We’ve ignored Victorian builders’ contribution to Dublin’s beauty

Victorian Dublin Revealed: The Remarkable Legacy of Nineteenth Century Dublin

Michael Barry

Andalus Press; €24.99

Review: Mary Leland

If modern life in Ireland began in the 19th century so did modern architecture. Michael Barry makes this point time and time again in a book of sometimes startling illustrations. Here are pictures to remind us of what we have been ignoring because they seem commonplace or constant.

In his sub-title — The Remarkable Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Dublin — Barry makes another claim: Victorian Dublin is as eye-catching and as important as Georgian Dublin, even if a lot less fuss is made of it.

Where the Georges together covered a long span from the first to the fourth, Victoria managed an entire era all by herself, and Barry is right in allowing a little overlap of styles and dates given, as he says, “trends in history and architecture do not begin or end in such a rigid manner”.

All the same, 19th century Dublin was given a significant historical and architectural introduction in the Act of Union which came into force in 1801.

Whatever else the Union achieved through the abolition of the Irish parliament and the concentration of political power in London, it enhanced state involvement in education, public health, public transport and public works.

As Christine Casey remarks in her introduction to ‘Dublin’ in the Buildings of Ireland series (2005), ‘the new public architecture of the c19 was less conspicuous and often more utilitarian, conceived to support reforms in education, public welfare and the penal code.’

Many of the capital’s finest houses, now often functioning as public buildings, were built for the parliamentarians and landowners who made Dublin their social and bureaucratic centre prior to the Act of Union.

After it, these often palatial mansions were surplus to requirements, for new mansions had to be built or bought in London. And they were not replaced in Dublin. The concentration, instead, was on public works, schools, hospitals, asylums, prisons (Mountjoy and Arbour Hill), museums and churches, or on the new suburban estates surpassing the inner city streets and squares which had once been so popular among the upwardly mobile.

Dublin’s development as a city, its change of status from the second city in the British Empire to a provincial outpost within a hundred years, is tracked by Michael Barry both in his generous captions and his narrative.

He shows how the Victorian city, ensconced in its expanding suburbs, was at the intersection of two worlds: that of its hinterland of colonial Ireland, poor and predominantly Catholic, and that of its commercial and administrative centre, predominantly Protestant.

It was within that centre, expanding more slowly than its industrialised rivals of Belfast and Birmingham and the fulcrum of ‘the peculiar combination of religion, class and nationalism’ which now defined Ireland, that architecture made its most significant contribution.

Barry gives an account of the architects from Pugin to Byrne to Keane, their builders and crafts workers, whose work of human hands and human imagination met the human needs of the new century.

The nearly 200 pages of this book are packed with pictures, and not just of the major or more obvious subjects.

Barry is his own photographer and has a pleasing eye for detail. He also has a nice sense of historic irony: what was once Marlborough Barracks and is now McKee is ‘a delightful late-Victorian confection’ in red brick and with its turrets and cupolas giving echoes of imperial adventure.

As in the Georgian era, red brick was the material of choice in early Victorian Dublin, although its colours faded to buff or brown as the century progressed. Calp limestone remained favourite for the major public buildings and granite, combined with Portland stone, was also a feature of Dublin’s 19th century public buildings. Portland stone was given great prominence in the façade of Deane and Woodward’s triumphant design for the Trinity College Museum of 1853.

According to Christine Casey this building ‘transcends categorisation’, and Barry describes it as bringing, ‘with exuberance, the romance of medieval Venice to central Dublin’.

He also notes the work here of the O’Shea brothers as stone-carvers, a renowned pair of craftsmen who also worked on Deane and Woodward’s acclaimed Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

Another of this partnership’s Dublin successes is the former Kildare Street Club (1859), which Barry shows here with a particular affection for the carvings at the base of its limestone pillars, and while his text carries the progress of Dublin as a city according to its engineers, educators, scientists and medical innovators his images convey the almost tactile imagination and skill with which its architects and masons created their monuments.

Not all have been appreciated by succeeding generations as, again, with the despoliation of the Kildare Street Club where, in what Casey calls ‘the most singular act of architectural vandalism in recent Dublin history’ the stair hall was removed in 1971. This, with its exotic carvings and arcades was ‘the most dynamic Victorian interior in the city’, replaced now by mezzanine office floors.

If John Henry Newman’s time as Rector of Ireland’s first Catholic university on St Stephen’s Green was unhappy and unfulfilled at least he left one marvellous gift to Ireland in his University Church (1856).

This ‘Byzantine jewel in the heart of the city’ was designed by John H Pollen who had been Newman’s choice as the first Professor of Fine Art at the university; he was, like Newman, an Anglican convert to Catholicism, and offered this inspired contrast to the Gothic style then prevalent in church building.

If nothing else Michael Barry’s book alerts the eye and the consciousness to the way in which the values of Dublin’s Victorian inheritance have to be respected, enhanced or protected.

From the tree-lined avenues to the seaside towns and villages, from the cemeteries to the great city streets and their statues and memorials, from the schools, universities, orphanages, hospitals, railways and waterways, banks and bridges and the houses of the ambassadorial belt, he presents an architectural actuality which is hard to miss once it is pointed out, yet is constantly missed.

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