River, rivalry and revolt transcript

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The following is a transcript of 'River, rivalry and revolt: history of the built fabric of Dublin City', the eleventh Sir John T. Gilbert Commemorative Lecture by Dr Christine Casey , at Dublin City Library and Archive on 23rd January 2008. Audio

Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode, "River, rivalry and revolt: the history of the built fabric of Dublin City", Dr Christine Casey discusses how three elements, the river Liffey, rivalry with London and revolution influenced and shaped the topography of the city. The eleventh annual Sir John T. Gilbert Commemorative Lecture, was recorded in front of a live audience at Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street on 23 January 2008.

Thank you very much Lord Mayor, ladies and gentleman I am honoured to deliver this lecture in memory of Sir John Gilbert. I consider it a gloss of sorts to my volume of 2005 on the buildings of Dublin. Like Gilbert’s three volume History of Dublin the format of that work was driven by topography, it too considering the city methodically street by street. Whereas, the arrangement of Gilbert’s text was a self imposed ordering device. The gazetteer format of the Buildings of Ireland volumes was dictated by the British theories begun in the 1950s by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. While it has much to recommend it in terms of brevity, clarity and ease of access for the author a gazetteer is a tyranny of sorts, disallowing the luxuries of thematic analysis. So tonight I wish to set aside that detailed topographical approach and instead to adopt a broader view of Dublin’s architecture by considering the manner in which the history of this particular city is written into its architecture. What are the characteristics of Dublin’s built fabric that might strike the visitor, the poet, the citizen, as being quintessentially of this place and no other? Having considered this question for some time now it strikes me that there are three key elements to understanding the city’s complex built fabric, all usefully amenable to classification under the letter ‘R’ – river, rivalry and revolt. The first and the last of these are self evident, directly linked to the city’s topography and to its modern political history. The middle and perhaps dominant characteristic, rivalry, is not so immediately apparent and requires explanation. It refers firstly to Dublin’s acute sense of itself as a metropolitan capital and its conscious efforts to rival London in the splendour of its public and domestic architecture. Among the many visitors to Dublin struck by the grandeur of its classical buildings was King George IV who you see arriving here at Rutland Square in 1821, though you may gather from the King’s mannequin-like bearing in this painting by Turner de Londres that he was perhaps not the most reliable of witnesses, being drunk for the entire Irish visit. (laughter) On quite another level rivalry is much in evidence in the churches of the city. The Italian term for parochial one-upmanship, Campanilisimi, might well be applied to the triumphalism that characterises the churches of Victorian Dublin. For instance, here at St. Francis Xavier on Gardiner Street one priestly client with a theatrical bent pledged himself to cause ‘a revolution among the Dublin candlesticks’, and you can just these wonderful tall candlesticks here. While John Henry Newman, England’s foremost convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism on arriving in Dublin in 1854 as Rector of the sparsely funded Catholic University of Ireland consciously set himself to produce a unique Roman Catholic church that would upstage the city’s richly endowed classical parish churches.

Rivalry or one-upmanship clearly did not require doctrinal division and long before Newman, Dublin boasted the peculiar distinction, to Dubliners merely a fact of life, of having not one but two cathedrals both long established before the Reformation. The original and rather dinky cathedral of Christ Church which is hemmed in at the heart of the ancient settlement and the grandly scaled cathedral of St. Patrick’s, built by the Anglo Normans who within decades of conquering Dublin realised that they could not easily control the Augustinians who administered Christ Church and therefore took the pragmatic step of converting St. Patrick’s to a cathedral. I’ve just had a long and interesting conversation with Howard Clarke on this matter. The rivalry between the two cathedrals endured for centuries and picked up momentum in the second half of the 19th century when each was extensively restored with the process of the city’s two largest if not rival industries porter and whiskey. St. Patrick’s restored by Benjamin Lee Guinness and Christ Church by his neighbour Henry Row, a whiskey distiller, who almost bankrupted himself in the process.
However of the three central characteristics which I have identified – river, rivalry and revolt – the one that strikes the visitor most forcibly is the River Liffey which bisects the oval form of the city’s plan and runs 16 kilometres downstream to enter Dublin Bay. Its form is nowhere better described than in the opening lines of Finnegan’s Wake ‘Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from bend of shore to swerve of bay’. In this single sentence Joyce deftly describes the progress of the Liffey to the sea from the ancient settlement of Áth Cliath or the ford of the hurdlework, the river crossing of wicker work, that led from the new city northward towards Tara. As is often the case this settlement was built as a bend in the river which is clearly visible in aerial views but what of Eve and Adam? Surely not a church dedicated to the antiheroes of Genesis? This too is an accepted oddity of Dublin life as Joyce is of course referring to the domed Franciscan church known as Adam and Eve’s derived from the name of a tavern or public house Adam and Eve whose name board during penal times became a signpost of sorts for the Catholic church hidden in a laneway behind the quayside. The final part of Joyce’s line “from bend of shore to swerve of bay” covers a multitude. In it the entire development of Dublin City is encapsulated from the original settlement at the prominent bends in the river to the gradual development of the river’s food plain as a Georgian residential quarters for which Dublin is so well known. Such was the level of inundation in the 18th century that in 1782 the Duke of Leinster returning home from a visit to London could simply sail across the mudflats to Leinster House.

