Restoring a Georgian Dublin Residence Transcript

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The following is a transcript of Restoration of No. 19 North Great George's Street, a talk by Harold Clarke.


Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode, Harold Clarke gives a charming account of restoring the beautiful Georgian building, number 19 North Great George's Street. Hear about the challenges Harold faced during his faithful restoration of the house and the delightful features he uncovered, most particularly its beautiful decorative plasterwork. Recorded in front of a live audience at Dublin City Hall on 24 August 2016 as part of the Dublin City Archives' Heritage Week programme.

My boarding school was one of the Georgian distinguished buildings in Dublin and my university had a collection of the best Georgian buildings in Dublin.  Not that Georgian necessarily means comfort (laughter).  I would give my school probably 3½ out of 10.  I would give my university perhaps 5 out of 10.  After college I went to live in a Regency villa in Killiney, called Ballinclea House, which had been built by a branch of the Talbot family of Malahide, the Power Talbots, and the neighbours would tell me that the most distinguished thing that happened in the house was that King George and Queen Mary stopped for afternoon tea there on their way from Leopardstown.  So it’s not surprising with that background that I thought of living in a Georgian house when it came to the period in life when I would have a house of my own.  So one day at lunch time I was walking through Easons, as one does, and I met my friend Brian Molloy – also from Roscommon.  Brian knew everything about Georgian Dublin.  He had his ear close to the ground.  He knew what houses were available, who lived in them, etc.  So he told me that a house in North Great George’s Street – which I had never heard of before – had become available and he thought that I might find it possible to buy it.

So there and then we went to see it, No. 19.  That’s a later photograph of it.  It was slightly more derelict looking when I went that day.  It had a dangerous building order on it.  In that time all the doors in North Great George’s Street were open which was the sign of a tenement street.  It was beginning to show 180 years of dereliction but there were good things about it, there were no tenants and it was a lovely house.  The bowed back was a particular feature of the house where the house projected beyond its neighbours.  That’s as it was in 1967.  The roof was pretty dangerous and that had to be replaced.  Within the house the only lavatory in the building was on the second floor and in due course it had leaked over the years and brought down the drawing room ceiling underneath.  The partitions divided up each room in the house and each separate apartment had its own coal box on the landings.  The top floor was pretty wet except that there were so many layers of linoleum that the water didn’t seep through so that protected it.  That was a view of the drawing room on the first floor.  Another view of the drawing room.  And that was the front hall.  The front hall interestingly had two pictures which were probably almost as valuable as the house and the lady who sold me the house left me the pictures.  They were two dog paintings by George Armfield and they were still there at the end of my day in the house.

After 3 days I purchased the house, thanks to the Bank of Ireland who lent me the money and that was about it.  I hate to say it in this room but Dublin Corporation told me that they couldn’t see their way to giving me a grant because "the house wasn’t suitable for the housing of the working classes", to use their wording.  I did get a grant of £140 from the Department of Local Government.  Fortunately, I had among my friends a sensitive architect called Austin Dunphy who came to inspect the house and he gave the all-clear that I could develop the house.  One of the biggest jobs in the building was scraping back the plaster ceilings.  As you can see there, that’s a frieze in the dining room which is completely coated with years and years and years of white wash, so all we could do... probably now, one could remove that chemically but all one could do at that time was to scrape it back – as was the fact with the ceilings on the drawing room floors where they were quite decorated ceilings.

I was very fortunate that great groups of my friends would come along each weekend and help me with this work of scraping back the ceilings and we had work parties – that’s a tea break in one of the work parties.  Interestingly, in that photograph you see where the outline of the original mantelpiece was which had been replaced by the Victorians with a marble mantelpiece.  Other views of scraping the ceiling – Desiree Shortt, Peter Munro and myself.  That is the dome at the top of the staircase.  In 19 North Great George’s Street the staircase runs parallel to the street, in other words its right angles to the inner hall – to the front hall – and it was quite a job.  We had to lift up the dome and reseat it and it was one of the major jobs and one of the first jobs to keep the rain out of that part of the building.  That’s the drawing room as completed because, so far as possible, I went for the original colours and when we took down all the layers of wallpaper we discovered that sort of grass green on the walls and green and pink on the ceilings so we were able to copy that and you get a view of the ceiling there that I’ll talk about in a moment.

