The vision of the Irish Georgian Society is to conserve, protect and foster a keen interest and a respect for Ireland’s architectural heritage and decorative arts. These aims are achieved through its scholarly and conservation education programmes, through its support of conservation projects and planning issues, and vitally, through its members and their activities.

Remembering Desmond Guinness (1931-2020): 'At Castletown House'


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Jacqueline Kennedy and Desmond Guinness at Castletown House in 1967 (Photo: David Davison)

For those of us too young to remember the Guinnesses in their prime I refer you to a 1970 ITV programme interview by Alan Whicker, it is riveting — sharp, witty, edgy even indiscreet but their charisma, impatience and beauty explain why they achieved so much against the odds. Desmond in particular is revealing and the complexity of his character is laid bare — particularly his shyness combined with that burning desire to secure Irish 18th century buildings. The programme covers the then threat to Doneraile Court — Desmond is interviewed with the St Legers just as they were about to leave: dressed impeccably he picks his way through the overgrown Pleasure Garden, past the decrepitude of the house: — referring to its ‘arrogant disrepair’ — and in his inimitable way he proclaims ‘it can be must be saved’: and so in time it was.

My initial meetings with both Desmond and Mariga were not auspicious as I met them in the midst of their divorce proceedings in the early 1980s. On my first weekend as curator of Castletown in the autumn of 1983, with the house full of visitors — Mariga arrived plus entourage and a pair of secateurs and started to snip at the wires from which the Richard Castle drawings of Leinster House hung. It took all my courage to dissuade her and she was not pleased. Equally my first meeting with Desmond was some weeks later at a board meeting of the Castletown Foundation in the Knight’s Waterloo Road house. Desmond announced to his fellow directors that he would have to sell the original contents of Castletown which he had purchased in 1966 and had been on loan since the house opened in 1967. This decision was greeted with shock and dismay — Castletown barely survived on its monthly overdraft and the acquisition of the contents then seemed an insuperable challenge. Desmond resigned as Chairman and although the contents were ultimately and miraculously secured — not least with a very large donation from his father Lord Moyne — there was great hurt on both sides. In latter years there was rapprochement but it was clearly a matter of great sadness that Desmond had to relinquish the day to day involvement in the house he loved so much.

Desmond and Mariga’s approaches to Castletown were I think different but their zeal, energy and passion were similar and were palpable — as a child I remember the sense of crusade everywhere apparent when taken to see the 1970 and 1971 shell picture and Irish delft exhibitions. As a 22 year old inexperienced curator I vividly recall the atmosphere and smell of Castletown — a melange of smoke, a little damp and old objects which, combined, induced a frisson of excitement — which I firmly associated with the Guinness style.

Although Mariga had not been involved for some years and Desmond had been mainly living in London — there was still evidence of their flair, touches of exoticism and that ubiquitous sense of the 18th century revived that underpinned early Georgian Society activities. More than anything there was a great sense of loyalty particularly to Desmond amongst those who had worked with them in preceding years at Castletown. However fifteen years after it had opened, the house had become somewhat sad and tatty and we cleared and cleaned — earning Mariga’s epithet — ‘Mr Moore has killed the whole house’. In time, she softened, arriving memorably one evening with a basket full of Leixlip peaches, a cooked chicken sitting in their midst — vital provisions with which to feed the volunteers. Desmond equally when he moved back to Leixlip was always loyal to the house and included us in the wonderful lunches held for visiting American groups and more significantly made sure that the IGS continued its financial support for the various ongoing restoration projects. Mariga lies beneath the Conolly Folly; we must now think of a memorial for Desmond to be placed in Castletown; its saving was perhaps his greatest conservation passion and achievement.

Christopher Moore, Former curator, Castletown House and latterly of the Castletown Foundation. This was originally featured in the Irish Georgian Society Review (2020).

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Remembering Desmond Guinness (1931-2020): 'Pioneering Publications — from Essays to Collaborations'


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Irish Houses and Castles (1971)

When the Irish Georgian Society was established in 1958, one of Desmond Guinness’s first initiatives was the production of a regular bulletin. The name is misleading since ‘bulletin’ suggests a newsletter. The publication did provide society members with regular updates on its activities but, from the start, it also offered a great deal of scholarly information on Ireland’s architectural heritage.

It filled a lacuna. At the start of the 20th century, the earlier Irish Georgian Society had produced five volumes on the country’s historic buildings, but since then little of note had appeared: Maurice Craig’s account of Dublin during the long 18th century was published in 1952, Country Life occasionally examined a particular Irish country house, and from the late 1940s the Jesuit priest and photographer Francis Browne had produced articles for the Irish Tatler and Sketch on the same subject.

