Georgian treasures still line these streets

Dublin's architecture tells the story of a medieval town that transformed itself into one of Europe's finest cities.

Motoring down Dublin's wide thoroughfares, my cabby chattered about his hometown, proudly pointing out places of interest.

Thanks to him, I could easily imagine this bustling city as it must have been centuries ago when elegant horse-drawn carriages were the transport of choice. As his words narrated my daydream, it was easy to see myself in such a carriage gliding down these very streets.

Soon I would have a tour of the city's architecture, led by an expert, but it was fun to hear an ordinary citizen's view.

My Blarney-blessed cabby continued his spiel as we drove by lush Phoenix Park, Europe's largest public park, extending three miles along the Liffey River's north bank. The amazing amount of wide-open spaces contribute so much to Dublin's splendor.

The cabby mentioned several not-to-be-missed sites that my visit should include, singling out the Writers Museum. Then he rattled off some of the names of those luminaries whose accomplishments are celebrated at the museum. The list was impressive - James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and George Bernard Shaw.

In the midst of the city, St. Stephen's Green offers a tranquil oasis with its shady trees, colorful flower gardens, spectacular fountains, winding walkways, and an ornamental lake. But as we passed the 27-acre city park, the driver chuckled about some of the irreverent names the Irish have for the statues of some of the same literary giants enshrined in the park.

Then he directed my attention to the beautifully kept red-brick Georgian townhouses lining the street we had just turned onto. Proudly he announced that he had worked under the direction of a master specialist in restoring the elaborate ceiling in what was once the home of the Duke of Wellington. Today it is part of the Merrion Hotel, my residence for the duration of my stay in Dublin and the end of our informative journey together.

My eyes swept over the handsome brick building that faces the Dublin government buildings, the home of the Irish Parliament. I was impressed and eager to know more about the architecture that adds such an air of elegance to this city.

Fortunately, I had been able to arrange for a guide through the Irish Georgian Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of 18th-century Georgian architecture, which dominated the city not so long ago.

A regal heritage

In 1958, Desmond Guinness and his wife, Mariga, founded the Irish Georgian Society for the preservation of buildings of architectural merit in Ireland.

They were particularly interested in protecting 18th-century Georgian landmarks. In spite of their efforts, many fine Georgian structures were demolished in the 1960s and replaced by new, modern, but sadly characterless buildings that Dubliners hoped would give them a more up-to-date image.

My guide, Simon, explained that during the course of the 18th century, Dublin was transformed from a medieval town into one of the finest cities in Europe.

Georgian architecture -known for its understated elegance - began to become popular during the reign of King George I, who ascended the throne of England in 1711. It continued through the reigns of King George III (of American Revolution fame) and King George IV (who died in 1830). But generally, Georgian architecture is considered the style of the 18th century.

It was popular in the United States as well as Britain. Boston's Old North Church, where Paul Revere hung the lanterns to warn that the British were coming, is Georgian architecture.

It's a style that was heavily influenced by classical architecture, especially that of Greece and Rome. In Ireland it was seen in elegant country houses and in terraces of town houses.

Beauty and humble beginnings

Setting the stage for the building boom that gave Dublin so much of its now-treasured Georgian architecture was an influx of Huguenot weavers who fled anti-Protestant legislation in France in the late 1600s.

The weavers established a successful cloth industry that helped fuel the city's growth. As Dublin grew and expanded, the newly wealthy abandoned the confines of medieval Dublin, south of the River Liffey around Dublin Castle, and moved north across the river to a new Dublin of stately squares surrounded by elegant Georgian mansions.

In the mid-1700s Dublin's Commission for Making Wide & Convenient Streets assisted in the planning of Georgian Dublin, laying down strict guidelines regarding facade treatment and architectural elements, and designating space for an impressive number of gardens and public squares.

As the city's slums began to encroach on the gentry, they headed back across the river to new homes being built in Merrion Square, Fitzwilliam Square, and St. Stephen's Green.

Merrion Square, just to the east of St. Stephen's Green, is lined on three sides by some of Dublin's best-preserved Georgian townhouses. It was here that Dublin society flourished, enhanced by the presence of such cultural and literary icons as author Jonathan Swift, composer George Frederic Handel, playwright Oliver Goldsmith, and dramatist Richard Sheridan.

In 1745, James Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, began construction of Leinster House, a splendid Palladian palace, south of the River Liffey. (Palladianism, which played a prominent role in Georgian architecture, is a design philosophy based on the views of Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect who favored the building style of ancient Rome.)

In 1814, Leinster House was acquired by the Royal Dublin Society, from which the Irish government purchased it in 1925 as the seat of the Irish Parliament, which it remains today.

Adjoining townhouses form terraces that line Dublin's streets. At first glance they appear to be blocks of identical apartments. But upon closer inspection, one notes many signs of Irish individuality.

