Located in the centre of north Dublin, the debtors’ prison on Green Street was built in 1794 and offers a fascinating insight into the city’s history. Constructed from granite and limestone and U-shaped in form, it rises three storeys over basement. The prison contained thirty-three cells, or rooms, available either furnished or unfurnished. These were occupied by debtors until they had paid off all outstanding obligations, but despite its appearance conditions in the building were not necessarily grim. Inmates often brought in their own food, and were permitted visitors: in effect, the place served as a kind of hotel from which guests were not allowed to leave. It was later used as a police barracks and accommodation for police widows.
At one time threatened with demolition (for one of the road widening schemes with which the city council was for a while obsessed) in the 1990s the former prison was leased by the Office of Public Works to a charitable body, the Green Street Trust, which undertook a considerable amount of restoration work with the intention of ensuring community use for the property. Unfortunately this imaginative initiative stalled due to want of funds and the prison was returned to the OPW: since then it has stood empty and the building has fallen into a vulnerable state (it now features on An Taisce’s Buildings at Risk register).
Last Monday, the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works went to court to secure the removal from the debtors’ prison of a group of squatters who had moved into the property, the plaintiffs arguing the site was not safe. Interestingly there appears to have been no discussion of how or why the building had become unsafe, nor indeed which public bodies were responsible for its upkeep (not least ensuring it could not be accessed by unauthorised persons). Presumably had the property been kept both safe and secure, the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works would not have needed to go to court (and presumably would not have had to pay lawyers’ fees). The debtors’ prison is listed by Dublin City Council as a protected structure: this seems not to have prevented it falling into the present poor condition. If the state does not abide by its own legislation regarding the care of protected structures, why should private individuals and companies be expected to behave any better towards historic buildings in their possession?
Photograph by Ciarán Cuffe.
As some readers will be aware, over the last weekend two 18th century houses in Ireland suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage due to fire. Although in different parts of the country, what linked these two buildings was their connections to George Washington. Belcamp, on the outskirts of Dublin, dates from the mid-1780s when it was constructed by Sir Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament and ardent supporter of the American Revolution. In homage to which, he subsequently incorporated into his new residence an oval room modelled on that in the White House (itself designed by Irishman James Hoban in 1792). Furthermore in the grounds of Belcamp Newenham erected a miniature fort, the Washington Tower, built in honour and during the lifetime of the first President of the United States – and the first such monument erected to him anywhere.
Vernon Mount, County Cork has been discussed in detail here before (see Mounting Concern, January 14th 2013): its name is an obvious homage to Washington’s own home in Virginia, Mount Vernon. Contemporaneous with Belcamp, the house stands to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley. Highly unusual in design – being a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side – Vernon Mount was likely designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave for Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. A particular feature of the house were its painted interiors by Nathaniel Grogan the elder who had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicted Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work were a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs. Meanwhile on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the oval upper landing was painted with eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors, each having a tromp l’oeil niche ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors led to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.
Both Belcamp and Vernon Mount have been allowed to stand empty for more than a decade, victims of the elements and of vandalism, since neither building was sufficiently maintained nor safeguarded. Now both are effectively ruins, with next to nothing left to salvage. In the year of a Presidential election on the other side of the Atlantic, one wonders how must our American friends view the way in which we Irish have allowed these historic links with one of their founding fathers to be squandered. The connection with George Washington ought to have been cherished and honoured, not least as a means of showing this country’s long-held belief in independence and self-government. Imagine how much the restoration of both buildings could have demonstrated the shared cultural values of our two countries: it must be asked why did not government, tourism bodies and others with a stake in promoting the state’s interests recognise so obvious an opportunity. Equally the relevant local authorities in both instances had the legal right to intervene and ensure the buildings were looked after and not allowed to fall into dereliction. Neither chose to exercise their legislative obligations and instead stood by while Belcamp and Vernon Mount slipped further and further into a pitiful condition before finally succumbing to fire. As an indictment of our state’s inability to care for its own heritage, and to recognise its own interests, the fate of these two buildings would be hard to surpass.
