A Spirit of Theatre

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The origins of Dublin castle go back to the first decade of the 13th century, but this site – the highest spot in the immediate locality – was previously occupied by a fortress constructed around the first half of the tenth century after the Vikings settled here. More than two hundred years later the Normans arrived and took possession of Dublin, making it their centre of government in Ireland. Hence in 1204 King John commanded the erection of a large stone castle where the Viking fortification had previously stood. The result was a building of strong walls and good ditches designed to defend the city but also to serve as an administrative centre and to provide protection for the King’s treasury. The castle was largely completed by 1230 under the direction of Henry of London, then Archbishop of Dublin. It is only during the reign of King John’s son, Henry III that the first references are made to a chapel within the castle’s walls. Deeply religious (he maintained at least fifty chapels for his own and his household’s exclusive use), Henry was particularly devoted to the cult of St Edward the Confessor, to whom he was related (Edward’s mother had been a Norman princess) and whose remains he installed in a costly shrine in Westminster Abbey. Thus around 1242 when the king ordered that new windows be made for the chapel in Dublin Castle he had the building dedicated to Edward the Confessor. Situated to the immediate east of the circular Record Tower – today the most intact portion of the mediaeval castle – over the following centuries the chapel underwent the same vicissitudes as the rest of the site. Between 1358-61 its interior was extensively redecorated, with 600lbs of glass purchased for the windows, together with a new crucifix and rood and two devotional statues, one of the Virgin, the other of St Thomas the Martyr who now succeeded Edward the Confessor as the chapel’s patron. It would appear that in the 16th century further repairs and refurbishments were carried out by Sir Henry Sidney, then acting as Ireland’s Lord Deputy, and perhaps again in 1638 after a fire had damaged the upper floor of the building. Worse followed in 1684 after another fire broke out to the immediate west. In order to contain the conflagration, Lord Arran, son of the first Duke of Ormonde (then serving as Lord Deputy) ordered the chapel and a number of other adjacent structures be blown up.

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It would appear that towards the end of the 17th century Sir William Robinson, then Surveyor General, rebuilt the chapel along with other portions of the castle in order to make the whole place more comfortable as a residence for the English crown’s representative in Ireland. But while such work continued over successive decades, the chapel remained a relatively modest property: a late 18th century painting shows it to have been of red brick and looking more domestic than religious in character. However, as 1800 and the Act of Union approached, the building underwent reappraisal and it was considered to be ‘little consistent with its attachment to a royal palace.’ In 1801 James Gandon was invited to submit plans for a new chapel. He produced seven designs, none of which survive so one can only speculate what this great advocate of neo-classicism might have created. After a further delay finally in 1807 Francis Johnston who two years earlier had been appointed architect to the Board of Works, embarked on the building one sees today. As Judith Hill has written, the result was intended to emphasize the role of the Church of Ireland in the governance of the country, symbolized by its location within the walls of the administration’s headquarters. It therefore had to provide public access, greater space ‘and an enhanced architectural presence within the castle precincts.’ As a result, the eventual chapel was double the size of its predecessor, with an organ and space for a choir to offer cathedral-standard services: like the viceroy, the chapel was expected to represent the royal presence in Ireland. Underlining its ancient links to the regime, access to the chapel for the castle’s residents was via the old Record Tower. This Johnston reworked in order to improve its appearance, increasing the tower’s height by the addition of another storey with tripartite windows and then topping the whole with machicolated battlements resting on tiered corbels.

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Francis Johnston, who would soon move on to design the classical General Post Office on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, was equally at home working in the gothic mode, as he had already demonstrated with Charleville Castle, County Offaly (begun 1798). He adopted the same style for the new chapel in Dublin Castle, even if here it acts as decoration laid over classical symmetry. The exterior of cut limestone building is, as intended by Johnston, rather austere, north and south elevations being of six bays, their two-tiered windows flanked by stepped buttresses that finish in pinnacles. The west end is absorbed into the drum of the mediaeval Record Tower but that at the east, Judith Hill proposes, draws inspiration from the façade of Westminster Hall in London which had recently been cleared of later accretions. Buttressed towers stand guard on either side of a low door above which can be seen the window which lights the chancel within. Decorative flourishes come from the profusion of heads – 103 in total – found at the base of each pinnacle and ornamenting all doors and windows. These were carved by Edward Smyth, best-known today for his keystone heads personifying the rivers of Ireland that adorn Dublin’s Custom House. Here he was likely assisted by his son John. According to Johnston, some of the heads were intended to be historical ‘and some fanciful.’ Dean Swift, for example, can be found on the north elevation, where St Peter, clutching the keys of heaven, hovers over the main public entrance to the building. St Patrick and Brian Boru face each other on either side of the east end door, the window above featuring Faith, Hope and Charity. The same three virtues can be seen inside where John Smyth is believed to have been responsible for the greater part of the work (his father Edward died in 1812). It has been noted that Smyth the younger’s contribution is often flamboyantly baroque in character, a counterpoint to Johnston’s interpretation of Perpendicular Gothic. The stucco heads form part of a larger decorative programme in which a number of other craftsmen played a role, not least stuccodore George Stapleton who created the plasterwork tracery with which the body of the chapel is smothered.