It was a fairly lonely job discovering about the history of the house.  Con Curran, C.P. Curran’s Dublin Decorative Plasterwork was published the year before I bought the house but there is no mention in his book of 19 North Great George’s Street. I think of Con Curran when I hear Daniel O’Donnell on the radio in his adverts saying ‘most people like my music, the rest don’t know what they’ve missed’ (laughter).  Con Curran liked Georgian ceilings but he didn’t know about No. 19.  The gap in information has since been replaced by Conor Lucey’s magisterial book on Michael Stapleton and of course on the Penguin guide, so it’s much easier to get information now.

And I’m going to quote from Conor Lucey’s book because it expresses better than I can in my own words what was discovered about the creation of the house and the decoration.  He says:

“In March 1787 John Prendergast, a bricklayer, in partnership with Edward Archdall took leave on the sites (that’s of 19 and 20 North Great George’s Street).  Work was completed in 1789.  Brian Bolger, a contemporary Dublin Quantity Surveyor in 1790 measured the two drawing room ceilings for painting, including the picking out in fancy colours (as you see) at 19 following the decoration of the house by Stapleton.”

He goes on:

“Of the two houses (19 and 20), No. 19 is unquestionably the more elegantly detailed and was described as ‘in the occupation of Edward Archdall’ in 1790.  Built on a narrow plot of some 20 feet in width, the building has a central stairwell lit by a large decorated oval skylight.  Drawings in the Stapleton Collection correspond to the executed plasterwork on the two first floor ceilings and represent Stapleton’s interpretation of the Wyattesque ornamental style.  The ceiling of the rear drawing room is the more accomplished design, featuring two attenuated lozenge shapes, one positioned inside the other and enriched with foliated wreaths similar to a design by Wyatt dated 1776 for Milton Abbey in Dorset and executed by Joseph Rose.  Although the central rosette is small in scale, there is a pleasing balance to the composition as a whole.  The frieze in this room featuring hounds, crescent moons and quivers is also found in the Diana drawing room at Belvedere House (up the street).  In the rear first floor room of 45 Merrion Square, built by Gustavus Hume in 1785, and in the small front and rear first floor rooms of No. 11 Parnell Square.  Additional drawings for the plasterwork of No. 19 North Great George’s Street include a full scale working drawing for a frieze inscribed ‘Ceiling Line’ similar to that executed throughout the entire stair hall and another frieze design featuring Putti holding laurel swags executed in the dining room on the ground floor.”

The dining room had this frieze but it had no decorated ceiling which is interesting but it had a lovely sideboard alcove which I think was probably my favourite piece of plaster decoration in the house.  It was decorated with a motif of corn and grapes. That’s another picture of the drawing room.  That’s the sideboard alcove as it originally was in the dining room.  I used that alcove quite a lot.  My booklet which Ellen referred to on Georgian Dublin, I discovered there was no simple, cheap booklet on Georgian Dublin when I restored the house so I wrote this one which went through a couple of editions and I used that cover on one of the editions.  Interestingly the series, the Irish Heritage series, went on to become about 74 titles in the series including 7 on Dublin buildings and Dublin interests including Joyce’s Dublin and one on this building, the City Hall.  I must have had some foresight also because I did a booklet on St Patrick’s College Maynooth and the Pontifical Irish College in Rome (laughter).

Residents in the street: we did some research.  Sir Samuel Ferguson lived next door to us.  Had lived next door to us in No. 20.  Isaac Butt, the leader of the Irish Party, lived in the street. Mahaffy of course lived in No. 38.  Arthur Guinness was in No. 43 when he was Butler for the Archbishop of Cashel.  And in my house, Mr Archdall is mentioned in the Lucey reference there was the original resident but shortly thereafter the house was inhabited by the Kings of County Roscommon.  The Kings were a quite extraordinarily acquisitive family in North Roscommon.  They dated back to 1603 when the town of Boyle was granted to Sir John King and after that they spread across the county to the wonderful Rockingham House near Boyle, the Nash designed house – sadly destroyed by fire later, that was the King Hammonds, to Kilronan Castle where the King Tenisons lived.  The King house in Boyle itself and my family of Kings came from a house called Charlestown in the village of Jamestown which was on the border of Roscommon and Leitrim.