But much remained to be explored; the very first bulletin carried an essay on the country’s courthouses by Maurice Craig. This set a pattern for what followed thereafter, whereby all aspects of the nation’s architectural heritage, and the context in which buildings had been created, was explored in greater depth than ever before. Desmond Guinness’s own contributions, aside from commissioning and editing work from other authors, was initially limited to editorial clarion calls and reports on the Society's latest forays but, for the July–September 1960 issue of the bulletin, he wrote an essay on Irish rococo plasterwork, a subject on which little if any research had been undertaken.

Similar pieces followed, including a collaboration in 1963 with Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin proposing that the Conolly Folly — a monument which the society was then in the process of restoring — had been designed by Richard Castle. The Knight, a regular contributor to the bulletin since 1959, was soon followed by other scholars such as Anne Crookshank, Michael Wynne and Alistair Rowan. Their texts were mingled with those by enthusiasts or owners of relevant properties, the likes of Molly Keane, Mark Bence-Jones, and Sir Alfred Beit. Desmond Guinness was not an academic, he had no formal training in architectural or art history. However, he possessed a good eye, sound judgement and the ability to learn fast; such qualities served as reliable supports in his work both as a writer and commissioning editor.

His stamina during those early years of the organisation was astounding. From the mid-1960s onwards, in addition to running the organisation in Ireland, he spent increasing amounts of time in the United States, proselytising on behalf of the Irish Georgian Society and raising funds for its activities. He would give public lectures, invariably to enraptured audiences, and was therefore obliged to become fluent on the subject of Ireland’s historic buildings. This required further research and led to additional understanding of the subject. It was only a matter of time before he was invited to write a book, the first, Portrait of Dublin, appearing in 1967. Many others followed, perhaps the most influential being Irish Houses and Castles (1971) co-authored with William Ryan. The work proved wildly popular (the first American edition sold out within a month) and did much to raise the profile of Irish country houses, and lead to greater understanding of their distinctive character. More books followed, including two collaborations in the 1990s with photographer Jacqueline O’Brien. Beyond the shores of Ireland, he also collaborated, with William Ryan and Julius Trousdale Sadler Jr, on a number of books looking at American architecture.

Today, study of Ireland’s architectural heritage is widespread and taught in many universities and colleges. Books and articles on the subject are frequently published in both popular and scholastic outlets, lectures and talks widely given and eagerly received, unlike when Desmond Guinness embarked on his lifelong mission to save Ireland’s historic buildings from destruction. Through his pioneering work, he demonstrated there was a substantial interest in and appetite for deeper investigation of Ireland’s architectural heritage.

His work in this field is remembered by the IGS through the Desmond Guinness Scholarship, awarded annually since 1996; but his influence on scholarship is much wider than that. Looking at acknowledgements and bibliographies in publications over the past half-century, it is astonishing how often his name is cited. Without Desmond Guinness, not only would fewer of Ireland’s historic buildings remain today, but analysis and understanding of them, would be much less developed than is now the case.

Robert O'Byrne is a writer and lecturer specialising in the fine and decorative arts. This was originally featured in the Irish Georgian Society Review (2020).

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Remembering Desmond Guinness (1931-2020): 'Remembering Desmond from America'


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Desmond Guinness, Lord Dunraven and the Knight of Glin at the IGS Ruby Anniversary dinner in New York, 1998

No-one could engage a room full of A-list Americans better than Desmond Guinness. Despite his mythic pedigree and nonchalance of rustic Irish nobility, his genuine aristocratic bearing was tame and user friendly. His soft elegance was immediate and overflowing with a natural charm. Not unlike his dearest aunt, Debo, the late Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest Mitford girl, his mother’s sister.

My affection for Desmond had no end, not unlike some lunches at Leixlip Castle. Often, Americans would appear there, hosted to hilarity in the dining room with organic Irish salad and vegetables from the garden and crowdpleasing cheese soufflé from the cookery of the great Eileen Byrne. Sprinkle in some of the plentiful vintage French wines Rosie O’Neill always carried along with her to such lunches and you have the recipe for smiling contentment in dear Desmond. An Irish winter might be beating against the vintage windows, but roaring fires and warm table talk always chased away any chill. Americans inevitably discovered a hidden, unique slice of Ireland, surprised to discover how very near the 18th century actually was to them. So you never minded reciting a few lines of Irish verse as the custard dishes were cleared. Or conjuring up a yarn to leave the lunch guests in stitches. Around the table Americans always received a healthy dose of Desmond’s sparkling Mitford blue eyes, always the icing on the cake.

