As many readers will be aware, Desmond Guinness, the pioneer of architectural conservation in Ireland. died last Thursday, at the age of 88. Led by Ireland’s President, Michael D Higgins, many tributes have quite correctly been paid to Desmond and his decades-long defence of the country’s architectural heritage. So, it is easy to forget that for much of that time, he and his supporters received not encomiums but abuse, not praise but criticism, not support but hostility. And yet he continued on his crusade, one which has left this country and its citizens considerably richer than would otherwise be the case.
Although a member of the Irish Guinness family, Desmond spent the greater part of his life in England until, following his marriage to Hermione Marie-Gabrielle von Urach – universally known as Mariga – he moved with her to Ireland and they began looking for somewhere to make their home. It was while engaged in this quest and travelling about the country that the couple became aware of how many old buildings of note in Ireland were being either neglected or demolished. The 1950s were an especially lean era here and, understandably, the losses to her architectural heritage provoked little, if any, protest or regret among the greater part of the Ireland’s impoverished population. Most of them had other, more immediate, concerns than what happened to properties with which they felt no great affinity; in the popular mind, historic houses were associated with the old regime. Inspecting many sites over a couple of years had the effect of refining Desmond and Mariga’s already intuitive aesthetic sensibilities, and it made them acutely aware of just how many 18th and 19th century buildings around the country were at risk of being lost forever. However, it was the demolition of Georgian buildings in Dublin rather than the disappearance of another country house that inspired the couple to establish the Irish Georgian Society in 1958. On their visits to the capital from 1956 onwards, the Guinnesses had seen Dublin Corporation workers clear away magnificent mansions on Lower Dominick Street and Hardwicke Place and replacing them with blocks of local authority flats. Most of these old properties had long ago deteriorated into squalid tenements; their loss, though unwelcome, was comprehensible. But in July 1957 the government authorised the demolition of two 18th century houses on Kildare Place, only a matter of yards from the Dail in Leinster House. No. 2 Kildare Place had been designed by Richard Castle and executed after his death in 1751 by John Ensor; its neighbour was of a slightly later date. Both houses were in excellent condition and there was no reason for their destruction other than an unwillingness on the part of the State to maintain the buildings. This barbarous act on the part of government spurred Desmond and Mariga into direct action, and the Irish Georgian Society was born.
Prior to the establishment of the Irish Georgian Society there had been no organization, or individuals, taking up the cudgels on behalf of the country’s historic properties. Building up credibility was a long and arduous process: during the first decades of its existence the Society – and its founders – had to fight many battles. Some of these were won, others lost. But the biggest battle was against ignorance and indifference: these twin demons had to be faced down over and over again. Desmond experienced much personal hostility, often from those in positions of power who did not like their decisions being called into question. However, he remained resolute in his enterprise, and never wavered in his determination to conserve the architectural legacy left by earlier generations and to encourage wider appreciation of this legacy. The most important example of his industry and imagination can be seen at Castletown, County Kildare. This important building, the first great Palladian house in Ireland dating from the early 18th century, was at risk of being lost forever when Desmond stepped in and used his own money to save the property. Today Castletown is owned by the Irish State and is rightly lauded as a splendid example of Irish design and craftsmanship. But if it had not been for Desmond’s brave initiative, and then the restoration work that he and Mariga oversaw on the house – helped by the many volunteers they inspired – Castletown would now be nothing more than a handful of old black and white photographs. There are many, many other instances of bold decisions being taken by Desmond leading to the survival of important properties throughout the country. It is worth noting that from the mid-1960s onwards, he regularly visited the United States where his mission, and that of the Irish Georgian Society, was better received and supported than was the case back home. The IGS, like many of the buildings it championed, would not be here still were it not for American friends.
A brief personal note. I first met Desmond Guinness when an undergraduate, but only in passing. In the early 1980s and by then living in the Damer House in County Tipperary (an early 18th century house which the Irish Georgian Society had saved from demolition), I met him again and over the next 35 years had the opportunity to come to know him well. Desmond was a man blessed with many advantages; he was exceptionally handsome (those famous pale blue eyes) and possessed an abundance of personal charm, well able to captivate whoever was in his company. He had a deliciously mellifluous voice and engaging manner, which he put to excellent effect on his fund-raising visits to the United States; even today there are elderly American women who shyly blush when they recall being in his presence over half a century ago. In his heyday, he was a tireless advocate, running the society from a room in his County Kildare home, Leixlip Castle where – when not working elsewhere for the society – he was an unfailingly generous host with flawless manners. Leixlip Castle was always the most hospitable of houses, where Desmond was at his easiest and most charming, ensuring it was always a delight to be in his company. There are a great many people, myself included, who are grateful to have benefited from his unflagging kindness and support.
Unlike most countries, Ireland has no official honours system. During his lifetime, Desmond never received the acknowledgement that he deserved for his pioneering work in the area of architectural conservation. Now that he is dead, the best way the Irish state could honour his legacy is by giving more attention to our country’s historic buildings. Otherwise, like Desmond, it will be too late to give them the attention they merit.
Written and reproduced with permission from The Irish Aesthete