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The spirit, if not the form, of baroque found in Smyth’s figurative work pervades what was henceforth known as the Chapel Royal. The interior fizzes with frothy energy thanks not only to the elaborate plasterwork but also the oak galleries carved by Richard Stewart, their fronts divided into panels, each containing the coat of arms of a different Lord Lieutenant surrounded by virtuosic foliate ornamentation. Some of the stained glass in the east window is 15th century French and was presented by Lord Whitworth (Lord Lieutenant at the time of the chapel’s inaugural service in December 1814) while that below was specially made by Joshua Bradley. Other windows contain later glass that bathes the interior in a kaleidoscope of colour. The theatricality of the building must have been even more apparent in its original incarnation when the altar table was concealed behind a large carved pulpit (now in nearby St Werburgh’s church, see: Simply Divine, May 27th 2013). The centre section of the first-floor galleries, that on the south side intended to be occupied by the Viceroy, that on the north by the Archbishop of Dublin, projects forward in the manner of an opera box. This impression was amplified when the Lord Lieutenant’s seat was surmounted by an elaborately carved baldacchino smothered in plush red drapes. The same rich fabric was used for seat coverings such as the benches made by the Dublin firm of Mack, Williams and Gibton. The total bill for their contribution came to over £1,593. Indeed eventual expenditure on the Chapel Royal reached £42,000 which was more than four times the original estimate of £9,532: this compares with the £50,000 spent on building Johnston’s near contemporaneous GPO which is a much larger building. Some of the chapel’s high cost can be ascribed to necessary structural work owing to the nature of a sloping site below which ran the river Poddle (as well as an old quarry). But much of it was due to Johnston’s determination to create a virtuosic building. The chapel retained its original interior until the two tenures of the seventh Earl of Carlisle as Lord Lieutenant between 1855 and 1864. One suspects that Lord Carlisle, a fervent Christian (his mother, to whom he was devoted, had been a keen evangelical) found the character of the Chapel Royal too frivolous for his taste. To improve the calibre of services, he had a new Telford organ installed at the west end, while at the east the old pulpit was removed to allow a clear view of the altar table (a new and smaller Caen stone pulpit was placed to the immediate north). The baldacchino over the Lord Lieutenant’s box came out too while the entire ceiling was painted azure with gold stars. Thankfully much of this Victorian redecoration was removed when the Chapel Royal was refurbished some thirty years ago and in so far as is possible it has now reverted to its appearance when first opened.

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A visit to the Chapel Royal is now included in tours of Dublin Castle and is much recommended. In addition, an exhibition on the building called ‘Pinnacles, Pomp & Piety’ – featuring many of the original contents from the Chapel, such as furniture, silverware and historic drawings – can be seen in the State Apartments until March 6th 2016. This is accompanied by a terrifically informative book, ‘The Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, An Architectural History’ (Myles Campbell and William Derham, editors), to which today’s text is indebted and which will likewise enhance other readers’ knowledge both of the Chapel Royal, and the context in which it was built and decorated.

8 comments on “A Spirit of Theatre

  1. eimear says:

    stunning, I am now determined to make the tour the next time i am in dublin….. I used love to walk through dublin castle as its has so much detailing……

  2. rowingguy says:

    I was going to write “stunning images” though Eimear beat me to it!

    On my next trip to Dublin, a revisit of Dublin Castle is on my bucketlist. Friends have also been to the Chester Beatty recently and been so impressed with its collections….and the cafe 🙂

  3. very interesting post and I agree – stunning images 🙂

  4. What a fabulous ceiling! Must see!

  5. Pat MACFADYEN says:

    Thank you for a very informative article. I was fortunate enough to visit the Chapel 10/2011. Now I will have to look at the photos I took. .thanks again.

  6. Dear Robert. Wonderful ! I believe the chapel was concecrated to Roman Catholic use in 1943, is it still concecrated ? Or secular? I remember seeing in the dreadful ‘Tudors’

  7. Thanks to everyone for your comments – and do go to see both the chapel and the current exhibition on its history. Dear Mairtin, Yes the building was consecrated as a Roman Catholic church for the Irish armed services in June 1943 under the auspices of Dr McQuaid, then-Archbishop of Dublin. I don’t believe it has ever been deconsecrated but to the best of my knowledge there have been no religious services held on site for several decades…

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