other options in order to secure necessary funds. One is to continue with sales such as those held in 2006 and 2013. These occasions generate enough money to keep the house open for another couple of years but not enough to create an adequate, long-term endowment. A fund-raising campaign? To realise donations running to many millions of euro, such a scheme would be costly to establish, slow to gain momentum and offer no guarantee of success. Meanwhile the house would still require money for its upkeep or else begin to slide into deterioration. Another possible recourse is to close down operations and in effect moth-ball the property. But ongoing expenses such as maintenance and repairs, heating, security, insurance and so forth will need to be met even without the benefit of paying visitors.
Eventually and after thorough consideration of options, the Alfred Beit Foundation, of which I am a former trustee, unwillingly came to the conclusion that if a permanent endowment fund was to be created, it would be necessary to dispose of certain assets. The likelihood of such a sale was clearly anticipated by the Beits: the Memorandum and Articles of Association establishing their Foundation state that it may ‘sell, lease or otherwise deal with or dispose of the whole or part of the property or assets of the Foundation.’ Sir Alfred himself, at the time of the Foundation’s establishment, sold not only a large part of the Russborough land but also a Reynolds portrait that had hitherto hung in the staircase hall.
Even so, the trustees reached their decision neither hastily nor easily, not least because they were aware of the burdensome hand of history. Sales of this kind have been too frequent occurrences in Ireland, as was demonstrated by a not dissimilar announcement of their intent just last autumn by the owners of Bantry House, County Cork. Indeed every autumn various house owners from around the country sell some of their possessions at an auction held in Slane Castle, County Meath. Furthermore other sales take place outside the auction room and with no publicity, and the Irish public never knows that another piece of our history has gone. Bit by bit the nation’s cultural patrimony is being lost and always for the same reasons: because current owners find themselves faced with no other choice, and because the Irish state has shown no interest in its preservation. (Incidentally, tomorrow – Tuesday, May 12th – Adam’s will dispose of what has been described as the finest private collection of printed material relating to early modern Ireland: no one seems yet to have objected to this auction going ahead, despite the break-up of the collection and its potential loss to the nation).
It is right and proper that the recent announcement from the Alfred Beit Foundation should have caused dismay and indignation. The pity is that there have not been more protesting voices, coming from as broad a cross-section of the citizenry as possible. But protest here has to be directed towards the right target. Amid those voices expressing concern over the intended sale one has been notably silent: that of the minister with direct responsibility for heritage. Given her brief, surely Minister Humphreys might have made some comment about the Alfred Beit Foundation’s decision? Her department could have insisted on export licences being withheld. It could have proposed initiating talks with interested parties in an effort to finding an alternative solution to the problem. She could have declared her intention to seek funding from the Department of Finance so that the pictures might stay in Ireland. There has been no word from the Minister or her office.
Some thirty years ago the late Knight of Glin, in the aftermath of another country house sale, deplored the fact that in Ireland there were no votes in heritage and therefore politicians paid it at best lip service. This remains the case today. It will continue to be so unless and until those of us who desperately want to preserve the country’s cultural heritage come together and unite in sustained public discourse. We need to broaden our constituency and rally more people to the cause in which we so passionately believe. At the moment we are few in number and we cannot afford to dissipate our insufficient strength in recrimination and conflict. The circumstances which have led to the intended disposal of old masters from Russborough are no different from those which have led – and will lead – to similar occurrences in many other properties across the country. These circumstances must be better understood and explained. We must all do our utmost to persuade as many people as possible that such sales diminish everyone and impoverish the entire nation. Only when we have achieved that goal will there be votes in heritage. Only then will government be obliged to assume the responsibilities it has for so long shirked.
Two years ago, Dublin City Council announced plans for a new so-called Cultural Quarter based around Parnell Square. Here are some extracts from the website http://www.parnellsquare.ie. subsequently set up by the local authority:readers must make of them what they will:
‘A new City Library will be built beside the existing world-class Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and will offer a range of creative, participative and educational experiences, united by a trinity of themes, Learn, Create and Participate. A civic plaza will connect the new City Library and cultural facilities, creating a new public space that those who live, work and visit Dublin can use, engage with and enjoy in the heart of the city… Conversations identified a desire for a vibrant and modern Square, bustling with quirky, family-friendly spaces full of informal and spontaneous creative activity, with a sense of the inside spilling outside to the public realm being seen as the key to the success of the development. It should be a place which reflects modern Irish identity, along with the heritage of the area. There were many ideas and suggestions for use of cultural space in the new library complex and integrated buildings…
The Quarter will inspire and excite, welcome and include, with a new City library as the hub and anchor building. To make this work requires structures that encourage and mandate unity. This process of building relationships and collaborative models of service will challenge all parties to engage, united by a sense of common purpose to make life better in Dublin. Public service and public spaces will be key drivers of all developments. A dynamic tableau of changing creative presences and experiences will animate the spaces which will be supported by agencies, associations or other service providers either on site or remotely…
The vision for Parnell Square Cultural Quarter is for transformation of the physical fabric of the Square, and for transformation for the people of Dublin through access to ideas, information, and imagination. The objective is to achieve a quality cultural offer coupled with an equality of access and provision that reflects the locality and the city. Opportunities to learn, create and participate will be the overarching themes which will unite the Quarter.’