The river forms an unparalleled setting for Dublin’s finest public buildings of the late 18th century. The Four Courts on the north bank lies just upstream from Adam and Eve’s near the point where the original wicker works ford was located and you can see very clearly here the way the river bends eastward away from the site of the Four Courts. By the time it was built in the 1780s this part of the city had seen better days and the fashionable quarters now lay to the east. In fact the location of the Four Courts then far upstream was to some extent a concession to the vested interest in the medieval city. Its architect, James Gandon, was fully conscious of the site’s shortcomings, largely hidden from fashionable society by the bend in the River Liffey. In response he chose to make as the focus of the building a splendidly tall drum and dome containing nothing but empty space but brilliantly signalling the presence of the law courts on the city skyline. Further downstream Gandon had an easier task in designing the long river frontage of the Custom House begun in 1781, the most extravagant public building in Dublin of the era, its river front is entirely faced in white Portland stone imported from the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Its conspicuous waste of space was in evidence at the Four Courts, here the vast building costs caused uproar in the Irish Parliament, after all what was this structure if not an office for the collection of duties on imports. Where in the world would one see a Custom House of such scale and magnificence? Not even in the Venetian Republic, a city wedded to the sea, and here you see in the foreground the Dogana or Custom House of Venice, not even in Venice does the Custom House exceed in splendour, the grandiose import tax office of Georgian Dublin. In fact the Custom House was the largest single collection point within the Irish revenue system and was supported by an elaborate series of docks and attendant warehouses in which were stored the vast quantities of goods which sustained the second city of the British Empire. Of these sadly few survive, although the enormous tobacco warehouse of 1820 remains and speaks eloquently of the city’s prosperity during the Regency period. It was entirely constructed of brick and iron. All these columns are of cast iron. The roof members are of wrought iron and cast iron. The columns are hollow for drainage. The exterior walls were brick. It sits on a basement of stone. The basement was lit from glass apertures let into the floor to allow the daylight penetrate into the basement. Curiously its precious cargo of tobacco sat above a vaulted basement filled to the brim with Irish whiskey. The combustion possibilities of which seem not to have worried its builders. (laughter) Indeed such was the level – and here you can see those vaults, that black roundel marks the point, unfortunately they didn’t find any of the original glass lenses in the reconstruction – but such was the level of whiskey production in Ireland during the Napoleonic period that every suitable space in the city was appropriated for storage including the vaults of the Church of Ireland parish church of St. George and of the new Roman Catholic Pro Cathedral. Indeed following the death of Archbishop Troy who spent his life raising funds for the building of the Pro Cathedral his remains were temporarily interred unceremoniously in the crypt of a local convent until such time as the whiskey stockpile were removed. (laughter)

