Dublin City Hall restored

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), News, Volume 8

In 1761 the merchants of Dublin formed themselves into a society for the purpose of ‘the defence of trade against any illegal imposition and the solicitation of such laws as might seem beneficial to it’. Seven years later in 1768, the society advertised an architectural competition for the design of a new exchange building to be erected on a site previously occupied by the church of Sainte Marie del Dame at Cork Hill. The Wide Streets Commission had previously set the site aside for this purpose.
The competition, which attracted sixty-one entries, was won by Thomas Cooley, whose design was controversially preferred to James Gandon’s. Construction commenced in 1769 and was completed ten years later. Cooley’s successful design marked the introduction to Ireland of the neo-classical style. Some of his original drawings still survive in the Irish Architectural Archive and although none correspond exactly with the building as eventually constructed, they demonstrate the process by which the winning entry was modified during the course of building.
Dublin Corporation acquired the Royal Exchange as its new City Hall in 1852. The original ambulatory which surrounded the rotunda was partitioned off to create much needed office space. The present mosaic floor of the rotunda with its impressive City Seal was installed and some modifications to the committee room windows were also carried out. In 1867, The Irish Builder commented that ‘We would be simply doing injustice in the present instance if we are not to accord our praise to the Municipal Council of the Corporation of Dublin for the restoration, or rather modification, of Cooley’s original design for the balustrade which stood until the year 1814 in front of this building…they appear to us to be highly creditable both to the architect and contractor’. (The original balustrade had collapsed disastrously, killing a number of people in a crowd that had gathered to witness the whipping of a criminal.)
Proposals for the redevelopment of City Hall arose in 1998 and work began in November 1999. The restoration and refurbishment were based on three considerations: the enhancement of City Hall as a pre-eminent building of civic, historic and architectural significance; the reflection of its central function as the parliamentary centre of local government in the city of Dublin; and the realisation of its potential as a major cultural and tourist attraction.
The restored basement houses the exhibition City Hall: the story of a capital city. Using a combination of modern display techniques and inter-active multi-media facilities, visitors are introduced to the history of Dublin and its civic administration. On display are unique items: the royal charter of King Henry II of England (1172) which grants the city to the men of Bristol; the thirteenth-century moulds for the city seal housed in their original wooden case or hanaper; and the Great City Sword, a personal gift from King Henry IV of England.
City Hall played a significant part in the development of the national consciousness, particularly during the period 1852-1922. Leading Irish patriots Charles Stewart Parnell and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa lay in state there in 1891 and 1915 respectively. During the 1916 Rising, the building was seized by members of the Irish Citizen Army under the command of Captain Sean Connolly. He was killed almost immediately leaving the insurgents leaderless and the remaining volunteers were forced to surrender some hours later. In 1922, City Hall became the temporary headquarters of the Irish Provisional Government under its chairman, Michael Collins and it was here that he met face-to-face with William Craig, Northern Ireland Prime Minister. After his assassination in the same year, Collins’ body lay in state in the rotunda of City Hall. The exhibition also deals with the business of day-to-day civic administration carried out by Dublin Corporation right up to the present.

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