An Appreciation of the Irish Georgian Society
by Robert O'Byrne
On July 23rd 1957, The Irish Times published the following concise and courteous letter:
‘Sir, As the Georgian Society seems to have lapsed, has anyone any objection to my restarting it? Our aims are to bring the photographic records up to date, publish further volumes of the Georgian Society’s books, and fight for the preservation of what is left of Georgian architecture in Ireland.
Desmond Guinness, Carton,
Maynooth, Co Kildare.’
Desmond and Mariga Guinness were spurred into action by an incident attesting to the vulnerability of Ireland’s 18th century architectural heritage. The same month Desmond Guinness’s letter appeared in The Irish Times, two superb houses on Kildare Place - only a matter of yards from the Dail - were demolished on the authorisation of the Government which owned both buildings. Both buildings were in excellent condition and there was absolutely no reason for their destruction other than a disinclination on the part of the State to maintain them. As a correspondent wrote in The Irish Architect and Contractor, ‘in the year 1957 when financial stringency decrees that 50,000 of our people must leave in order that our balance of payments be preserved, our Government allows the wilful destruction of forty thousand pounds of Irish public property which from a point of view of history and tradition is priceless.
Desmond Guinness remembers how the first he knew of the intended demolition was when, emerging from the adjacent Shelbourne Hotel, he saw workmen removing the Kildare Place houses’ roof slates. Immediately he wrote another letter to The Irish Times, proposing that rather than being destroyed the houses should be preserved and used to display properly the neighbouring National Museum’s fine collection of 18th century furniture, at the time squeezed into a couple of rooms and ‘stacked as though in a saleroom for lack of space.’ An editorial in the same edition of the newspaper concurred with his suggestion and decried the official ‘barbarous decision to destroy the two handsome houses.’ And in his Cruiskeen Lawn Column, Myles na Gopaleen felt driven to ask whether the clearance of Kildare Place meant ‘that there is no regard by the State to what may be called the nation’s soul?’ It was all to no purpose. In August 1957 the houses were taken down and an ugly brick wall erected in their place; half a century later it is there still.
Six months after this act of wanton destruction, the Irish Georgian Society came into existence, its date of establishment- February 21st 1958. During the early years there was little support and a fair amount of opposition to the Irish Georgian Society’s objectives. In many quarters Georgian architecture had long been perceived as not truly Irish but something alien, tangible evidence of a foreign culture imposed upon this country. Most citizens probably concurred with the Minister of State quoted at the time of the Kildare Place demolitions as saying, ‘I was glad to see them go. They stand for everything I hate.’ So over the past half century one clear function of the Society has been to argue on behalf of this under-appreciated aspect of Ireland’s architectural history, to explain that Georgian buildings belong to everyone and to show how even houses created for a particular caste at one moment in the nation’s history are still showcases of Irish craftsmanship.
Today there is a far greater appreciation of our architectural heritage than was formerly the case, just as the value of this heritage in encouraging tourism is now widely understood. But that was not always the case. Desmond Guinness wrote in the Irish Georgian Society’s Spring 1960 Bulletin, ‘We are the only country in Europe that has not yet developed its architecture as a tourist asset.’ Right from the start, the Society argued that the nation’s Georgian buildings should be cherished not merely for their inherent beauty but as a valuable asset in the business of attracting visitors to Ireland. Nobody, after all, has ever travelled here to admire our dormer bungalows and suburban housing estates. It has always been apparent that the majority of tourists coming to this country appreciate Ireland’s exceptional heritage of 18th century architecture. In fact for a long time the only people who seemed not to appreciate it were the State’s own citizens.
In the fight to save that architecture, the Irish Georgian Society has played a central role. Beginning with the Conolly Folly in 1962 it has sometimes assumed responsibility for the preservation of a building or monument when no other individual or body showed an inclination to do so. Alternatively it has led campaigns to preserve entire areas under threat such as Dublin’s Mountjoy Square or Lower Fitzwilliam Street. As with any battle, there have been successes and disappointments; Fitzwilliam Street, for example, was lost but Mountjoy Square ultimately saved. It is entirely thanks to the Society’s efforts that important buildings still stand today, not least Castletown House, Ireland’s earliest and finest Palladian mansion.
The same is also true of Roundwood, Co Laois; Damer House, Co Tipperary; and Doneraile Court, Co Cork. These are just three of the houses which the Society helped to save, just as it did the Tailors’ Hall and St Catherine’s Church, two 18th century buildings in central Dublin that, but for the organisation’s intervention, would otherwise now be no more than a memory. In more recent years, the Society has demonstrated equal tenacity in monitoring potentially pernicious developments during Ireland’s economic boom and in advising both central and local government on the creation and implementation of legislation to preserve the nation’s architectural heritage. Today’s better laws and attitudes towards this aspect of the national culture are due in no small part to the pioneering work of the Irish Georgian Society. Equally, it can also take some credit for the improved standards of scholarship that now pertain in the fields of Irish art and architecture, and for a much better approach to historic building restoration than was once the case.
The long, hard fight to rescue Ireland’s Georgian architecture from desuetude and destruction has taken a great deal of time, effort and money. All these were, and continue to be, voluntarily provided by private individuals. The Irish Georgian Society is an independent body that has always been reliant on the generosity of its members and supporters, especially those in the United States who have been unstinting in their donations. Without them, the Society would never have been able to realise its ambitions and it is, therefore, indebted to everyone who has provided assistance of any kind over the past fifty years. The present anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on how much has been achieved since 1958 and to congratulate those responsible. But while circumstances in Ireland have improved enormously over the intervening period, it would be a mistake to imagine that the Irish Georgian Society’s work is now done. In the first year of its existence, its Bulletin expressed concern over the fate of Vernon Mount on the outskirts of Cork City. Dating from the 1780s and thanks to its matchless painted interiors deservedly described as a ‘charming cottage- palace’, the house and surrounding wooded park of 30 acres had been put on the market. A note to Desmond Guinness written in November 1958 by the auctioneers handling the sale commented, ‘we believe that those who are interested require it for demolition purposes. This we believe to be a crime.’ In 2013 Vernon Mount remains at risk and, like the Kildare Place houses half a century ago, its loss would still constitute a crime. The Society has been leading a campaign to ensure future generations will have the opportunity to appreciate Vernon Mount’s irreplaceable beauty. While this house, and others like it, remain at risk then the Irish Georgian Society will continue to perform an important role.
First published in 2008.