‘Few cities can boast more extensive conveniences, more eminent beauties, than Dublin… To convey to the curious inquirer adequate ideas of those objects; to diffuse information of a Capital so long undesertly unnoticed, and to give it that place in estimation with regard to others it merits, this work was undertaken.’
From the Preface to A Picturesque and Descriptive view of the City of Dublin.
Published in 1799 as a bound volume with accompanying text, James Malton’s images of Ireland’s capital in the years immediately preceding the Act of Union are justly renowned, not least because so many of the buildings he chose to illustrate still remain, little changed. However, two of the plates are important for offering us views of since-lost properties.
Seen above, the Hibernian Marine Society’s School for the Children of Decayed Seamen) was built between 1770-73 on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and is thought to have been designed by Thomas Ivory. Run by a charity, the building served as a place of education for boys whose fathers had either lost their lives at sea, or had become impoverished during their service in the Royal Navy or Merchant Navy. Accommodating some 160 students and the relevant staff, the school comprised a large three-storey central block flanked by wings, one holding a chapel, the other a dining hall. After being badly damaged by fire in 1872, the building became a warehouse but was demolished in 1979.
The Tholsel, which originated in the Middle Ages, served a diverse range of purposes in the city: meeting place for elected officials, guildhall, court and gaol. In its final incarnation, situated on Skinner’s Row (now a small park opposite Christ Church Cathedral), the building dated from the early 1680s. However, during the course of the 18th century, many of its functions were assumed by other, more modern places like the Four Courts and the Royal Exchange (now City Hall). By the time it was illustrated by Malton, the Tholsel’s days were numbered and it was demolished in 1809.
Both these prints are among those included in an exhibition, Malton’s Dublin, which runs until November 12th at the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square.
Towards the close of Annabel Davis-Goff’s rather marvelous 2003 novel, The Fox’s Walk, set in Ireland in 1916, a British army officer invites a couple of women to take a drive with him in his open-topped motorcar. ‘“You,” Captain Blaine said to Mrs. Coughlan, “will sit here” – he indicated the back seat – “like the Vicereine”.’ Within a few years, such a simile would become redundant, since in this country the role of vicereine ceased to exist but for at least two and half centuries previously, the title had been employed to describe a succession of women who, to varying degrees, had left a mark on Ireland.
Until the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, and the appointment a year later of the first Duke of Ormond as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the crown was only intermittently represented in this country. And even for a century thereafter, the holders of the office might only spend short times in Ireland. Under those circumstances, the presence of their wives here could not be assured. It was only in 1767 that permanent residency was made obligatory for anyone appointed Lord Lieutenant, and spouses were thereafter more than likely to accompany them. Throughout much of this period, Lords Lieutenant were almost invariably English: there was no Irishman in the position between the appointment of the Duke of Tyrconnell (1687) and that of the fourth Earl of Bessborough (1846). Thus their wives were also non-native. Likewise, after the time of the Duke of Tyrconnell, no Roman Catholic held the viceregal office until the last man to do so: Lord FitzAlan of Derwent (April 1921-December 1922). In 1825 there had been a considerable disquiet in Dublin official circles when the then-Lord Lieutenant, Richard, Marquess Wellesley, had married the beautiful American widow Marianne Paterson (née Caton) who was Roman Catholic. As representatives of the British government both Lords Lieutenant and their spouses were required to be conservative (even if they were members of the Liberal party) and certainly not to espouse any radical causes. Inevitably, this hampered even the most intrepid of vicereines and confined their activities to those assured to cause least offence (although, even in the days before Twitter, there were always some observers of the viceregal court who relished taking umbrage at even the most innocuous behaviour).