A few miles off the coast of north Dublin lies Lambay Island, extending to almost 600 acres and at its highest point rising some 416 feet. In 1904 the island was bought for £5,250 by Cecil Baring, later third Lord Revelstoke, a scion of the English banking family. As is well known, some years earlier Baring had created a stir in Anglo-American society by eloping with Maude Lorillard (whose father created Tuxedo Park in upstate New York) then wife of a business partner. Under these circumstances, it is understandable the couple welcomed a retreat on Lambay, although conditions when they first arrived there were primitive. The main accommodation consisted of a small stone blockhouse likely built in the fifteenth century to deter pirates but by the early 1900s occupied by lifestock. Bad storms in the year immediately previous had devastated the surrounding woodland, making the building even more inhospitable. Accordingly in 1905 the Barings commissioned the architect Edwin Lutyens to overhaul and extend the entire site. The original block is constructed from an indigenous blue-green porphyry flecked with feldspar crystals: this was retained for the newer sections but cut limestone used for window and door cases. Lutyens’ additions are wonderfully sensitive, respectful of what was already there, gracefully understated yet still able to make a powerful impression. The old building was extended and a new, larger wing added but set into rising ground so that it does not overwhelm: as though to maintain their separate origins, the two sections are linked internally only by a ground-level passage.
Lambay’s quay lies on the western side of the island, close to which are a line of cottages and another, larger residence known as the White House, as well as an open air tennis court and, further away, a small chapel. Access to the main house, Lambay Castle is reached after a short walk across a meadow. One then reaches a pair of oak gates set into a stone encircling rampart. There was always some kind of defensive wall here, but Lutyens raised its height to create a battlemented walkway around which one can perambulate. The ramparts also provide shelter against the elements, necessary in such an exposed site, and they have allowed trees and vegetation to flourish within the enclosure more successfully than would probably otherwise have been the case. Within the walls and to the left is a large altar-tomb, again designed by Lutyens and erected by Cecil Baring to the memory of his wife following her early death in 1922. The other side of this section of the enclosed garden is mostly a plantation of trees serving as a further protective belt against high winds. This means that behind the main house there can be spacious lawns and, to the south, a walled kitchen garden.
East of the old house Lutyens not only added additional accommodation but also a series of service and farm buildings. Lying immediately adjacent to the property, these might be intrusive but their impact has, once more, been softened by clever landscaping. Here the architect worked with his frequent collaborator, garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Together they devised a series of compartmentalised spaces beginning with a courtyard, once more accessed via a pair of oak gates, that leads up to the front of the old building. A stone path runs through the lawn and is in turn bisected by a narrow water course with small pools at either end. To one side another gateway opens into a further courtyard with views of the extension unobtrusively tucked behind terraced beds and flights of stone steps. So it goes on, with one space gracefully giving way to the next, none especially large, all complementing what has gone before, and what will come after. The planting in each case is slightly different but the entirety conforms to an observation made by Lutyens at the time that, ‘a garden scheme should have a backbone, a central idea beautifully phrased. Every wall, path, stone and flower should have its relationship to the central idea.’ More than a century after its creation, Lambay Island retains the same beautiful phrase, as clear and as welcome as when first uttered.
The grand rear entrance to the King’s Inns, Dublin. This complex of buildings, designed in 1800 by James Gandon with a view towards Constitution Hill, backs onto the top of Henrietta Street and it was here that Francis Johnston, who took over the project after Gandon’s death, placed a triumphal arch in 1820 to obscure the obtuse-angled elevation beyond. Note the coat of arms surmounting the entrance: this work is usually attributed to the sculptor Edward Smyth although he died in 1812, eight years before the arch was built.
Opportunism and those who practise it are not, as a rule, judged very favorably. Yet there are times when our verdict on opportunists can be inaccurate or imperceptive. Much of Georgian Dublin is a manifestation of opportunism at work: the result of a handful of perspicacious developers – another now-detested term – recognising an opportunity and responding to it. This was certainly the case with the first Luke Gardiner who piecemeal built up landholdings on the northside of the city and there created new streets and terraces to meet growing demand for residential property. Gardiner’s first venture in this arena, and the basis of his future success, was the development from the late 1720s onward of Henrietta Street.
Luke Gardiner was a man of modest origins, far removed at the start of his professional life from the wealth he would come to enjoy. Much the same could be said of his protégé Nathaniel Clements who, although enjoying somewhat less humble beginnings, was the youngest of five sons and very much expected to make his own way. This he did, like Gardiner, by building houses and then selling them on: the parallels between the past and the present can sometimes be discomfiting. Henrietta Street was also Clements’ first venture into property development, as he took on several sites from Gardiner. One of these was number 4 (originally 5) Henrietta Street which he completed around 1740-41 and sold to George Stone, then Bishop of Ferns. Stone occupied the building but did not finish paying for it, until 1747 when he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and, in turn, opportunistically moved into a still-grander residence on the street before selling No.4. Its second owner was John Maxwell, MP for County Cavan who nine years later would be created first Lord Farnham. Of Scottish ancestry, Maxwell was the descendant of three generations of clerical opportunists: the Farnham estate in County Cavan had originally been purchased by his grandfather, the Anglican Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. When John Maxwell acquired No.4 Henrietta Street, it came with a plot of land to the immediate east, perhaps serving as a garden. In 1754 Maxwell’s only daughter married another MP, Owen Wynne of Sligo, likewise the descendant of opportunists, although in this instance they had been army men. Around the time of his marriage the plot next to No.4 passed into Wynne’s hands and a house was built here. Today it is No.3 Henrietta Street.