The tobacco warehouse and its attendant docks and customs buildings now form an historic core to the financial services centre and the threshold to the northern docklands currently undergoing radical transformation. Ironically a desire not to disrupt the skyline of Custom House Quay has resulted in a homogenous – and unfortunately I don’t have a picture of this, it was raining when I went out to take it – and rather monotonous skyline to the quaysides immediately east of the tobacco warehouse. I say ironically because the Custom House is of course flanked on its west side by the tallest building in the city centre, Liberty Hall, whose projected demise will hopefully bring forth a successor worthy of James Gandon’s masterwork.
Liberty Hall was not the only essay in international modernism to confront the River Liffey and perhaps the most dramatic riverside proposal of the 20th century was Desmond Fitzgerald’s twin towers tribute, I think to the twin churches of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, and of course to the restrained but dramatic streetscape created for the Wide Streets Commissioners from 1799 by Henry Aaron Baker and of course only one part of Desmond Fitzgerald’s proposal was executed, O’Connell Bridge House. A more sensitive if equally radical proposal was Sir Edwin Lutyens’ design of 1913 for Hugh Lane’s picture gallery which was to be built on the site of the Ha’penny Bridge. Now I apologise for this poor image but you can just about make out the design. Based on Andrea Palladio’s design for the Rialto Bridge in Venice the gallery would be housed in four pavilions. So you are seeing a pavilion here either side and then another one on the upstream side. So two at each end of the bridge with a covered colonnaded walkway between preserving views up and downstream. Palladio’s Bridge, which is ultimately the inspiration for Lutyens and this is an 18th century design after Palladio. Palladio’s Bridge, though not executed was hugely influential and spawned a series of miniature bridges in 18th century European country estates one of which was in Prior Park in Bath, this would have been well known to the young John Gilbert who was at boarding school here at Prior Park.

But enough of the Liffey and on to our second quintessential feature of Dublin’s architecture its conscious rivalry of London - the desire of a small colonial capital to cut a grand figure on the international stage. This architectural bravado is nowhere better seen than in the Irish Parliament House begun in 1728 to designs of Edward Lovett Pearce, a brilliant young architect who died within 5 years of its commencement. It’s important to remember that at this stage the London Parliament was housed in a motley collection of buildings in the partly ruinous palace of Whitehall and that’s despite successive efforts, The British Houses of Parliament were not constructed until the early Victorian period, a century after the Anglo Irish Parliament Building. The Dublin Parliament is in fact the first purpose-built bicameral Parliament House in Europe and as such is a remarkable testament to the desire of the Anglo Irish ascendancy to assert its political authority in the wake of the Williamite wars. It set a precedent for public building in Dublin that was fuelled by the Irish Parliament’s increasing awareness of its own economic interests and a determination to prevent unspent taxation reverting to London. As a result Dublin perhaps more than any British city of the period was distinguished by high expenditure on magnificent public buildings and urban initiatives such as the widening of the existing medieval streets. In writing about the architecture of Dublin Sir John Gilbert tended to rely for description on other sources. He tended to use sources such as James Malton. However, his evocation of the pomp, the ceremony, associated with specific sites reflect his vast archival knowledge and provides us with a vivid glimpse of the rich if ephemeral material culture that attended these remarkable buildings. His account of the Duke of Rutland’s lying in state at the Parliament House brilliantly evokes the grandeur, the wealth and the glamour, most of all the glamour, that underlies the architectural embellishment of Dublin in the late 18th century. And I think it’s worth quoting what Sir John Gilbert has to say:
‘In the parliament house was performed the ceremony of waking the Duke of Rutland, who died in November, 1787, during his viceroyalty. At 3am the coffin containing the Duke’s corpse was conveyed from the Lodge in the Park, attended by his domestics, and escorted by a squadron of horse to the House of Lords. The entrance to the chamber was through a suite of rooms, lighted with wax, and hung with a superfine black cloth, decorated with escutcheons and banners of his Graces’s armorial achievements, and the insignia of the Order of Saint Patrick and the Order of the Garter. The floors were covered with black cloth; the state room was similarly decorated , the coffin being laid under a grand canopy, ornamented with large plumes of black feathers, and hung with escutcheons. …At the head of the coffin was a ducal coronet, supported by two of his grace’s aides-de-camp, and on each side stood six mutes, dressed in long black gowns and caps, supporting branches of wax tapers. The passage through the room was enclosed by railing:every decent person was admitted..On the 17th November, at 11 am, the coffin, preceded by the choirs of the two Cathedrals chanting a dirge, was conveyed to the funeral chariot, at the great portico, and thence brought in grand procession to the waterside’.

