Dublin’s Ormond Quay derives its name from James Butler, first Duke of Ormond who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the late 1670s when this area of the city was undergoing extensive redevelopment, driven by Sir Humphrey Jervis. Ormond Quay is divided into Upper and Lower, the latter being to the west, the former to the east. 18 Upper Ormond Quay lies in the middle of this area, a part of Dublin that, until the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries, had for hundreds of years belonged to the Cistercians of St Mary’s Abbey. The house first built on the new quay is likely to have been quite modest, probably of two storeys, its pitched roof having dormer windows looking onto the river Liffey to the immediate south. The earliest reference to this property, which dates from a lease agreement of February 1725, makes mention to ‘stables and warehouse lying behind it.’
Less that twenty years later, another legal document indicates that the original building was replaced by a taller house, with ‘Dutch Billy’ gable façade. Then at some date around the 1760s, what had earlier been described as a ‘warehouse’ to the rear (fronting onto adjacent Arran Street East) was also reconstructed, probably with commercial premises on the ground floor and a handsome reception room lit by three windows above; portions of the latter’s elegant rococo cornice survive. Further alterations occurred in the late 1780s when the front of the building overlooking the quays was given a granite-arcaded façade, similar to those introduced elsewhere in the city by the Wide Street Commissioners and familiar to anyone who has studied the design of retail premises in the Georgian and retail period when the retailers began to understand merits of good shop front design.
18 Upper Ormond Quay does not seem to have flourished over the next few decades, and when a new lessee took on the premises in 1821, it was with the intention that the building serve as a tavern. The decline was not arrested, and in July 1842 the property was deemed to be ‘in a very decayed and ruinous state and in danger of falling.’ No wonder it took a mere ten shillings for the then-lease holder to surrender any interest in the house. However, despite its shabby condition, the building did not fall, nor was it pulled down. Instead, substantial new work was undertaken on the site.
In 1842 the freehold owner of 18 Ormond Quay, George Robert Dawson (a former MP and incidentally great-grandson of Joshua Dawson who built Dublin’s Mansion House in 1710) conveyed a new lease for the building to James Hamilton for 61years at an annual rent of £36 18s.6d, but on the condition that Hamilton spend ‘the full sum of eight hundred pounds sterling in lasting material and valuable improvements.’ As a result, over the next few years the premises were extensively renovated and assumed much of the appearance still seen today, the modifications including exterior upper walls of yellow brick (subsequently pebbledashed) and a reordering of the late 18th century shopfront. James Hamilton in turn leased the property to various tea, wine and spirit merchants as well as grocers, the storeys above ground floor usually being occupied by solicitors. In 1902 the latest grocer in residence, Edward Corcoran was required to carry out a number of improvements, not least installation of proper sewers and water closets. Ten years later the building became an hotel and restaurant, just the latter operating on the ground floor from the late 1940s with the area above serving as an informal boarding house. The next change came in 1970 when Watts Bros, an established firm of gun & rifle makers and fishing tackle manufacturers bought the property for £8,000. They remained here for thirty years but closed down in 2000, and once again the building was sold. It served as an alternative art space run by Farcry Productions, which painted on the old shopfront fascia the name ‘Adifferentkettleoffishaltogether’, before coming into the hands of Dublin Civic Trust in 2017.
Established in 1992, Dublin Civic Trust is an independent body intended to promote greater recognition and appreciation of traditional buildings and streetscapes. The organisation’s main objectives include the preservation and enhancement of the historic core of the capital, reuse of historic buildings in a manner that encourages active residential renewal, and the development of complementary uses that revitalise Dublin’s social and cultural life. What gives the trust its distinctive character is that it leads by example: through the acquisition and refurbishment of properties that are of historical, architectural, archaeological and environmental interest for the public benefit. This has been successfully demonstrated thanks to a revolving rund mechanism which involves training and education in traditional skills, development of best practice conservation techniques and streetscape enhancement.
18 Ormond Quay is the latest instance of Dublin Civic Trust recognising an historic building’s architectural merits and undertaking to bring these once again to the fore. When the organisation some years ago sold its previous property (4 Castle Street, which prior to the trust’s intervention had been scheduled for demolition), it embarked on a fresh challenge with the quayside property. The most immediate problem was a severe lean of the exterior wall towards Arran Street East; this had been caused by the removal of various internal walls during the previous century, and rotted bonding timbers owing to water ingress. Ultimately a four-storey steelwork grid had to be applied on the inside face of the wall to ensure it would remain in place. Other internal timberwork had to be replaced for the same reason, as did much plasterwork, all damage primarily due to water ingress. On the outside, cement pebbledash applied to the upper levels, probably in the 1950s, has been removed, exposing the original yellow brick beneath (and in addition avoiding harmful moisture retention), and the granite arcaded shopfront has been restored to its original appearance. Inside, plasterwork, joinery, floors and ceilings, as well as mechanical and electrical services have all received necessary attention, and many of the rooms have been decorated and sympathetically furnished, all the while retaining the character of the place. But a great deal remains to be done, both in this section of the building, and in the older portion to the rear, that is the Arran Street East site which dates from the 1760s. As mentioned, this contains extensive portions of rococo decorative plasterwork and even rare surviving fragments of 18th century wallpaper: all of this material deserves preservation.
At the moment, Dublin’s historic fabric is under ferocious attack in a way that has not been seen since the 1970s, and both central and local authorities appear to be untroubled by, if not actively supportive of, this assault. Work by small voluntary organizations such as Dublin Civic Trust, which receives minimal support, and must rely on modest annual grants and private donations, ensures that at least some of the capital’s architectural heritage is preserved. Its work deserves to be applauded and supported by anyone who wants to make sure more of what makes Dublin distinctive is not lost. The work undertaken at 18 Ormond Quay represents all that is best about this splendid organisation.