Presents of Mind III


A niche in the façade of Dublin’s Lying-In Hospital, otherwise known as the Rotunda. Designed by Richard Castle, what is now the world’s oldest continuously operating maternity hospital opened on this site in 1757 and takes its popular name from the adjacent Round Room which with accompanying assembly rooms were constructed to raise income for the institution. The hospital’s façade is of Wicklow granite, the use of which is discussed in The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland written by the late Arthur Gibney (and edited for publication by Livia Hurley and Edward McParland). While a certain amount of investigation has been conducted into the architecture of the Georgian period, the process of construction during the same era is relatively little studied. This is what makes Gibney’s book so fascinating: he has studied contemporary records to discover how buildings both public and private were put together at the time. The first two chapters examine who was responsible for what on a building site, and the various form of contractual arrangements employed whenever work was undertaken. Regarding the latter, several options were available, some of which involved fixing the final cost in advance (carrying an attendant risk that contractors keen to make a good profit might skimp on materials and finish) while what was known as a measured contract ‘paid each trade separately for measured quantities of work based on agreed rates.’ The potential financial gains to be made by builders, especially in large-scale public schemes, were exposed following a parliamentary enquiry in 1752 into a national barracks building programme: this led to the dismissal of the Surveyor General Arthur Jones Nevill in 1752 (he was expelled from Parliament the following year).
Gibney follows with chapters looking at different areas of the building trade covering carpentry, joinery and the timber trade, wall construction, brickwork and stone, roofing and glazing, plastering and painting. The emergence of builder architects like George Semple and the Ensor brothers is also considered; as Gibney observes, ‘Eighteenth-century craftsmen in Irish cities were essentially part of a middle-class milieu with access to the same opportunities as members of the merchant community.’ By the book’s conclusion, the reader has a full understanding of how buildings were constructed in the 18th century and what characteristics distinguished them from equivalent structures in Britain and elsewhere (it transpires the differences are most immediately evident in the way floors were made). Gibney’s work is a most welcome addition to the field of Irish architectural studies and helps to provide a fuller picture of building work in this country during the Georgian period.


The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland by Arthur Gibney (edited by Livia Hurley and Edward McParland) is published by Four Courts Press.

Presents of Mind I


One of the gates at the entrance of the Keep Gate standing in the grounds of Birr Castle, County Offaly incorporating the Parsons family coat of arms. With machicolations, slit and loop windows, and crenellated battlements, this two-storey miniature castle was designed by Mary, third Countess of Rosse in 1847-8 and constructed as a famine relief project. Well inside the grounds of the estate, the Keep Gate forms part of a star-shaped moat around the castle, the moat being designed by the Countess’s uncle Captain Richard Wharton Middleton.
The Keep Gate is one of many buildings to feature in a splendid new publication Flights of Fancy: Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly written by County Architect Rachel McKenna. After initial chapters investigating the nature of follies and other demesne architecture, McKenna goes on to consider in depth fifteen different estates in Offaly, some well-known – like Birr and Charleville – others less familiar such as Ballycumber, Prospect and Acres’ Hall. Running to 348 pages, the work is extensively and admirably illustrated with abundant colour photographs, maps and plans, drawings old and new and many other images to complement the text. Published by Offaly County Council, this is a model of the kind of book all local authorities should be producing: one hopes others will follow Offaly’s lead in demonstrating such pride in the region’s built heritage. Hard to fault and impossible to resist, not least because the volume’s price is a very affordable €30.


Flights of Fancy: Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly by Rachel McKenna is published by Offaly County Council.

Brought to Book


In September 1753 Michael O’Reilly wrote from Dublin to the Roscommon-based antiquarian Charles O’Conor ‘I think a man should read books as he eats victuals; surfeits of either cannot be digested; and too many books as too many dishes will cause surfeit.’ The problem for O’Reilly, as for many readers today, was that more volumes were being produced than could be consumed: the market seemed to be ahead of supply. Toby Barnard’s newly-published Brought to Book: Print in Ireland 1680-1784 examines the history of publication here during this period. Barnard notes the steady rise in work being brought out. In the 1680s the average number of new titles published in Dublin was 52: by the 1790s that figure had risen to 480. For a long time Irish authors preferred, if possible, to publish in England, the understandable expectation being that they would thereby earn more and reach a larger audience. Furthermore, because the British government’s Copyright Act of 1710 did not apply to Ireland, authors who published here enjoyed no legal entitlement to payment for their work. While this had an impact on the development of Irish publishing, ultimately the drive towards an indigenous industry was too strong to be resisted.