There are unanswered questions remaining about the history of 3 Henrietta Street, not least who was responsible for its design. The house is sometimes attributed to Nathaniel Clements because like its neighbour – which he almost certainly did build – there is a semi-circular bow at the back of the building. On the other hand, by the time of No.3’s construction, Clements had moved on to other projects and, more critically, he and Maxwell were political opponents, so it seems unlikely his assistance would have been sought here. Perhaps when Wynne embarked on the enterprise he decided to copy some features of his father-in-law’s adjacent residence. The interior shows alterations believed to date from 1830. Originally the entrance hall – like other houses on this side of the street – would have been of two storeys with the stairs visibly rising to the first floor. In the 19th century this staircase was taken out and a smaller one inserted, divided by a wall from the front of the house with the new entrance hall made just one storey high. But the first floor reception rooms retain much of their original decoration, the pair to the front of the room having a deep frieze with strapwork and festoons, while below the walls are sectioned by plaster panelling. To the rear at this level is a wonderful room with rococo stuccowork in the coved ceiling which extends into the bow, and gives the space a more intimate character than any of the others possess.
As already mentioned, in the 19th century 3 Henrietta Street, like almost all other houses in the vicinity, underwent changes both of design and usage. The advent of the King’s Inns at the top of the street, and the gradual departure of private owners in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union meant many of the buildings came to be used as solicitors’ offices: in the decades leading up to his death in 1885 some three-quarters of the street were bought by the lawyer Tristram Kennedy and let to other members of his profession. However, his property portfolio was subsequently acquired by another – altogether less attractive – opportunist, former Dublin Lord Mayor Joseph Meade. Seeing a chance to get a good return on his investment, notoriously he converted most of the houses into tenements. The original interior spaces were divided to fit in more rooms for entire families to occupy and valuable items such as chimney pieces were stripped out and sold off. This was the fate of 3 Henrietta Street for a large portion of the last century, and evidence of its decline, as much as of its glory, can still be seen in the building. But the house is now on the market, and awaits a new owner who can offer it a viable future. What will happen next? As has been the case here over the past two and a half centuries, opportunity knocks – and 3 Henrietta Street once more awaits the advent of an opportunist.
Located in the middle of the Phoenix Park, Dublin, the grand-sounding Ashtown Castle is really a diminutive tower house likely dating from the beginning of the 17th century. After the park was created in the 1660s it became a residence for one of the two keepers before being upgraded around 1760 to that of the Ranger. From 1785 the building served as a lodge for the Under-Secretary for Ireland and was gradually enlarged by successive occupants. In the aftermath of Independence it became the Papal Nunciature, remaining such until 1979 after which the property suffered years of neglect before the additions were demolished and the original tower house left standing: incidentally the footprint of the now-gone lodge can be traced in the low box hedging that surrounds three sides of Ashtown Castle.
In his Preface to Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1967) C.P. Curran argues that any study of the subject must concern itself primarily with the latter period: ‘This is so for two reasons. The Dublin stuccodores’ craft reached a singular perfection in that century and notwithstanding the loss their work has suffered and still undergoes in the vicissitudes of the city’s growth, examples of its various excellence are still abundant and are accessible for study.’ Today’s examples, all now in Dublin Castle, admirably illustrate this point.
Demolished in the early 1950s owing to the value of the land on which it stood, Mespil House now tends to be remembered as the home of artist Sarah Purser. But the man responsible for its construction is just as worthy of notice, having enjoyed a distinguished career across diverse fields.