Time and again, Simon pointed out an interesting detail in seeming contrast with the overall uniformity, giving an individual touch to each exterior. The front doors display the most striking elements of individualism, often lacquered with vibrant blues, reds, yellows, and greens. This is enhanced by individual polished fittings over which intricately designed Dublinesque fanlights (open fan-shaped windows) illuminate the entry.

Ornamental iron balconies, another distinctive component of this architectural style, add artistic flair. Once the eye is even superficially trained, the trademark elements of the style are easy to spot. The four-story brick homes display windows graduating from the largest at street level to smallest at the top, with those windows on what Europeans call the first floor (second floor to Americans) being stately and elegant.

Some houses still retain ornamental shoe-scrapers, and when I asked Simon about curious arrangements of spikes, I was told they appear to be early burglary deterrents.

Built to last, the thick walls between houses prevented the spread of fire and also must have ensured privacy.

The understated exteriors do not prepare visitors for the lavish interiors of the grand apartments, most of which are not accessible to the public.

Thanks to Simon's guidance, I now had a smattering of Dublin's architectural history under my belt, and with that I began my personal walking tour.

I started at the Merrion, 21-24 Upper Merrion Street. The adjoining buildings were originally sold as leaseholds to Lord Monck, who developed and built all four properties. The leases strictly specified that the buildings had to be made of brick and have four stories over a basement. Even the pavement was to be a certain width, but individuality of expression was permitted with the entryways.

No. 24 was built for Lord Antrim around 1763, but when he moved to Antrim House, now the site of the National Maternity Hospital, it was leased to Garrett Wellesley, Earl of Mornington. This was around the time that the earl's son, Arthur, the first Duke of Wellington, was born.

Mornington House, now used by the Merrion, features six beautifully restored salons, their vaulted ceilings trimmed with intricate rococo plasterwork restored by Seamus OhEocha, a plaster restoration specialist who used skills identical to those practiced 200 years ago.

The stuccadores worked freehand in the rococo style with plaster made from lime and crushed marble, forming images of flowers, blackthorn twigs, birds in flight, and intricate baskets overflowing with fruit. (My mind drifted back to the cabby who said he had been a part of the crew.)

Oscar Wilde's house at 1 Merrion Square was the first house to be built on the square, in 1762. It featured many cornices, architraves, and decorative centerpieces. The Wilde family took up residence in 1855, and Oscar lived there for 23 years. American College Dublin took over the house in 1994. As a result of a major restoration project, the ground and first floors of the house are now available for public tours.

No. 58, formerly 30 Merrion Square South, was once the home of barrister Daniel O'Connell, the "Abraham Lincoln" of Ireland.

Known as the Great Liberator, O'Connell was born in 1775. He formed the Catholic Association, which played a significant role in the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 and was the leader in the struggle to win political rights for Irish Roman Catholics. He also led the opposition to British rule and advocated using the machinery of Parliament to obtain political and religious equality.

In addition, he was active in the causes of prison reform, free trade, abolition of slavery, Jewish emancipation, and universal suffrage. He became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin, and in his time was the most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe.

His home is an important landmark in Irish history as well as a fine example of the city's architectural heritage.

Local literary greats

The beauty of the area drew luminaries from many and varied fields. The discoverer of wave mechanics and Nobel Prizewinner for physics, Erwin Schrödinger, made his home at No. 65 Merrion Square.

Poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, his neighbor at No. 82, also captured a Nobel Prize.

Simon told an amusing story about the two friends. One day they set out to visit each other, but walking in their own worlds along the same sidewalk - Yeats with his head in the clouds and Schrödinger with his eyes cast to the ground - passed without seeing each other, only to be disappointed when they arrived at the other's empty house.

Barely rescued from demolition, the James Joyce Centre, housed in a restored Georgian townhouse at 35 North Great George's Street, just off O'Connell Street, includes family portraits and offers conducted tours, as well as recordings of Joyce reading from the Guinness Reference Library.

Visitors may also view the ornamental 18th-century plasterwork by Michael Stapleton, one of the leading stuccadores of the time. The townhouse was built in 1784 for Valentine Brown, the Earl of Kenmare, but is not one in which Joyce lived. However, its one-time owner, Denis J. Maginni, professor of dancing, is mentioned by Joyce in Chapter 10 of "Ulysses."

Another connection to that literary masterpiece is the display of the original door at No. 7 Eccles Street, the address of Leopold Bloom, Joyce's fictional protagonist.

Much of Dublin still appears as a city that sprang from the 1700s' Age of Enlightenment. With its thoughtfully planned streets, spacious verdant squares, stately buildings, and glorious past, Dublin won a special place in my heart.

Contact the Dublin Tourism Centre by phone (toll-free from the US), 800 223-6470; by e-mail at info@dublintourism.ie; or visit the website www.visitdublin.com.

The Irish Georgian Society is located at 74 Merrion Square, Dublin. Telephone 01-353-1-6767053, or send an e-mail to info@irishgeorgiansoc.org.

A Georgian walking trail of Dublin is outlined on Dublin Tourism's website: www.visitdublin.com/tours/georgian2.asp.

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