Marvellous. A contemporary reviewer of Gilbert said that you felt the buildings throb with the life that had passed through them. The city residences of those decent persons who paid their respects to the viceroy were arranged in grandly scaled streets and squares that rival those of London in terms of scale and interior decoration. A taste for grand plus sizes was established in Dublin in the Restoration period by the corporation when it laid out St. Stephen’s Green, the city’s first residential square. Here the plus sizes were in general 60 feet wide and about 200 feet deep. This considerable scale was also adopted by Luke Gardiner in the development of Henrietta Street where the plus sizes range between 40 and 60 feet by comparison to the average 20 to 30 feet of the standard three bay London house in this period. These exceptionally broad sites permitted a plan type in which almost one quarter of the ... and likewise the great Sackville Street and Gardiner’s Mall but these very large sites permitted a plan in which almost one quarter of the floor space was devoted to a grandiose two-storey stair hall, so a great big chunk of the house, and you’d find houses like this on Henrietta Street in the 1730s, lesser houses on St. Stephen’s Green and Kildare Street in the 1740s and in the houses of Rutland Square in the 1750s and 60s. Now whereas the stair hall of the Baroque country house which is really the model for this type of stair was conceived of in conjunction with this scheme of painting, mural painting. In Dublin decorative mural painting is an extremely rare commodity and instead these great interior volumes were decorated with sumptuous plasterwork. Since the 18th century visitors to Dublin have commented on the scale and opulence of Stucco decoration in the houses of the city and historians of the decorative arts acknowledge a distinctive and virtuoso 18th century school of Dublin plasterwork. So broadly eclectic at times even gauche, you can note the composition here is rather odd, it looks as if the craftsman is wonderful but he didn’t know quite what to do with the centre of the ceiling, nevertheless the scale, the richness, the virtuosity of this decorative phenomenon distinguishes Dublin from other British and European cities if less visibly so than its grand tradition of public architecture. But if we can find sound economic and political reasons for investment in public buildings the reasons for this precocious flowering of the stuccodor’s art in 18th century Dublin remained to be elucidated. Con Curran considered the presence of highly skilled continental craftsmen as an important factor in the spread of decorative plasterwork and there can be no doubt that the training of local men by stuccodors such as the Lafranchini would have contributed to this phenomena. However, my sense is that economic factors must have played an important role. Stucco was certainly cheaper and a more accessible method of decoration than mural painting and also than decking your walls out with oil paintings. Also the families of builders who dominated the building industry, the Dublin building industry, usually encompassed all the trades, all of the principle trades, so it was possible for one family firm to erect a house from foundation to finish by employing all their own family members. Equally knots or groupings of craftsmen emerged in response to the building boom and they too were capable of constructing a city dwelling from start to finish. Could it be that these large houses with their relatively plain brick exteriors, showy stair halls and richly decorated reception rooms provided at the right price exactly the formula required by Irish landowners, parliamentarians and professional men for cutting a grand figure during the Dublin season? This is something that I’m still working on, trying to figure out why we have this really quite ... the richness and the scale of it. You will find Stucco in churches, palaces in European cities but it’s the scale of it, house after house that one finds in Dublin that is really quite remarkable.

In the Victorian period Dublin did not develop as an industrial city or as an important international port and was thus overtaken in wealth and status by cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. Remarkably its architecture continued to flourish but now focused on church building and a new rivalry between the burgeoning Catholic middle class and the Protestant merchant and professional classes. The many city churches that were raised with the farthings of paupers, the shillings of lawyers and medics and the munificence of industrialists are testament to a much altered society. I would dearly love to know what the parishioners of St. Audoen’s Church of Ireland, the parish church here in the foreground, thought about the vast structure that was raised by their Catholic neighbours virtually on top of the ruined chancel of the medieval church. We are in no doubt as to the sentiments of the Catholic clergy. (laughter)

‘Is it not glorious to think’ asked the parish priest, the Reverent Monks, ‘that the citizens of Dublin are daily kneeling not only near the alters but on the same spot where seven centuries ago their venerated predecessors knelt and prayed?’.
And indeed such was the ambition of the Roman Catholic clergy that churches often took many decades to complete. For example, the marvellous cathedral-like church of St. Augustine and John by Pugin and Ashlin was begun in 1862, stopped building in 1863 for want of funds and was not completed until 1899. ‘The city of steeples and polished public house counters’ so vividly described by Joyce was soon to change irrevocably. The Rising of 1916 and the subsequent War of Independence and Civil War took their toll on the buildings of central Dublin. The worst hit areas were the inner north side of the city and major public buildings of course including the GPO, the Four Courts and the Custom House. This is a wonderful image from the period, from number 13 Henrietta Street where you saw the stair hall, and it is incised into the transom of a first floor shutter ‘Revolt 24th of April 1916’. So the damage was focused, largely concentrated in the O’Connell Street area. Things might have been worse had events at St. Stephen’s Green gone as planned. The Green was spared the fate of O’Connell Street because of the very curious decision of the Irish Citizen Army to emulate tactics then current in the Great War i.e., trench warfare feasible in the open fields of Flanders and northern France but not so in a Georgian square surrounded by three and four-storey houses without first taking any of these buildings. The British Army quickly established itself in the Shelbourne Hotel and the ICA together with Constance Markievicz hightailed it to the College of Surgeons and the rest of course is history. The choice of the GPO as headquarters of the Rising has been questioned on strategic grounds, though all acknowledge the symbolism and theatricality of the chosen site, a vast portico dominating the city’s grandest Georgian street, next to the soaring columnar monument to Admiral Nelson. The Republican tricolour, the starry plough of the Irish Citizen Army and a made up banner with a gold harp on a green ground were hoisted alongside Edward Smyth’s pediment statues of Hibernia, Mercury and Fidelity.