Born in Cork in 1698, after studying first at Trinity College Dublin and then at the University of Leiden, Edward Barry became a doctor like his father before him. Initially he practised in his native city, there writing his first book, A Treatise on a Consumption of the Lungs, published in 1726. In addition to his medical work, he found time to become a member of the Irish Parliament, representing Charleville from 1745 to 1761. By the time his political career began, he had already moved to Dublin, and here produced his principal medical work, On Digestion in 1759. A decade earlier he had been elected President of the College of Physicians and in 1754 he was appointed Regius Professor of Physic at Trinity College Dublin. But he was as interested in the arts as the sciences, and on good terms with many of the notable writers of his day. In 1736 he reported to John Boyle, Earl of Orrery (and future Earl of Cork) about their mutual friend Dean Swift, ‘I’m concerned to hear that Swift is confin’d by some Disorder; I hope nothing but a bilous cholic, which a few Satyrical evacuations will remove.‘ At the age of 63 Barry decided to move his practice to London but there is some question over whether he did as well there as had been the case in Ireland. According to Boswell, Samuel Johnson once remarked of Barry, ‘He was a man who had acquired a high reputation in Dublin, came over to England and brought his reputation with him, but had not great success.’ Created a baronet in 1775, he died the following year but not before producing a final book running to almost 500 pages: Observations, Historical, Critical and Medical on the Wines of the Ancients, and the Analogy between them and Modern Wines. This was the remarkable man responsible for building Mespil House in 1751.
Returning to Curran’s Preface, the author comments that ‘The diversity and excellence achieved by the middle of the eighteenth century is unquestionably due to outside stimulus. In the arts, no more than in nature, there can be no Declaration of Independence, since to be isolated is to be sterile and an organism is strong only in so far as it can assimilate.’ One of the outside stimuli from which indigenous stuccodores assimilated ideas during this period was Barthelemy Cramillion, whose origins and training remain unknown, although it has been suggested he was French Huguenot or Walloon by birth. He first appears in Ireland in August 1775 when employed by Dr Mosse to decorate the chapel of the new Lying-In Hospital, now known as the Rotunda: the contract bound him to complete the work within thirteen months. In December 1757 he was again engaged to execute the chapel altarpiece within six months. His total bill, finally settled in 1760, came to £585, nine shillings and ninepence. He left Ireland a year or two later but then returned in 1772 and in the Dublin Journal advertised his services to ‘Any Nobleman or Gentleman inclined to employ him.’ Two ceilings removed from Mespil House before its demolition and now installed in Dublin Castle (top and bottom series of pictures) have been credited to Cramillion by Joseph McDonnell in Irish Eighteenth-Century Stuccowork and its European Sources (1991). On the other hand, Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw in their 1999 book An Insular Rococo question that attribution, noting that Mespil House dates from 1751, four years before Cramillion appears working on the Rotunda chapel. They also believe the ceilings ‘appear to be the work of two different plasterers,’ noting technical differences in the moulding of figures and in compositional layout. Unless additional documents turn up, most likely we will never know for certain who was responsible. The top group is centred around a medallion depicting Minerva Introducing the Arts to Hibernia, while that below shows Apollo as Sun God emerging to scatter the clouds. Incidentally, a third ceiling from Mespil House is now in Áras an Uachtaráin.
Similar uncertainty hangs over the authorship of another ceiling now in Dublin Castle (shown in the middle group of photographs above) but taken from another, long-since demolished building. Tracton House once occupied a site at 40 St Stephen’s Green, on the corner with Merrion Row. A bank stands there today and Tracton House was pulled down in 1912 to facilitate the commercial premises’ development. The lost building dated from the mid-1740s when the MP, surveyor and director-general of fortifications Arthur Jones-Nevill acquired the site to build himself a fine town residence. In 1765 it passed into the hands of James Dennis who fourteen years later was raised to the peerage as Baron Tracton and from him the property acquired the name by which it was thereafter known. The building subsequently underwent modifications according to changes of ownership and use but one portion remained unaltered: a first-floor back drawing room. This kept intact its decoration as installed at the time of Jones-Nevill. When the whole place was pulled down coincidentally the National Museum was keen to acquire a good example of the Georgian domestic interior and so the room was carefully removed and reinstated in Kildare Street where it stayed for another three decades until once more taken down: it moved to its present location in the 1960s. The main focus of the Tracton House room is its ceiling on which (as J.B. Maguire has discussed in a fascinating article published in the 2012-13 volume of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland) are inscribed two dates: 1746 and 1752. Might it be that the ceiling, the central lozenge of which shows Apollo Musagates opulently lounging in the clouds, a lyre resting on one knee, was decorated in two stages? Could the outer compartments featuring diverse trophies of the arts associated with this god have been created before or after the Apollo, hence the two dates? As with the Mespil House ceilings, it seems unlikely we will ever be able to come up with absolute answers. But in the meantime, a visit to these rooms in Dublin Castle is encouraged, especially as it provides an opportunity to put your head in the clouds and there join the company of classical deities.