Just like royal consorts, vicereines were expected to take their cue from their husbands. As the late R.B. McDowell wrote, ‘the vicereine was often an energetic and influential patroness of good causes in her own right’ but some were more active than others. During her husband’s second term (1905-15), the Countess of Aberdeen, for example, was an ardent promoter of Irish crafts (also of Home Rule, for which she was much criticised). She also campaigned indefatigably for the eradication of Tuberculosis in Ireland. Not everyone appreciated her efforts: in 1914 Arthur Griffith wrote that it was Lady Aberdeen rather than ‘the babbling creature who wears the title’ who was the real Lord Lieutenant. However, more usually it tended to be in more genteel areas such as the encouragement of indigenous decorative arts and fashion that vicereines found an outlet for their energy. They could always guarantee personal popularity by ‘dressing Irish’. So, in May 1779 the Countess of Buckinghamshire (who had been born a Conolly of Castletown), announced her intention of dressing exclusively in Irish fabrics at a charity ball. Four years later, her successor Mary, Marchioness of Buckinghamshire requested that guests attending a ball in Dublin Castle would dress solely in Irish fabrics. At the start of the 19th century, The Countess of Hardwicke ordered a quantity of patterned calico from a Mr Clarke of Palmerston to use as wall covering in the Viceregal Lodge in Dublin’s Phoenix Park: some thirty years later, she published a book The Court of Oberon with engravings by Irish artist John Samuel Templeton, to raise funds for the poor and distressed of this country. In 1880 Queen Victoria presented the Duchess of Marlborough with an award to acknowledge the latter’s work in creating a fund to alleviate ‘extreme misery and suffering among the poor.’ Charity work of one kind or another was perhaps the most consistent characteristic of successive vicereines, although some engaged more actively than others: in 1704 for instance, the second Duchess of Ormond was responsible for establishing the first workhouse in Dublin (on the site of the present St James’s Hospital). The challenge for them was to make an impact – and ideally a difference – without overshadowing the authority of their spouses. Regardless of gender, anybody married to someone in a position of power will testify that remains a difficult task.
Vicereines of Ireland: Portraits of Forgotten Women is an exhibition continuing at Dublin Castle until September 5th . The show has been curated by Myles Campbell, who also wrote the excellent accompanying catalogue.
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
One suspects that few people today are aware of, let alone have read, the works of Constantia Maxwell who in the middle of the last century was probably the best-known woman writing on Irish history. This is a pity, because she was a first-rate stylist and her books impart a great deal of information in an agreeable fashion, which is often not the case today. Furthermore, she is worthy of study in her own right, being something of an academic pioneer. The daughter of an ophthalmic surgeon, she was born in Dublin in 1886 and was among the first women to be admitted to Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate (the college had been exclusively male until 1904). In 1909, she became the first woman to join the institution’s academic staff when appointed a lecturer in modern history. Thirty years later, she was the first woman to be made a professor at TCD, when given a chair in economic history and then, when appointed to the Lecky Professorship of History, was again the first woman to hold this chair. Without question, she was an impressive trailblazer, and not just thanks to her ascent of the academic hierarchy. In some respects, not least owing to her interest in Ireland during the 18th century, Maxwell might be considered the successor to Froude and Lecky, but she is less polemical than either of them, less determined to represent a particular point of view, more desirous to engage and hold the reader’s attention. Her knowledge was prodigious – the bibliography for Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges (of which more below) runs to some 22 pages – but it was lightly worn. There are no stodgy passages in her books, they race along from one anecdote to the next, so that knowledge is shared with the lightest of touches. Her work has sometimes been criticised for concentrating on the ruling elite of the Georgian period, but at the time this was the case with almost anyone writing about the period: history was still perceived as belonging to the victors. Furthermore, as will be seen, she was keenly aware of and sympathetic towards the dreadful misfortunes experienced by the poor during the period under consideration, so censure levelled at her is not altogether fair. The college where she taught for so long offers a scholarship in her name, but surely the time has come for a revival of interest in Constantia Maxwell, and the republication of her books.
Constantia Maxwell enjoyed popular success in 1936 with the publication of Dublin under the Georges, which explored all aspects of the city’s development from 1714 to 1830. In the space of some 300 pages, she celebrated Dublin’s golden age while not overlooking the misery that could be found beneath its glittering surface: an entire chapter is devoted to ‘Life of the Poor’ in which she cites many contemporary visitors to the city. When the English MP John Curwen came in 1818 while he declared ‘the style and beauty of Dublin have greatly surpassed my expectations,’ at the same time he could not but note ‘poverty, disease, and wretchedness exist in every great town, but in Dublin the misery is indescribable.’ Maxwell also quotes from the likes of the Rev James Whitelaw who recounted only too vividly the filth and squalor in which many of the city’s occupants lived. We are inclined to imagine tenements as being the product of the late 19th/early 20th centuries but almost 100 years earlier Whitelaw could write of frequently finding ‘from ten to sixteen persons, of all ages and sexes, in a room not 15 feet square, stretched on a wad of filthy straw swarming with vermin, and without any covering, save the wretched rags that constituted their wearing apparel.’ But of course Maxwell also devoted much attention to the glories of the era, reporting on the lives of the wealthy and the splendid residences they constructed for themselves. Furthermore she took time to look at how those residences were furnished and decorated, thanks to the many specialist craftsmen who flourished owing to the patronage of the domestic market. Everything from wool and linen production to glass and cabinet making was explored in her text, and again the breadth of the author’s reading is impressive; there seem to be no available sources she had not examined. It’s worth remembering that when Maxwell wrote her book, far less relevant material had been placed in the public domain, and far less research into it undertaken. As in so much else, she was a pioneer and almost everyone else who followed, from Maurice Craig onwards, was indebted to her.
