A Companion Guide to Architecture in Ireland, 1837-1921

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

Jeremy Williams
(Irish Academic Press, £35)

In his foreword to this book Mark Girouard recalls schoolboy holidays in Ireland and a youthful appreciation of Irish nineteenth-century classicism gained through the seat of his trousers on sliding down the staircase balustrade of an aunt’s Greek-revival house. Jeremy Williams A Companion Guide to Architecture in Ireland, 1837-1921 shares something of the spirit of Girouard’s reminiscence, peppered as it is with amusing anecdotes of Anglo-Irish life in the Irish provinces.
There is however a great deal more than anecdote within these covers and Williams’s book justly lays claim to being ‘the first gazetteer covering architecture in Ireland from the start of the Victorian period up to the partitioning of the country in 1921’. The rationale for excluding the first quarter of the nineteenth century and including the first twenty-one years of the twentieth is not explained and one tends mistakenly to think of this volume as a hand-book for Irish nineteenth-century architecture. I have been frustrated in fruitlessly seeking information on distinguished buildings of the early nineteenth century which predate the accession of Victoria by less than a decade. This frustration is perhaps more a measure of the volume’s usefulness for the period which it addresses than of disappointment at the exclusion of late Georgian buildings.
The gazetteer is arranged in alphabetical order, county by county, and within these divisions buildings are listed by town, village and townland. A map of each county is provided indicating the locations of places within it. The glory of this book lies in its illustrations, more particularly in the author’s own sketches which illustrate and enliven the text. Among the most memorable are the Saloon of Lough Rynn at Mohill, the interior of the Anglican church at Timoleague, the entrance hall of the Museum Building at Trinity College and a view from the gods in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. Williams’s nervous elegant sketches are combined with a conglomeration of other drawings from a variety of sources, though largely from contemporary engravings.
Disappointingly there is no list of illustrations, merely a list of credits to architects, illustrators and institutions which have provided drawings. The nineteenth-century illustrations, of which there are many, are described en masse as ‘period illustrations’. On pages where two or three drawings are combined with no intervening text, captions are provided for the illustrations. However there appears to have been a conscious decision to avoid captions to the drawings interspersed throughout the text. Doubtless this makes for elegance of presentation and would not present problems for the use of this book in visiting buildings. However in its use as a work of reference, the absence of illustration captions will certainly be a source of chagrin.
The author writes with enthusiasm and authority on major and minor buildings of the period. The mosaic interior decoration of the church at Timoleague is unearthed as ‘a hidden masterpiece of the arts and crafts movement in Ireland’, the marvellous cast-iron Doric colonnade supporting the railway line at Sheriff Street in Dublin is pronounced as more thoroughly Greek than the Pro-Cathedral and the cathedral of St Finn Barre in Cork is characterised as ‘a lot of Chartres, Noyon and Laon’ combined with the ‘gingerbread hut discovered by Hansel and Gretel’. At Trinity College the Long Room is dramatically evoked as ‘a romanesque cathedral inserted to give structural stability to a great Georgian interior’.
Williams pulls no punches in his denigration of recent alterations to nineteenth-century buildings. The Catholic archbishopric of Armagh receives particular censure for dismantling its Victorian fittings. While many would concur with the criticism, his interpretation of the motivation behind it might raise eyebrows: ‘The ruthless destruction of the high altars, pulpit…and Puginian rood screen is only explicable by the resurgent Irish nationalism due to the Northern troubles’. What then of the many similar acts of destruction in the Irish republic? A Companion Guide to Architecture in Ireland , 1837-1921 is a valuable addition to the architectural history of Ireland. It is readable, entertaining, provocative and enlightening.

Christine Casey

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