Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2022), Platform, Volume 30

By Frank McDonald

It was Trevor White, director of the wonderful Little Museum of Dublin, who suggested a year ago that I might write an ‘essay’ for an exhibition it was planning, with A Little History of the Future of Dublin as its clever title. The idea was to explore how different generations of Dubliners imagined the future of the city and, in many ways, created it in brick, mortar, granite and Portland stone—and later in glass, steel and concrete. That ‘essay’ grew into a book tracing the planning history of Dublin from the 1660s to the present day.

As the book and exhibition show, this city has a glorious planning history, going back to the era of the 1st Duke of Ormonde, who left Dublin such great legacies as the Phoenix Park, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and the Liffey quays. And Ormonde was followed in the eighteenth century by the Wide Streets Commission, which created the Georgian streets and squares in collaboration with the landed gentry, to make Dublin one of the most splendid cities in Europe by 1800. That’s why I’ve dubbed them ‘Dublin’s first futurists’.

After losing the Battle of Rathmines to Cromwell’s Roundheads in 1649, Ormonde had spent ten years in Europe with the exiled court of King Charles II, particularly in Paris, where the quays of the River Seine made a deep impression on him. In July 1662, when he stepped off his boat at Ringsend as the restored king’s viceroy, ‘the Renaissance, in a word, had arrived in Ireland’. And one of his bold initiatives was to decree that, henceforth, buildings along the Liffey should face the river rather than turn their back on it.

The duke’s second great gift to Dublin was the Phoenix Park, for which he purchased the first tract of 400 acres to create a royal deer park. This was augmented by further land acquisition until the park extended to 1,750 acres surrounded by an 11km perimeter wall, with gates permitting public access. As Maurice Craig pointed out, the Phoenix Park was larger than the royal parks of London ‘all put together’, and it remains to this day the largest enclosed public park within the boundaries of any capital city in Europe.

Ormonde’s third legacy is the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, designed by Sir William Robinson, then surveyor general of Ireland, and built between 1679 and 1687 as a retirement home for ‘ancient, maimed and infirm Officers and Soldiers of the [Royal] Army of Ireland’. Laid out around an expansive quadrangular courtyard, it was inspired by Louis XIV’s Hôtel des Invalides in Paris and pre-dates by a few years Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, home to the red-coated ‘Chelsea Pensioners’.

By 1700 Dublin already had a population of more than 60,000, making it the second-largest city in the British Empire—surpassed only by London—and its rapid development during the eighteenth century by a variety of estate landlords built on the foundations laid by Ormonde. Foremost among them was Luke Gardiner, who laid out Henrietta Street in the 1720s and subsequently Sackville (now O’Connell) Street Upper, a boulevard 150ft in breadth, developed in the 1750s—two decades in advance of Portland Place in London.

A hundred years before Georges-Eugène Haussmann embarked on his wholesale ‘renovation’ of Paris, the Irish Parliament passed a law in 1757 to establish the Wide Streets Commission, with a mandate to create ‘wide and convenient ways, streets and passages’ in the city. Its first project was to drive Parliament Street through a warren of medieval alleys, to provide a more direct route between Dublin Castle and the commercial district that had emerged in Capel Street, via the rebuilt Essex (now Grattan) Bridge.

Terminating the vista towards Cork Hill, but not quite on the axis (a typical Dublin trait, not inspired by Paris), is the domed neoclassical City Hall, designed by Thomas Cooley as the Royal Exchange and built in the 1770s. By then the medieval stronghold of Dublin Castle, destroyed by fire in 1684, had been reconstructed on more palatial lines arranged around its upper and lower Castle yards, and a magnificent new parliament building designed by Edward Lovett Pearce was installed on College Green in the 1730s.

The Wide Streets Commission, which had its own team of surveyors and favoured architects, widened Dame Street to create a more fitting approach to College Green from the west, replacing its older Dutch Billies with terraces of taller Georgian houses, but its ‘most spectacular legacy’, as Craig rightly called it, was ‘the grand scheme of Lower Sackville Street, Westmoreland and D’Olier Streets’. This was contingent on the construction in the 1790s of Carlisle Bridge, later widened and renamed for Daniel O’Connell.

The west side of D’Olier Street—named after Jeremiah D’Olier, a Huguenot goldsmith who became sheriff of Dublin City in 1788—is still redolent of the work of the Wide Streets Commission, of which D’Olier was a member. Although botched by the 1980s pastiche that replaced the Regent Hotel, it contains a terrace of five-storey buildings characterised by their uniform stone-arched shopfronts, with office accommodation overhead. Remnants of the commission’s work can also be found on Burgh Quay and Eden Quay.

By far the most powerful of its members was John Caudius Beresford, MP for Waterford and chief commissioner of revenue. It was Beresford who conceived a highly contentious plan to relocate the Custom House from Essex Quay to a swampy site further downriver on the north side of the Liffey, importing James Gandon from England as architect for the project and telling him: ‘This business must be kept a profound secret, for as long as we can, to prevent clamour, until we have everything secured’.

Above: James Malton’s ‘VIEW OF THE LAW-COURTS, LOOKING UP THE LIFFEY, DUBLIN’, c. 1790s, a legacy of the bold initiative taken over a century before by the Duke of Ormonde, who decreed that, henceforth, buildings along the Liffey should face the river rather than turn their back on it. (Malton’s Views of Dublin—the story of a Georgian city (Martello Publishing, 2021))

There was quite a hullabaloo once word got out. Traders in Capel Street and the Liberties feared that their position would be undermined if a new Custom House was built so far downriver. Led by Napper Tandy, a mob armed with saws and shovels broke down the paling around the foundations, striking such fear into Gandon that he had to carry ‘a good cane sword … determined to defend myself to the last’. The protests were all in vain, however, and the majestic Custom House rose up on its quay, finally finished in 1791.

The traders feared that it would pull Dublin’s centre of gravity to the east, which indeed it did, but this was happening anyway owing to developments both north and south of the river. Most fateful of all was the decision by Ireland’s premier peer, James FitzGerald, 20th Earl of Kildare, to build an enormous neoclassical mansion, designed by Richard Cassels, on a relatively isolated site facing Molesworth Street in 1745. After he was made 1st Duke of Leinster in 1766, Kildare House became known as Leinster House.

Such was FitzGerald’s position in society that many others followed his lead, opening up the development of Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square. As Craig wrote, the 6th Viscount FitzWilliam of Merrion ‘began in about 1750 an orderly scheme of development which went on coherently for at least a hundred years, making what is now very much the “best” quarter of Dublin’, working with the Leeson estate on its margins. Merrion Street Upper was the first to emerge, followed by Merrion Square itself.

The most perfectly proportioned of the city’s Georgian squares is Mountjoy Square, on the north side, developed by Luke Gardiner’s grandson, also called Luke, 1st Viscount Mountjoy, who was an MP, member of the Wide Streets Commission and colonel of the Dublin Militia involved in suppressing the rebellion of 1798 in County Wexford; he was killed during the Battle of New Ross. Unlike the others, Mountjoy is an exact square, measuring 600ft by 600ft, fronted by eighteen houses on each of its four sides.

What all of this shows is that we have inherited a great, well-planned city. And although much of it has been treated harshly over the past century, enough of its fabric still survives to make Dublin well worth fighting for.

Frank McDonald is the author of A little history of the future of Dublin (Martello Publishing, 2021). The exhibition of the same name runs in the Little Museum of Dublin, 15 St Stephen’s Green, until 10 February 2022.


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