Barnard notes how many of the books produced here were local editions of work already successful in other countries. Initially interest in books about Ireland attracted little interest, one dealer noting that such volumes were ‘very little noticed by them whom they did most concern.’ But with the passage of time, increased communication and greater awareness of the need to improve the state of the country, work of Irish subject matter increased in appeal – and sales. Then as now, criticism was not always well-received: the English agronomist Arthur Young was much admired when he wrote about his own country – the Dublin Society made him an honorary member in 1771 – but drew a less favourable response when he turned his attention to matters Irish: the first edition of his Tour of Ireland had to be published in London when insufficient subscribers could be found here. Contrary to what is often thought and despite the Penal Laws, devotional books for Roman Catholics were published in Ireland from the 1720s onwards, albeit under a suppositious mainland European imprint. The first work in the Irish language known to have been produced in Dublin for Catholic readers appeared in 1736: intended as an aid for other members of the clergy, it was a series of sixteen sermons by Bishop Gallagher of Raphoe, County Donegal. By the end of the period covered, books such as Charlotte Brooke’s The reliques of Irish poetry (1788) were both recording and celebrating the nation’s ancient culture. As Barnard points out ‘the venerable was valued as evidence of the complex culture in an earlier Ireland.’ The course of this transition is traced in his own book, illustrating how complex cultures also existed here during the early modern period.


Brought to Book: Print in Ireland 1680-1784 by Toby Barnard is published by the Four Courts Press.

Presents of Mind III

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A view of the northern end of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street as shown in William Turner de Lond’s depiction of the entry of George IV into Dublin on August 17th 1821. The king had actually landed at Howth five days earlier, on his fifty-ninth birthday and in a state of some inebriation: it may have been as a result of the latter that his ‘official’ arrival only took place when it did. The scene shows George IV, the first British monarch to visit Ireland in 130 years (and the first for much longer to come without bellicose intent), standing in his carriage to acknowledge the cheering crowds. This was not a piece of fiction: a contemporary report in The Patriot observed that ‘they never saw any manifestation of popular enthusiasm so heartfelt, as that which hailed his Majesty from, at least, 100,000 persons of all ranks and estates.’ The painting was only one among several produced to commemorate the occasion (a number of artists recognised its commercial potential) and is of interest for showing the Rotunda Hospital in the background as well as the east side of Rutland (now Parnell) Square.
It is one of a number of such works included in a recently-published book, Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art which accompanies an exhibition of the same name currently running at the National Gallery of Ireland. While at least some of the works discussed are imaginative recreations (such as Samuel Watson’s portrayal of the 11th century Battle of Clontarf, painted in 1844, and James Barry’s Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick, c.1800-1), others provide an invaluable record of how parts of this country looked in the past. Such is the case with the picture shown below, Francis Wheatley’s 1780 picture of the Irish House of Commons. For some observers the interest here would be in identifying some of the political parties included in the work. For others, however, it is especially important for showing how this chamber, designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, looked before being seriously damaged by fire in 1792. Although reconstructed to a simpler design, the House of Commons was abolished eight years later and, as is well-known, when the Parliament building was subsequently bought by the Bank of Ireland, the British government insisted structural changes were made to ensure it could not revert to its original purpose. Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art examines more than fifty works of art and includes essays by the likes of Professors Tom Dunne and Roy Foster, Róisin Kennedy and Emily Mark-Fitzgerald.

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Creating History, edited by Brendan Rooney, is published by Irish Academic Press, €24.99. The accompanying exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland continues until January 15th.

