The retail history of Ireland remains hugely under-investigated and, as a result, increasingly vulnerable to being lost forever, especially since the advent of multinational chains. Few of the shoppers searching for bargains in the Penneys outlet on Dublin’s Mary Street, for example, will be aware that the building was constructed to house what was then one of the city’s most prestigious department stores, Todd Burns. Dating from 1902-5 and built of red brick with terracotta details, the whole topped by a splendid copper dome, it was designed by local architect William Mansfield Mitchell to replace an earlier Todd Burns store on the same site which had been accidentally destroyed by fire. With an eventual frontage of 120 feet on Mary Street, Todd Burns originally opened for business in 1834, having been established by partners, William Todd and Gilbert Burns. Like many other successful entrepreneurs in Ireland during this period, the two men were of Scottish origin.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and until the outbreak of the Great Famine in 1845, Ireland offered wonderful commercial opportunities to enterprising young Scots. Many of them moved here to establish retail businesses, among the better-known names being John Arnott (whose own department store still operates across the road from the former Todd Burns) and Alexander Findlater. The latter, born in Glasgow, traded in whiskey and later porter and became so wealthy that he was able to invest in other ventures, such as the new store being established by William Todd and Gilbert Burns in 1834. Burns was likewise an immigrant from Scotland, having moved to Dublin some ten years earlier. There were long-standing links between his family and that of Alexander Findlater: in the previous century, his father John Findlater who worked as an Excise Officer in Greenock, Renfrewshire, had been a close friend and champion of Robbie Burns. The poet was the uncle of Gilbert Burns, hence one reason for Findlater’s investment in Todd Burns. It proved to be a wise move, since the new store thrived, so much so that within thirty years Gilbert Burns was able to buy himself a substantial plot of land to the immediate west of the Phoenix Park. There he built himself a splendid residence, originally called Liffeyside but later named Glenmaroon Lodge.
Gilbert Burn’s choice of location for his new home may have been influenced once more by Alexander Findlater who, although having no children of his own, assumed responsibility for a number of orphaned nephews and nieces. Needing somewhere to house them, he took a lease on a house in the vicinity of Glenmaroon Lodge. This lease was only relinquished in 1860, precisely around the time Gilbert Burns began to build the house that still stands here. His architect was Duncan Campbell Ferguson who, as is evident in his name, is likely also to have been originally from Scotland. Built at a cost of some £10,000, Glenmaroon Lodge was by far the most significant commission Ferguson received for a domestic residence and while his design is somewhat lumpen, it makes the most of the site which slopes all the way down to the banks of the river Liffey; formerlt a number of mills operated on this location. When the house was built, the land was laid out in terraces, and elaborately planted in an Italianate manner; views from the south-facing front, and out to the west where more ornamental gardens were arranged, must have been spectacular. Burns died in 1881 at the age of 67 but both his retail business and his house survived, and in due course the subsequent history of Glenmaroon Lodge, and its association with another successful family, the Guinnesses, will be told here.