Following on from the success of Dublin under the Georges, in 1940 Constantia Maxwell published Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges. This follows much the same format as its predecessor and demonstrates the same depth of knowledge presented in an equally engaging format. Maxwell understood the advantages of the well-told anecdote, whether writing of the foibles of the gentry or the misfortunes of the peasantry. With regard to the latter, she also demonstrated her inherent empathy, observing that her readers ‘need scarcely be reminded that the Irish peasant in the eighteenth century had none of the advantages of the small-holder in England. He had no permanent interest in the soil, because he had no security of tenure. He had no capital to spend upon improvements, and very little knowledge of agriculture. He was the product of an evil land system established by conquest, under which the landlord, who could never feel absolutely secure in the midst of an alien population, looked mainly for immediate profits.’ The consequences of this system were then thoroughly examined over the course of the pages that followed. One chapter of particular interest is devoted to a study of Ireland’s provincial towns during the 18th century. So much attention is paid to Dublin’s growth at the time, it is easy to forget that many other urban centres underwent expansion and improvement from the early 1700s onwards. Many of these became centres of industry and trade, such as Clonmel, County Tipperary, described by John Wesley in 1756 as ‘the pleasantest town beyond all comparison which I have yet seen in Ireland.’ and Cork city which Arthur Young thought displayed ‘by much the most animated scene of shipping in all Ireland.’ Incidentally, with regard to this specific subject, David Dickson – who has already written so eloquently on the developments of both Dublin and Cork – is due to publish his next work The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation in May (Yale University Press). In the meantime, for those who have yet to engage with Constantia Maxwell, an investigation of her work is encouraged. Despite the passage of many decades since the books’ first appearance, they continue to engage and inform.
In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.
Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation.
Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today.
The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on change.org (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood · Change.org)
As already mentioned, the photographs and drawings reproduced in successive volumes published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society during the first years of the last century are often our only record of how Dublin then looked. In particular, these images show many buildings which, over the past 100 years, have been – in many cases needlessly and recklessly – destroyed. One of the reasons why Desmond and Mariga Guinness revived the Irish Georgian Society in 1958 was precisely because they saw fine 18th century houses – such as those in Kildare Place and Dominick Street – being torn down, without any record being kept of how these properties looked. Indeed, the body which should be the foremost custodian and fiercest defender of the city’s architectural heritage, namely Dublin City Council (formerly Dublin Corporation) has instead been consistently negligent in caring for the city’s fabric, in keeping a proper record of its historic architecture and in preserving important parts of buildings that have perforce been demolished. Instead, such work has been left either to charitable organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Architectural Archive, or concerned individuals like Peter Pearson and others. As demonstrated by the recent, and ongoing saga over the future of the city’s Iveagh Markets – as well as the shameful decades-long neglect of O’Connell Street, the lengthy failure to redevelop the historic Mary’s Lane market site, the near-20 year wait to restore a terrace of houses on the north side of Parnell Square (even more important after the grotesque fiasco of a so-called new ‘Cultural Quarter’ failed to materialise) and so forth – the city council continues to show scant concern for ensuring the survival of historic Dublin. Hence the ongoing need today for the same imagination and initiative shown by the original Georgian Society back in 1908. Little, it seems, has changed over the past 110-plus years.