Presents of Mind II

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In 1788 almost 28,000 silver teaspoons were recorded in the ledger of the Dublin Assay Office, an institution established in 1637 – and still in operation today – to assess the purity of all gold and silver manufactured in Ireland. Teaspoons were especially popular both because their small size made them more affordable than other items in the same metal, but also thanks to the rise in consumption of drinks such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, all of which were sweetened with sugar. By the late 18th century, for example, the average annual consumption of tea in this country is estimated to have been two or three pounds per person. This fascinating information, and much more beside, can be found in a newly-published study of Silver in Georgian Dublin by Dr Alison FitzGerald.
While Irish silver has been well explored by Douglas Bennett and others, the focus of these connoisseur-driven investigations has usually been on matters of style and authorship. FitzGerald on the other hand is representative of a new generation of art historians keen to explore the character of material culture and thus contextualise the object of their attention within its period. This is what she has done so admirably in the present book, which looks at the production, distribution and consumption of silver in Georgian Dublin, and beyond. So, for example, when discussing the increasing popularity of tea over the course of the 18th century, assisted by a gradual reduction in its price, she looks not only at silver tea pots but also the greater use of ceramic vessels, preferable because less expensive. So a household might have a ceramic teapot but also silver sugar tongs (selling for 12 shillings in 1772).
The choice of retail premises from which they could make their purchases, while never as great as that in London (where some Irish grandees preferred to shop for such goods) certainly improved over passing decades, and for local clients had the advantage of offering credit for purchases: FitzGerald provides a number of instances where goldsmiths such as Isaac D’Olier had to advertise that all accounts owing to him had to be settled immediately and in full. Then, as now, it was often cheaper to buy at auction, and these events regularly took place, often following a collector’s death: Charles Cobbe, who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1740 acquired a considerable amount of silverware at the sale of his late father-in-law Sir Richard Levinge’s effects. And silver was regularly melted down and refashioned as tastes, and consumer requirements changed.
Some items survived better than others, not least teaspoons. The set of ten shown above above, dating from c.1800 and carrying the mark of Carden Terry and Jane Williams, was recently sold by Adam’s of Dublin for €2,500. On the other hand, buckles – once a staple in every gentleman’s wardrobe – gradually disappeared as styles of dress altered. In 1788 more than 24,000 silver buckles were sent to be assayed in Dublin, mostly intended for shoes and knee breeches: by 1800 that number had dropped to a mere eighteen. Once deemed redundant, they faced recycling, and accordingly only a certain number can now be found. The pair shown below, today in the collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, were made c.1790 by Joseph Jackson of Dublin.
Drawing on a huge range of sources ranging from diaries and letters to contemporary guild accounts, inventories and trade ephemera – not to mention the archives of the Dublin Assay Office – Alison FitzGerald’s book is a wonderfully informative, entertaining and engaging read, absolutely packed with information and profusely illustrated with illustrations that complement an already eloquent text. A terrific addition to our knowledge of this period.

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Silver in Georgian Dublin: Making, Selling, Consuming by Alison FitzGerald is published by Routledge, €80.00

Presents of Mind I

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The south entrance to Ballyanne, County Wexford, a house built c.1790 for Henry Houghton. It was demolished in 1943 but this wide gatescreen indicates what has been lost. Six rusticated pillars are linked by iron railings and gateposts, while at either end is a matching porters’ lodge, of which now only the front elevations survive, their central windows (now blocked up) flanked by arched niches. Ballyanne’s entrance rightly figures in J.A.K. Dean’s newly published gazetteer The Gate Lodges of Leinster, a remarkable piece of research that appears over twenty years after the same author’s similar work devoted to Ulster’s lodges. This one runs to 416 pages and contains entries for no less than 4,285 buildings: even two centuries ago the profusion of gate lodges in Ireland was noted by visitors (some properties having six or more entrances, each of which had to be manned). Opening with a history of the gate lodge in this part of the country, the text then proceeds county by county, each entry following in alphabetical order with a full historical and architectural account, and a statement of current condition (where still standing).
Dean’s meticulously researched text is complemented by a profusion of illustrations including photographs and architectural drawings, and makes for an engrossing read. On the other hand, the book inspires a certain sense of melancholy, since so many of these miniature treasures have either been demolished (the fate, Dean estimates, of half of all built since the mid-18th century) or left to fall into decay. Their diminutive size can make them unattractive for modern permanent accommodation although, as the Irish Landmark Trust (and its English equivalent) has shown, they can be converted to serve as successful holiday lets. Furthermore, they have often been overlooked by architectural historians whose attention was focussed on what lay at the end of the avenue. But if their interiors were often relatively functional, much care was expended on their exterior appearance, since the lodge served as a statement of the estate owner’s status, and the first point of contact for visitors to the area.
This is a wonderful labour of love, and deserves to be applauded (and rewarded with abundant sales over the coming weeks). The only drawback is that it leaves one hankering for the companion volumes to Connacht and Munster…

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The Gate Lodges of Leinster: A Gazetteer by J.A.K. Dean is published by Wordwell, €40.00.

