A Fine Portrait


This year marks the tenth anniversary of Maurice Craig’s death, and next year the seventieth anniversary of the publication of Dublin 1660-1860: The Shaping of a City, the book for which he is still best remembered. Seemingly, although it took 13 years for the first run of 2,000 copies to sell, the work has never since been out of print. For many readers, it remains the definitive guide to Ireland’s capital during the Georgian era, despite enormous numbers of other books on the same subject having appeared before and since. Although he came to be regarded as the one of the foremost experts on the country’s architectural history, this was far from being a foregone conclusion. When young, Maurice appears to have entertained notions of being either a painter or a composer, but ultimately realised that the written word was his best form of communication. Even so, his doctoral thesis from Trinity College Dublin was concerned not with buildings but the 19th century poet Walter Savage Landor, and the back of a copy of Dublin 1660-1860 declares ‘his recreations include travel, ship-modelling and the history of transport’. To which one might add vintage motor cars and book-binding, as well as noting that his first book (which appeared in 1948) was a biography of the Earl of Charlemont. And, as anyone who knew Maurice can attest, he loved cats.




In his preface, Maurice Craig announced that Dublin 1660-1860 had been conceived more as a ‘portrait’ than a history, by which he meant the author had opted to focus on certain aspects of the narrative and omit others. Developing the portrait metaphor, he noted that some readers might not appreciate such an approach, ‘but if I paint my sitter in a purple tie, that need not imply that he has no others in his wardrobe.’ Certainly he introduced more colour into his text than is customarily the case, opening the story not in Dublin or even in Ireland, but with a lively description of the fall to Ottoman forces of Constantinople in May 1453. In a variant on the theme of the Butterfly Effect, Maurice proposed a link between ‘this great Levantine catastrophe’ and a date more than 200 years later, July 27th 1662, when James Butler, Duke of Ormonde ‘stepped out of his pinnace on to the sands of Dublin Bay. The Renaissance, in a word, had arrived in Ireland…The Middle Ages were at last at an end.’ It’s a bold statement, and one open to dispute, but it sets the tone for what follows over the next 300-plus pages, across which Maurice painted his portrait of the city with bold strokes and bright shades that help to make this a genuine page-turner. When writing of Aldborough House, for example, he briskly notes how the Stratford family title, ‘passed rapidly through a ludicrous succession of spendthrift holders, ending with the sixth and last Earl who bred dogs, advertised patent pills, and died in Alicante in 1875.’ The point about such prose is that it leaves the reader longing to learn more on the subject. And when writing of 18th century Dublin’s relatively weak literary legacy, he took a clever swipe at the censored Ireland of the mid-1950s, observing that ‘a society uncertain of its foundations and its destiny is, as we are now proving, unhappy ground in which to cultivate the art of letters.’ And again, as anyone who knew him can testify, Maurice was never averse to expressing a personal opinion. Thomas Cooley’s Neoclassical City Hall (the former Royal Exchange), he deemed ‘a little cold…its best points are its site, the excellence of the detail and the grandeur of the central hall. It does not inspire much affection.’ 




Re-reading Dublin 1660-1860 what strikes this reader once more is Maurice Craig’s exceptional erudition, and his ability to wear a great deal of learning lightly. The book is as much a social as an architectural history of the city, and this makes sense: all buildings, even prisons, are erected with varying degrees of social interaction in mind. So while Maurice provides much information on architects and patrons across the span of 200 years, he also places their enterprises within a broader context. This often leads in turn to the text taking unexpected diversions, as the author shares another piece of historical anecdote with us. For example, at one point, when writing of the growth of newspapers in mid-18th century Ireland, he then reflects on how pamphlets often better reflect concerns of the time. This in turn leads him to describe an occasion in 1759 when rumours of union with Britain led to ‘startling eruptions of popular feeling: the jacquerie broke into the Parliament House, placed an old woman in the Speaker’s Chair, rigged up a gallows and threatened various dignitaries with death,’ all of which sounds reminiscent of events which took place in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. Ending as it does in the mid-19th century, the book concludes on a somewhat melancholy note, Maurice noting how in Dublin ‘after sixty years the loss of political status is beginning to induce an unmistakable feeling of provincialism.’ Since his book first appeared in 1952, many other authors have investigated the development of Ireland’s capital during what has come to be known as the long 18th century, but none has managed to capture so well the atmosphere of that period, to conjure up for us the spirit of the age, and to present it with such grace. 


Today’s images are taken from Dublin 1660-1860 and are all by Maurice Craig, demonstrating his talents as an architectural draughtsman.
The Little Museum of Dublin is currently hosting a series of lectures on the city’s history delivered by Professor David Dickson, author of
Dublin: The making of a capital city (2014). For more information, see The Dublin Lectures 2021 – The Little Museum of Dublin

5 comments on “A Fine Portrait

  1. Carmel says:

    I loved this book, brilliant and very accessible.

  2. jbc625@msn.com says:

    Maurice Craig has been one of my cultural heroes for many decades. Great piece.

  3. Simon Walker says:

    My favourite book! Love the Jackie Barrett anecdotes.

  4. Hugo André Mac Manus says:

    It’s one of my dip-in books.

  5. Finola says:

    “Re-reading Dublin 1660-1860 what strikes this reader once more is Maurice Craig’s exceptional erudition, and his ability to wear a great deal of learning lightly.” – Just what I would say about The Irish Aesthete!

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