The preface to the first volume of the Irish Georgian Society’s Records of Eighteenth-Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration in Dublin (published 1909) opens as follows: ‘It requires no intimate knowledge of Dublin to perceive that it is not a provincial town, but a fading capital. The great public buildings of the eighteenth century which are its glory make that fact evident.’ The text goes on to note how ‘The gradual disuse of the older residential quarters, as the city gradually shifted and expanded during the last hundred years, has converted most of the fine mansions, once occupied by a wealthy aristocracy, into warehouses and public institutions; while in other cases, whole streets have fallen into decay, and houses set up with decorated walls and ceilings, fine mantelpieces, mahogany doors and carved wood-work, are now occupied as tenement houses by the poor. It followed, naturally enough, that all ornaments which could be utilised elsewhere, notably the old mantelpieces, were removed and sold, and now adorn rich houses far away.’ It was precisely an awareness of these melancholy facts that led to the society’s establishment, and to the production of a series of volumes over five years. The first four of these were exclusively devoted to Dublin (the fifth looked at a number of important Irish country houses), each accompanied by relevant texts that looked not just at the architecture and decoration of the buildings, but also at subjects such as ‘Society in Georgian Dublin’ (Vol.II) and ‘The Furnishing of Georgian Houses in Dublin’ (Vol.IV). As a field of study, art history was then barely in its infancy, so one cannot expect too much academic insight. On the other hand, the compilers of these volumes were much closer to the period under consideration that we are today: some of them would have known people who were actually alive when Georgian Dublin was still in its heyday: the society’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, for example, was born in 1839. But more important that the texts are the abundant photographs and drawings with which each volume is filled. So often, they show buildings since lost and therefore represent an invaluable record, in many instances the only visual source existing today. For that, we owe the original Irish Georgian Society an enormous debt of gratitude.
On Saturday, February 22nd 1908, page 7 of the Irish Times carried a variety of international and local news. Readers were informed, for example, that ‘Thirty-five terrorists were arrested yesterday in various parts of St. Petersburg, many in the open streets; some showed fight, firing revolvers and wounding their captors. A few carried bombs.’ Meanwhile, in Vienna, it was announced that festivities planned that spring to mark the diamond jubilee of the Emperor Franz-Joseph had been cancelled, ‘owing to the state of his Majesty’s health.’ In France, the trial was underway of a Sub-Lieutenant Charles B Ullmo for selling naval secrets to Germany (despite his defence counsel’s pleas for clemency on the grounds that the young man ‘was a victim of the opium habit, and that he had fallen under the influence of an unscrupulous woman, for whom he had squandered his fortune and ruined his life’, Ullmo would be found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment), in San Francisco a private bank collapsed and a Japanese steamer was wrecked off the coast of Alaska. One column, however, was dedicated to reporting on the inaugural meeting held the previous evening on the premises of the Royal Irish Academy of a new organisation. This would come to be called the Irish Georgian Society.
30 Jervis Street, Dublin (since demolished)
The Irish Georgian Society’s inaugural meeting was chaired by the new organisation’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, who then held the chair in Ancient History at Trinity College Dublin, becoming the institution’s Provost in 1914. According to the Irish Times, the ever-busy Countess of Aberdeen, wife of Ireland’s then-Lord Lieutenant, although on her way to another meeting, ‘showed her interest in the proceedings by paying a short visit, remaining while the Chairman was explaining the objects for which the society was to be formed.’ These were, in brief, to preserve as far as possible by means of photographs or drawings, a record of the decorative work inside houses built during what Mahaffy described as Dublin’s golden epoch. Warming to his theme, the chairman imagined a stranger visiting the city and quickly recognising its exceptional character, being that of a former capital. The stranger would note that although houses around Dublin were designed by different architects, built by different men, in different but on the whole harmonious styles, and carried out mainly or almost altogether by Irish genius and Irish workmen. If the same stranger then ventured inside these houses, ‘he would find a beauty of decoration and dignity of style which would strike him as one of the most remarkable things in the Europe of that day.’
Speaking at the same meeting, the National Gallery of Ireland’s Registrar, Walter Strickland made many of the same points, noting how many historic buildings in the centre of Dublin were already being destroyed, but not before the contents of their interiors had been stripped out. Chimneypieces, he commented, ‘were sold to grace the drawingrooms of London’, stucco was hacked away, iron- and wood-work replaced or allowed to fall into decay. If the members of the society could not prevent this wanton destruction, he argued, ‘they could at least record and preserve pictorially the beauties of their old houses’, and this would be the organisation’s purpose: to provide testimony for the future of ‘the ceilings, the carved woodwork, the staircase, the beautiful doorways and lamp standards, and in doing this they would record work not only beautiful, but work executed by Dublin craftsmen.’