Brought to Book

Back in 1980 photographer Simon Marsden published a book on Irish country houses with the self-explanatory title In Ruins. It quickly sold out and has since become a bibliophiles’ favourite. Many more such works by other photographers subsequently followed, so many that one began to gain the impression of vultures gathering to feast on a corpse even before the death certificate had been issued. Sometimes it seems as though the fewer historic properties of worth that Ireland possesses, the more they will be appreciated: like the Dodo, their value will only be fully understood when the last one has fallen into irreversible ruin.
The crumbling Irish house is a staple of our national literature (think the wondrous Molly Keane, together with many others before and since) and so too are books which apparently thrive on depicting yet another building in terminal decay. It is easy to understand the appeal of these publications, essentially romantic and inspired by a concept of the past that helps to make illusory television series like Downton Abbey so popular. It is a vision of history that regards old buildings, and in particular Ireland’s great houses, as having the same kind of use-by date as found on supermarket food, after which they can serve no further purpose. According to this erroneous attitude they should be allowed, if not actively encouraged, to fall down, thereby permitting a myth to be constructed in their absence.

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These somewhat melancholic thoughts were inadvertently inspired by an admirable new publication, Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change. Author David Hicks discusses 24 properties spread across the four provinces and has had the original idea of featuring old photographs of the houses in their heyday alongside images of how they look now. The comparisons are rarely kind, although not always as Hicks intended. He is, for example, more generous than really ought to be the case about Adare Manor, County Limerick and Farnham in County Cavan, both converted into hotels with a singular want of sympathetic taste. And he includes Powerscourt, County Wicklow which is a travesty of restoration and deserves nothing other than condemnation. This really is an instance where the ruin was preferable to what has since been done.
That is the criticism out of the way, because otherwise Hicks’ book merits congratulation, not least thanks to texts which are both well-informed and well-written, a rare phenomenon in this genre where writers can display scant interest in researching the history of buildings they present. As a rule he is sympathetic but not sentimental, clearly passionate about his subject but not (perhaps with the exception of Powerscourt) to the exclusion of objectivity.

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And the photographs are just fascinating, albeit occasionally in a ghoulish way. The first picture at the top of this piece, and the two that follow, are of Downhill, County Londonderry, the immense palace built on a cliff top overlooking the Atlantic by that notable eccentric Frederick Hervey, Earl-Bishop of Derry (1730-1803). Admirers of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire may be interested to know that the Duke’s long-time mistress (and eventual second wife) was the Earl-Bishop’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Foster. Downhill was aptly named: within fifty years of Hervey’s death it started to go irreversibly down hill, not least thanks to a disastrous fire in 1851 which gutted much of the interior and destroyed some of the finest contents. Although rebuilt twenty years later, by the early 1950s the building had been dismantled; it is now in the care of the National Trust, as is the ravishing Mussenden Temple, the adjacent domed rotunda also built by the Earl-Bishop.
The next two photographs show a house at the other end of the country, Castle Bernard in County Cork. Originally called Castle Mahon and part of the territory controlled by the O’Mahonys, in the 17th century it was acquired by an English settler, Francis Bernard whose descendants became Earls of Bandon; they greatly extended the property, with major rebuilding taking place in the early 19th century. Despite a jumble of styles, the eventual result looks charming in old photographs. In June 1921 the fourth Earl and his wife were forced out of the castle by a branch of the IRA before the building was set on fire. Lord Bandon, a septuagenarian, was then kidnapped and held hostage for three weeks before being released. Seeing the gutted shell of Castle Bernard, his niece wrote ‘The ruin is absolute and all one can do is wander across the mass of debris in those precious rooms.’

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Finally, above is Clonbrock, County Galway, a house needlessly lost within living memory. The estate belonged to the long-established Dillon family who built Clonbrock in the 1780s to replace a previous residence which had been burnt, seemingly by a firework let off to celebrate the birth of the then-owner’s heir. Various additions, such as the Doric portico and the two low wings, were made during the first half of the 19th century but the central block remained unaltered, notable for the refined neo-classical plasterwork of its main rooms. The Dillons were ardent photographers and their archive today provides one of the best sources of information for life in the Irish country house.
Successive generations of the family lived at Clonbrock until 1976 when economic circumstances forced the sale of house and contents. The building was then placed on the market but despite various statements of interest it failed to find a buyer and in 1984 was destroyed by fire; I remember at the time meeting a German family who had hoped to take over Clonbrock and were dismayed by what occurred. Now it stands as yet another testament to our want of aesthetic appreciation – or maybe to our perverse preference for romantic ruins…

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Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change is published by Collins Press