In Chicago, Desmond’s arrivals for Irish Georgian events over the decades were treated as state visits; an evening with the princely founder, always magical. At the Casino, the city’s most refined and understated deco style club, few worth their salt passed up the chance to nibble on buttery cheese straws with their cocktails before listening to the sparkle of Desmond’s wit and wander through the hair-raising story of Irish architectural preservation. The “swelligant” Irish were charmed and beguiled as he raised the predicaments of Europe’s most refined designs, threatened by the madness and carelessness of cultural blindness. As the vichyssoise was served, Desmond would say the words that let the scales fall from once blind eyes. And the patrimony of his homeland moved closer, one great house at a time, to safety and conservation. Desmond’s was a charm offensive as bold as the first Normandy landing in Ireland, in 1169 A.D.

Americans were enriched by Desmond because he invited their support in preserving beauty and high Irish art. We were awed by his commitment and intelligence in mapping out a significant plan for saving the grandeur of Ireland’s treasured past. I once rang Desmond from Dublin asking to rent one of the cottages on the Leixlip demesne for a week or ten days. “No,” he said, to my utter surprise. “But you can come and stay at the castle for as long as you like.” I did. And had the time of my life. One evening the castle filled up with friends making their way back to England by ferry. They stopped for the night. Eileen prepared a worthy meal, served in the kitchen by the warmth of the AGA cooker. Roast beef, soufflé and roast potatoes. Bowls of red currants from the garden with cream followed to finish. I needed to summon the best of the Yank in me for the company. A woman whose mother had been a lady-in-waiting at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation sat beside me. She had two titles. A well equipped woman. With lots of questions. She asked me if I had been at school with Desmond. He’s actually many years my senior. He shook with laughter, bobbing his head and said, “Oh no. Tom was a few years behind me.” We all laughed. Pure Desmond. Helping everyone save face.

Early one morning, my phone rang in Dublin. A soft voice said, “Sorry, it’s Desmond.” I said, “No problem, I was going to ring you later about our lunch.” “Lunch?” the voice said. “When?” “Well today,” I said. “Oh no,” he said. “I never penciled it in. But I am free.” “Good,” I said. “L’Ecrivan at noon. With Rose.” “Wonderful,” he said. “See you then.” I went back to sleep. When I arrived at the restaurant I saw the Knight of Glin, patiently waiting. I said, “Desmond, I’m so glad you rang this morning. I would have hated to miss you.” “But,” he said, “I never rang.” Then the door opened and Desmond Guinness came in, all apologies for having called me so early. Too polite to say he never received the invite. We all roared at the Irish Georgian dilemma of knowing too many Desmonds. Rose was most amused.

Desmond Guinness changed the way many generous Americans see Ireland and its historic talent for domestic design. Irish buildings, constructed by the Irish. Shaped from the skills of Irish workers. Plasterers. Glassmakers. Carpenters. Stone masons. Wood carvers. Metal workers. Irish trades fashioned for Irish buildings living still. From Castletown House to Doneraile Court, from Henrietta Street to North Great Georges Street, and the City Assembly House, the fortunes and prognosis for Irish architectural rescue is better than ever. Desmond’s charms and skills opened many doors and minds in America. Generations of Irish American hearts cracked open to discover a fresh pride in being Irish. Refining deeper sensitivities for Europe’s finest historical architectural design.

Tá anam amháin nach bhfuil chomh brionglóideach anseo ar talamh, gan Desmond. (Without him, there is one less dreaming soul here on earth.)

Tom O’Gorman lives in Chicago and is a longtime IGS member. He is also an artist and writer. This was originally featured in the Irish Georgian Society Review (2020).

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Remembering Desmond Guinness (1931-2020): 'Cherish the Heritage'


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Desmond Guinness at the Conolly Folly, Castletown, Co. Kildare

The needless demolition in 1957 of two fine eighteenth-century houses on Dublin’s now bleak Kildare Place by a State agency — the Office of Public Works, shamefully — spurred Desmond Guinness and his first wife Mariga to reestablish the Irish Georgian Society six months later and then lead a campaign to preserve as much as possible of the architecture of that period, even in the teeth of rank ignorance of its value.

A still unidentified Government minister was quoted as saying of the Kildare Place houses: “I was glad to see them go. They stand for everything I hate”. Such visceral antipathy to Georgian Dublin was rooted in a warped view that it was all part of the legacy of the ‘800 years of oppression’, ironically, reinforced by titled and landed gentry on the Society's inaugural committee.

As I wrote in The Destruction of Dublin (1985), it gave the impression that the IGS was dominated by “the remnants of the ascendancy seeking to preserve what was widely seen as the heritage of the ascendancy.” In reality, Desmond and Mariga Guinness were more than willing to work with people from all backgrounds to avert the loss of Georgian-period buildings through neglect or wanton destruction.

They collaborated with Uinseann MacEoin, a Tyrone-born republican, architect and fearless journalist who had been interned in The Curragh for IRA membership, to save the early 18th century Tailors’ Hall, on Back Lane. MacEoin highlighted its associations with the United Irishmen of 1798, including Wolfe Tone and Napper Tandy; Desmond and Mariga saw it as a remarkable building that must be preserved.