In the 60s and 70s there was a great character in Dublin known as the ‘Pope’ O’Mahony.  I never heard any other Christian name for him, he was always known as the ‘Pope’ but the ‘Pope’ knew everything about every Anglo Irish family that ever was and when I told him I had bought a house which had been owned by the Kings he said “Oh the Kings could travel from their house in Kilronan Castle to their estate in Mitchelstown in Cork without ever taking their eyes of King's land” (laughter), a little of an exaggeration I think but you get the message.

Next to the Kings was a very interesting family, the Curtis family.  The Curtis father was a lawyer but his son is the interesting one, Robert Curtis.  Robert was the first Catholic scholar in Trinity College.  Being a scholar in Trinity College is probably you know, something you do after you are in college for some time and you sit the exam and it is announced on Trinity Monday if you have achieved the scholarship.  If you become a scholar you get some nonsensical rewards like playing marbles on the chapel steps (laughter) but you also get practical things like free tuition, free commons, free rooms, for the rest of your time in Trinity, so young Robert Curtis was a fairly privileged young man.  After Trinity he joined the Society of Jesus.  He was never ordained for health reasons but the interesting thing about his life was that he became a great and good friend of Gerard Manley Hopkins who had recently been appointed to the new university in Dublin.  He came to Dublin in 1884.  Hopkins hated Dublin.  He found it ‘a cheerless place’ he said.  But he writes to his mother about ‘his rock’ as he called the Curtis family and he wrote about the pleasure and the generosity he received from the Curtis’s in their house in Dublin.  He died of Typhoid five years after he arrived in Dublin and is buried in the Jesuit plot in Glasnevin alongside Robert Curtis. After the Curtis came the Price family who were China dealers in South Great George’s Street.  After them it was a hotel for 10 years and after that a tenement.  Interesting to look at the history of the house, the landed gentry had it first, then the professional class, then the trading class, then a hotel.

One of the great pleasures of living in the street was getting to know my neighbours, the neighbours who had lived there, and also the new residents who came shortly after me to restore the houses, people like Desiree Shortt, Willie and Ann Dillon, David Murray, Brendan and Josephine O’Connell – almost all of whom are there still keeping the flag flying in North Great George’s Street, so I am afraid I am the one who abandoned it.

Some of the events in North Great George’s Street: the first was an unhappy one – in 1974 the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in Parnell Street.  I was on my way home from work and missed the bomb by a matter of seconds. I came into the street to a deathly silence which followed the bomb before people realised what carnage and what destruction had been done.  I went up to the house to find ... as I was saying earlier the bow of the house projected further than its neighbours so I went up to the house to find that all the windows in the back of the house had been blown in so we were having some people for dinner that night so the first thing was to clear up all the glass which was everywhere and closed the shutters and lived with the closed shutters for several months thereafter.  Interestingly, among our guests that night were John and Delphine Kelly, my friends.  John at the time was Attorney General so our dinner party was delayed because there was a Cabinet meeting – an emergency Cabinet meeting in the early evening – but we got down to dinner eventually.

Next door to me on the north side was No. 18 which had been restored by Conor and Nuala Griffin and in due course they decided to put it on the market and it got not one bid at the auction, so I decided to save it I would buy the house and the Bank of Ireland came to my rescue again and lent me the money and I held it until somebody would come along to buy it and that somebody was a lecturer in English in Trinity College called David Norris and in his autobiography he tells a story of coming along to inspect the house and he said it was ‘love at first sight’ - that was the house not me.  (laughter)  He moved in at the end of 1978 and brought his dynamism to the street.  In 1979 the North Great George’s Street Preservation Society was founded and David was extremely active in that way and in all sorts of ways, including the restoration of No. 35 as the James Joyce Centre.