Professor Mahaffy advised those attending the meeting that the Irish Georgian Society intended to exist only for a short period, three or perhaps five years (in the event, it was the latter). However, at the end of that time the organisation planned to leave a lasting legacy which would ‘restore to the architects and craftsmen of Dublin their true credit,’ which had hitherto been obscured by the widespread belief that this work had been undertaken by foreigners ‘whilst our people were looking on helplessly.’ He recalled a recent visit to his house of a young cabinetmaker who admired a piece of furniture in one of the rooms with tears in his eyes. When asked what was the matter, the man replied, ‘I am thinking of the poor fellow that made this. He was a great workman. He is dead and gone now; his name is forgotten, and none of us will ever know who he was.’ Professor Mahaffy hoped that the newly-formed Irish Georgian Society would prevent the work of the 18th century being forgotten, ‘and would preserve a worthy record of it for succeeding generations.’
Gable-fronted houses in Sweeny’s Lane, Dublin (since demolished)
Since travel restrictions are once more in place, and look likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, over the coming weeks this site will intermittently look at endeavours which since the early 20th century have sought to curb widespread desire in Ireland to obliterate evidence of the country’s exceptional architectural heritage.
All photographs taken from Volume 1 of the Irish Georgian Society Records (published 1909)
Here is a picture of Trinity College, Dublin. Now imagine it overlooked by a 21-storey tower block. But wait; in this instance you won’t need to use your imagination because last week Ireland’s planning authority, An Bord Pleanála approved just such a scheme for a site just outside the walls of the college.
The development, if such it must be called, was originally intended to be 11-storeys of office space, but the company responsible, Marlet Property Group (company slogan ‘Developing City-Shaping Landmarks’ – really?) then applied to add a further ten floors accommodating build-to-rent apartments. Astonishingly, both Dublin City Council and now An Bord Pleanála rolled over and gave their blessing to the project. In doing so, they demonstrated a woeful disregard for the character of Dublin’s historic core: it is inconceivable that such a scheme would be permitted in other capitals such as Paris or Vienna or Rome where the distinctive attributes of an ancient city centre are rightly cherished and protected. Dublin, on the other hand, seems resolutely set on the same path it has followed since the middle of the last century; to obliterate all trace of individuality and to become a poor imitation of some middle-ranking American city.
In reaching this, and other recent decisions, the current members of An Bord Pleanála appear to possess no sense of history, no sense of place, no sense of proportion. The building is devoid of architectural merit, its only distinguishing feature being size: it is an over-scaled monument to corporate blandness. There are sites further down river where plenty of similar blocks have been constructed in recent decades and where such a development would find a natural home. But parking it here, seemingly at random, with no understanding of context, no evidence of coherent planning for the area, no acknowledgement that this is Dublin rather than downtown Dumpsville, and with a flagrant disregard for the fact that it is barely 200 metres away from Trinity College: this just looks wilful. Both Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála are permitting private developers to decide the future shape and character of Ireland’s capital. It makes no sense, and those responsible display no sense.
Footnote: Last Monday Dublin City Councillors voted to retain a 15% cut in the Local Property Tax, even though the authority is likely to suffer a €39 million deficit this year. By reaching this decision, they have rendered themselves still more impotent when it comes to decision-making about how the capital will evolve in the years ahead, thereby transferring still greater control in this matter to unelected, and increasingly non-resident, corporations. Remember Marlet Property Group’s company slogan ‘Developing City-Shaping Landmarks’. That tells you who’s in charge here. Just bear it in mind next time you hear a councillor proclaim how much he/she loves Dublin…
*A reader has suggested that I provide relevant contact details for Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála, so that some of you can express your feelings on this matter to them directly.
They can be reached as follows:
Dublin City Council Planning Department email@example.com
An Bord Pleanála firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hard to believe but this is one of the most historic corners of Dublin, where St Mary’s Abbey links with Meetinghouse Lane. As the first of name indicates, it was the site of the medieval Cistercian Abbey of St Mary, the richest religious house in Ireland until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Meetinghouse Lane derives from the fact that an early Presbyterian place of worship later stood here; it can be seen on Rocque’s 1756 Map of the city. Having been restored, the Chapter House of St Mary’s, the only substantial part of the old abbey to survive, was open to the public for a period, but then closed five years ago and has remained shut ever since. Meanwhile what remains of the old Presbyterian foundation has been incorporated into other buildings and put to other ignominious uses. The condition of the Victorian ground floor façade shown here is indicative of how the area looks.