During the week that followed Lower O’Connell Street south of Nelson’s Pillar was virtually obliterated. In his account of the Rising James Stephens describes the bombardment of the street from the River Liffey and records “the engulfing of its Georgian brick terraces in a haze of smoke and red dust”. The novelist Kate O’Brien described the street in 1916 as ‘a huge swept away-arena of tragedy’. She later dismissed the reconstruction between Henry Street and the Liffey as ‘a stretch of absolutely comical commercial vulgarity’ evidently objecting to the richly eclectic rebuilding of 1916 to 1922 which includes Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Georgian elements – all very, very busy, knit together by a continuous parapet and cornice line. Upper O’Connell Street survived the hostilities of 1916 but was largely destroyed in July 1922 during the denouement of the Civil War. The New York Times of July 7th 1922 described the events:
‘One evening in the last days of April 1916…O’Connell Street’s splendid buildings were burnt away … And history has repeated itself in seven years. Last evening…for the second time in that short period Dublin’s finest thoroughfare was burning… The two great blocks on the north side of Nelson’s pillar which escaped the conflagration in 1916 are today a shattered mass of debris. The walls are standing up gaunt and spectrelike,,,Between them nothing is left of property worth millions of dollars. The sight of the lurid glare of the flames was plainly perceptible over a wide expanse of country and far out into the Irish Sea.’

Upper O’Connell Street was rebuilt in the mid 1920s more straightened times and under the watchful of city architect Horace O’Rourke who is a marvellous character who merits a study in his own right who insisted on greater regularity in the elevations. But the built fabric of O’Connell Street positively jaunty and late Imperial at its lower end, tight-lipped and homogenous in its upper stretches, clearly mirrors the successive upheavals of this troubled period in Dublin’s history. But the clearest built reflection of the changed political climate of the 1920s is undoubtedly James Gandon’s Custom House. In May 1921 six weeks before the truce that ended the War of Independence the Dublin Brigade of the IRA captured and set fire to the Custom House. The fire burned for several days during which south easterly winds happily blew the fire away from the river front, however the central range and the dome were destroyed. Remarkably, heroically I think, the new Free State Government managed to reconstruct the building together with the Four Courts and the GPO. However, it was 1926 before exterior works on the dome were commenced and by then economic depression together with animosity towards Britain had a direct impact on the building’s programme. In papers of the Office of Public Works or Dáil or Parliament questions being repeatedly asked regarding materials ‘How many cubic feet of non-Irish stone was being used in the rebuilding?’ ‘How much native stone was being employed?’ And though the OPW did its level best to reinstate the dome in Portland Stone the political tide was against them and instead it was refaced in grey Irish limestone from Ardbraccan in County Meath. Revolt therefore refers not simply to the destruction of Dublin buildings in the revolutionary period but also to a rejection of the colonial past which persisted for many decades following independence and which is of course a subtext to the wholesale demolition of Georgian housing in the 50s and 60s but I think best to end these musings with the Custom House which embodies in its complex fabric the three themes considered this evening – the importance of the River Liffey to the topography, economy and self-image of the city, Dublin’s precocious sense of itself as a capital city and the impact of revolution in the 20th century in terms of both destruction and reconstruction. The grey Ardbraccan stone of the Custom House sitting above the scintillating river front of Portland stone may not be beautiful but in terms of architecture there is no clearer expression of the political, ideological and economic reality of Dublin in the wake of Independence. Thank you.


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