I’ll show you ... oh I was going to show you that which was also the dining room alcove which the auctioneers used as the front, on the cover, for the auction when our contents were sold.  That is the alcove in the dining room when we were living there. That is the garden – half the original garden.  It was fairly derelict and it required a lot of work.  In the 1970s the Metropole Cinema and Ballroom was demolished to make way for British Home Stores which then became Penneys and in the demolition they took down on the first floor level, between the windows, there was a lion’s mask – a carved granite lion’s mask between each window – and a colleague of mine and myself persuaded the demolishers to give us the lion’s mask, not to put them in the dump truck and he brought his home to Drumcondra where he put it into his garden, where I’m sure it surprises people to this day and I brought mine home and built it into the wall of the garden – the wall next to David Norris.  I can’t remember the name of the carver, it’s the man who did a lot of the carvings in O’Connell Street.

In 1987 it was the 200th anniversary of the granting of the lease to the house on 15 March 1987 and I gave the house a birthday party on that day and as a present I got the wrought iron gates in the garden made for the garden.

Some further views in the house; that was the library, as we called it, which is the front drawing room.  The bookcase, as you can see, has a frieze over it which came from a house in County Limerick called Kilballyowen.  Kilballyowen was famous for a horse that had been bred there.  They had this huge library with an enormous frieze and a friend of mine who lived in a house called Lough Cutra in County Galway, in Gort, and I, we split the frieze.  A sort of decision of Solomon.  And the frieze is still in Lough Cutra and it is also still in North Great George’s Street so far as I know.  That’s the detail of the frieze.  I’m not sure whose plasterwork it was but he was obviously a man of some skill.  The photograph is taken from a magazine article about the house.  That’s another view of the library.  And that is the library ceiling which I painted in Dublin colours.  That’s the inner hall.  The stair carpet I left when I sold the house and I’m sure it’s still there.  That’s another view of the inner hall.  In the house, when finished, there was the Garden Room which is shown there and the old kitchen in the front also in the basement and a toilet also in the basement.  On the main floor was the kitchen, just inside the hall door, and the dining room.  The two drawing rooms on the first floor.  Two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor.  Two bedrooms and a bathroom on the top floor.  One of the reasons why I’m showing you this is you see the alcove, there is a frieze over it and that also came from the demolition of the Capitol and the Metropole.  In the Capitol Cinema that was an over door, over the door into the main cinema and it was the other way up, so I put it into ... in fact there were two alcoves, I put them into the alcoves upside down as it were.  That’s another view of the Garden Room which was really a sort of sculpture gallery with a view out to the garden.

Coming towards the end.  That’s the staircase, it’s 100 steps, we’re on the way down now.  The steps from the ground floor to the basement were granite but the other steps were very untiring which was one of the things about Georgian buildings, the steps and the stairs are always just about the right height that in fact you can walk up to the top of the house and not be exhausted (laughter).

So on our way out there is the George Armfield, one of the two George Armfield paintings still there, as it was when I bought the house.  Over the inner door under layers and layers and layers of paint I discovered in the centre a pattern of two griffons made of either silver or pewter.  I had to restore them very carefully but I’m sure they are still there to be seen.

So in conclusion, it was a great pleasure living in North Great George’s Street.  Being within seven minutes walk of work was pretty good and the feeling of being part of a community on a mission.  So some people, many people, say to me ‘Why did you leave it?’, I found it hard to articulate it.  It was a mission complete.  It was a very large house for two people and it was probably time for me to move on and do other things which I did.  I moved to an apartment for a number of years and then when I retired from full-time work I bought a hillside site of 3½ acres in County Wicklow where I created a garden, which in fact is open this week for Heritage Week, each morning, in aid of  my friend Andrew McElroy’s project in South India, in Tamil Nadu and I open the garden each year during the summer for him, as it were.  The views of the garden ... the deer are not real (laughter), they are bronze or something, and that’s the bridge over a pond in the garden and that’s the Japanese garden.

So I’m there in County Wicklow in Avoca for 21 years now and perhaps time I moved on to some other project.  I was in North Great George’s Street for almost 20 years.  So some of my friends are inconsiderate enough to say that at age 83 there aren’t many options left open (laughter) but we’ll see.  I want to say thank you for Ellen for assisting me and for dealing with my slides and all the other bits and pieces which she digitised for me.

Ellen: Thank you so much Harold for your wonderful talk and I’m sure we’d all agree that the before and after pictures are just absolutely stunning and they show how huge an undertaking it was.

Harold: Thank you very much Ellen.  (Applause)

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