Parnell Square, the oldest such development in Dublin, is essentially the creation of two men, Bartholemew Mosse and Luke Gardiner. The former, a public-minded doctor, in 1748 leased a four-acre site, described at the time as ‘a piece of waste ground, with a pool in the hollow, and a few cabins on the slopes’. Here he established the world’s first purpose-built lying-in hospital intended to serve the poor of the city and to ensure fewer mothers and babies died during childbirth. Its location lay at the top of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, begun the following year by Gardiner who in the early 1750s went on to establish Cavendish Row to the immediate east of Dr Mosse’s plot. Further developments to the north and west of the hospital led to the emergence of what at the time was known as Rutland Square. The most distinctive feature of the square was that its centre did not contain the usual park for use of residents, but public gardens created by Dr Mosse as a means of raising funds for his medical establishment. They were the equivalent of London’s Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens, laid out with lawns and pleasure pavilions where entertainments, theatrical performances and concerts were offered to paying patrons. Funds raised from these events helped to underwrite the hospital to the immediate south, designed by Richard Castle. To the east were added the Rotunda Assembly Rooms designed in 1764 by John Ensor (it was as a result of this building that the hospital became know as the Rotunda). To the north of Ensor’s adjunct the New Assembly Rooms containing a tea room, supper room (now the Gate Theatre) and ballroom were built from 1784 onwards. So successful and fashionable was Dr Mosse’s enterprise that the sites surrounding his gardens became highly desirable as residences for the affluent, initially along Cavendish Row but soon throughout the district. The single most significant property was that built by the Earl of Charlemont at the centre of the square’s north side. Designed by Sir William Chambers in 1763, its stone facade and forecourt provides a fitting response to the garden front of the hospital lying on lower ground to the south. Hard though it is to conceive now, for almost two centuries the two buildings were separated by trees and lawns.
As elsewhere this part of the capital, Parnell Square’s decline began in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union when, without the need to attend parliament, many of the country’s landowners gave up their Dublin residences. Houses formerly in private hands switched to institutional use: in the 1870s for example, Charlemont House was bought by the government for use as the General Register and Census Offices for Ireland and is now the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. While most of the buildings around the square itself survived reasonably well, those on surrounding streets more clearly displayed the consequences of the area’s diminished fortunes, being turned into tenements with multiple occupation. As for the gardens themselves, amazingly they remained reasonably intact until the middle of the last century: one of a pair of 18th century Tuscan temples built as sedan-chair rest houses only went in 1942. As Christine Casey has written, a leap of imagination is required to envisage Parnell Square as it once looked, not least because ‘the central area is now a jumble of car parks, isolated grassy patchees and C20 appendages to the Rotunda Hospital.’ The loss of the 18th century hospital’s prospect is due to that institution which from 1895 onwards began to add new buildings with inevitable consequences. The first of these is a three- (today four-) storey block to the west designed by Frederick George Hicks as a nurse’s residence. Its red brick and yellow terracotta exterior, very much in the popular taste of the period, is fundamentally unsympathetic to Castle’s classical stone-clad hospital, unlike Albert Murray’s westerly extension of 1905, which while making the Rotunda’s facade lopsided, at least acknowledges its architectural history. Further developments to the north from 1940 onwards continued to remove evidence of the Georgian pleasure gardens, including the Garden of Remembrance, designed by Dáithí Hanly and installed in 1966 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Meanwhile many buildings around the square and those on neighbouring streets continued that slide into decreptitude begun in the 19th century.
As can be seen in today’s photographs, Parnell Square today is a mess, lacking coherence or even often adequate maintenance. The condition of surrounding streets is little better, on occasion much worse. Earlier this year, Senator David Norris spoke out about the state of the area, noting that it had been allowed to slip into ever greater degradation with derelict historic buildings, a build-up of household rubbish and inappropriate infill developments on the site of former Georgian houses. Dereliction, he commented, had become “endemic” in the north Georgian core of the city and Dublin City Council appeared to be doing nothing to stop it: ‘The city authorities here are absolutely lamentable.’ In particular, Senator Norris observed that while the council held a list of endangered buildings, it seemed slow to take any meaningful action against such properties’ owners: ‘It’s intolerable that so many buildings are left like this for years.’ As if to emphasise his point, a few weeks ago large sections of the rear wall of 30 North Frederick Street, an 18th century building just a minute’s walk from Parnell Square, collapsed. A ‘protected structure’, the building has been on the city council’s derelict sites register for years yet the authority had done nothing to ensure its survival, despite being regularly warned of the inevitable outcome by concerned organisations like the Civic Trust. Several other houses on the street look in little better condition, as is also the case on the parallel street, Granby Row to the north west of the square. Multiple door bells here indicate buildings in a poor state of repair have been divided into flats; one wonders whether the council inspects these to ensure they conform to legislation on occupancy. On the other hand it is difficult to demand high standards from private owners when public agencies set such a poor example. The instance of the former Coláiste Mhuire best illustrates this point. This terrace of houses to the immediate west of Charlemont House was occupied by a school until 2003 when it passed into the possession of the Office of Public Works, which allowed the buildings to lie idle for a decade. They were then acquired by the city authorities and are, eventually, destined to become the new central library. Meanwhile, they continue to sit empty and in poor condition. No wonder other owners of property feel without compunction to look after their own houses. No doubt grand plans are – slowly – being prepared for Parnell Square but in the meantime the council could demonstrate evidence of good intent, and lead by example, through initiating work on the houses’ roofs, fenestration and so forth. Such work will need to be undertaken regardless of the structures’ eventual use. And the authority would then be in a better position to exercise its legislative powers and insist on an improvement in the condition of other buildings in the vicinity. A new Cultural Quarter sounds all very fine, but what’s really needed is a new culture, one that could and should be inaugurated by Dublin City Council.