Vintage View: William Derham’s new book, ‘Lost Ireland 1860-1960’

Kya deLongchamps is hugely stimulated by a new book by William Derham on the lost architectural heritage of Ireland, and the indifference, and in come cases, downright malice, that caused wanton destruction. 

Here’s a quote to ponder: “A group of pampered students supported by a consortium of belted earls and their ladies — and left-wing intellectuals who can afford the time to stand and contemplate in ecstasy the unparalleled beauty of the corners of Hume St and St Stephen’s Green,” that was Kevin Boland, Minister for Local Government, 1970, on the protest and occupation of two condemned period houses, by students in Dublin.

There are few quotes from recent Irish history (outside the seriousness of political violence), so muddle-headed.

If you cared for an old building and stood in the way of “progress” in mid-century Ireland, then this spit of venom crystallises the malicious disdain you could expect from government quarters. 

When an address was perceived as a vulnerable totem of British rule, or a faltering playhouse of the upper classes — regardless of historical or architectural merit, without private intervention, its fate was largely sealed. Boland’s description of the supporters of Hume St as the ‘Guinness aristocracy’ said it all. 

Deliberate dereliction of duty was enough to let something fall down or be passed onto the developer or speculator. Stranger still, a building did not have to be actually demolished to lose its soul — take a look at any mid-Victorian townhouse blinded by the flat planes of 1980s PVC windows. 

Ireland’s build heritage whether told by standing stones or a floating pediment of a Regency townhouse, is complex and it’s a story that belongs to all of us — because it is us.

Author William Derham studied architecture at DIT, and building repair and conservation at TCD. For the last eight years he has worked as a curator and guide at Dublin Castle. 

His new book Lost Ireland 1860-1960 offers a fascinating, if deeply poignant, edit of photographs taken of a vast range of building types, from primitive rammed-clay huts capped in mouldering vegetation in the West of Ireland, to the little known ‘thatched mansions’ of the well-to-do farmer, and many mortally-diseased ascendancy palaces.

Photographs might be tightly focused, but Derham argues they do not interpret what’s before the lens as the brush or pencil might do. 

For that reason, he determined on a range of photographic sources — many pictures are from the highly valuable Irish Architectural Archive — assembling a unique look through the curtain of time to our built heritage county by county.

Many of these buildings fell to the slings and arrows of a particularly Irish and outrageous fortune. 

While some of the ruinous happenings were certainly personal or commercial, many were torn to pieces by deliberate socio-political forces working in Ireland following the Second World War. 

Ireland’s culture after Independence was accepted as the Celtic, the ancient, and included only a few colonial temples drenched in Republican blood like the Four Courts and the GPO, in this opus. In mitigation, however, Derham explains in an introduction that should be obligatory reading for second-level students, that Ireland, rightly or wrongly, fostered positive attitudes towards internationalism, to modernism, shaping the future and very look of the country.

Many of the buildings that had plotted our past for the previous 400 years from cabins to castles and classical manors, were regarded as redundant, worthless, and anachronistic to a new dignity — and were swept off the face of the country without a backward glance. Derham adds that O’Connell St (Sackville St, as was), never recovered from the physical assaults of 1916. 

Take a look at how it looked before the Rising, lined in modestly beautiful red brick Georgian townhouses (page 51).

From the 1950s, roads were widened to accommodate cars, progressive design manners were laid down on medieval towns and cities, and suburbs stopped the heart of many former market capitals. 

All over the 26 counties, the officious indifference of the Land Commission to a measured case-by-case survey, sliced landed estates with moral smugness to an untenable demesne — a mean boundary of land caught behind barbed wire and concrete posts. 

Although there was a strong moral argument for this redistribution of planted land, the results were the decimation of middle and upper class families living in the house, the obliteration of precious local employment, and the silencing of the agricultural engine vital to the survival of the big house.

The tender aesthetics of symmetrical Palladian facades, the ancient intricacies of cage-wall construction, or the accrued story of a fortified house that established an vital continuity of settlement in one place — these fey considerations were not priorities for our infant State, and the work of the Commission continued, largely unchallenged by anyone, but the determined warriors of the Irish Georgian Society until as late as 1983. 

The fate of some of our national gems is well illustrated by Derham in the scandalous treatment of Shanbally Castle in Co Limerick, razed by dynamite though in habitable condition by ‘malice and indifference’ in 1957.

Industrial sites, bridges, town terraces, churches and all sorts of amateur-designed vernacular oddities are all carefully included in Derham’s selection, taken from early collodian prints and glass-plate negatives of the period. The evolution of the shop-front through a range of images with smoky Victorian figures going around their business is alone worth the price of the book.

I found the many examples of Dutch styles which strained through from abroad in the 17th and 18th centuries particularly interesting. 

I can now recognise the line of a ‘Dutch Billy’ gable, still pertly drawn against the Cork City sky, and the occasional busty determination of an 18th century bowed projection squeaked in between glaring plastic shop fronts.

This work is a valiant effort to not only illustrate what we have already lost, but to bring the plight of a few ruinous veterans to public notice before they too, melt into memory.

* Lost Ireland 1860-1960 by William Derham. Hyde Park Editions


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