The campaign to save Tailors’ Hall was won, and it is now safely in the hands of An Taisce. St Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street was saved by a similar combination of interests; apart from its architectural significance, it bore witness to the execution of Robert Emmet. But after being turned into an arts centre, it reverted to neardereliction and, in the memorable words of Desmond Guinness, “had be saved… again!”. It became a church once again. But several of the battles waged by the IGS were lost — notably the destruction of 16 Georgian houses in Fitzwilliam Street Lower, in the mid-1960s to make way for Stephenson & Gibney’s new headquarters for the ESB, which in turn met the same fate in 2019, to be replaced by a much larger office complex with a “Neo-Georgian” façade treatment on its street frontage.

The struggle to protect 18th century houses at the corners of Hume Street and St Stephen’s Green, valiantly occupied by ‘militant students and conservationists in 1969, is remembered for then minister Kevin Boland’s diatribe in the Dáil about how “belted earls and their ladies and left-wing intellectuals” were behind this “open act of piracy”, also referring to “the Guinness aristocracy who pull the strings to which the Georgians dance”.

What’s forgotten is that nobody at all had objected to the Green Property group’s original planning application to demolish the houses for a pair of modernist office blocks and that the compromise of replacing the original buildings with Georgian pastiche office blocks was far from satisfactory. Swathes of Harcourt Street and Leeson Street Lower succumbed to a similar solution.

Mountjoy Square — the most perfectly-proportioned in Dublin — had sunk into deep decay, prompting Desmond and Mariga to purchase one of its threatened houses while Uinseann MacEoin bought several others. These survived, but No.50 — which Mariga had furnished and decorated — stood forlorn, shored up on both sides, and was ultimately acquired by PMPA, which pulled it down in 1983 with a JCB and hawser line.

Virtually the entire south side, and much of its west side, were eventually rebuilt in Georgian-replica style, with small apartments by Zoe Developments Ltd lurking behind the imposing façades. Intact once again, it has a substantial number of residents — unlike Merrion and Fitzwilliam squares — and the local Mountjoy Square Society works closely with Dublin City Council to improve its park and environs.

The most painful loss was Frescati House, in Blackrock, dating from 1739; the childhood home of Lord Edward FitzGerald, one of the 1798 leaders. Bought in 1970 by Roches Stores, which wanted to build a shopping centre on the seven-acre site beside a new by-pass, it was left to go to rack and ruin, to the consternation of conservationists. The Frescati Preservation Society was set up, with Desmond Guinness as its first chair.

For more than a decade, they waged a heroic struggle to save the house, going right up to the Supreme Court, but it all ended in failure. Frescati was first looted for everything of any value, then stripped of its long wings — with official permission — reduced over time to a shell and finally finished off early one morning in November 1983. But this sad case at least underlined the need for legislation to protect Ireland’s architectural heritage.

It was a long time coming, enacted only in 1999, but Desmond Guinness played a sterling role in making it happen. Georgian-era buildings, once so reviled, are now in large measure cherished as part of our heritage, made in Ireland by Irish bricklayers, hodcarriers, joiners and stuccadores. For that alone, we owe a debt to those who championed the conservation cause over the years, not least Desmond and Mariga.

Frank McDonald, Former environment editor of The Irish Times. This was originally featured in the Irish Georgian Society Review (2020).

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Remembering Desmond Guinness (1931-2020): Desmond Guinness and the London Chapter


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Desmond Guinness and friends at a 18th-century fancy dress party at Chandos House, London in 1977

Catapulted into the IGS’s London Chapter in 1974 by becoming a member of its Committee without yet being a member of the society, I met Desmond Guinness and soon recognised his kindness and warmth. The IGS London was in its infancy, but had started organising events, of which little information survives, for its 190 UK members. We benefitted from Desmond using his enthusiasm and charm on contacts, and taking part when possible. He certainly attended the first ‘dressing-up’ event that the Chapter, under Nick Thompson, organised — the 1977 Georgian party at the Royal Society of Medicine’s Chandos House, Queen Anne Street, designed by Robert Adam around 1770.

In 1980, Desmond and Penny moved to the Cotswolds in England, and in 1982 organised a weekend tour including a visit to Daylesford House, then owned by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. This was the start of a very significant time for us, although records of events and other activities are rather sketchy. Never a committee member himself, Desmond inspired our members and opened doors that were otherwise closed. He also encouraged his wide circle of glamorous friends to support events and join in the fun by working his magic to charm potential and already charmed hosts and members. Desmond and Penny moved to London near the Kings Road, a key location being near to both the Chelsea Arts Club, of which he was a member, and the Irish Club in Eaton Square where the London lectures were held. Parties in the Arts Club welcomed new members, and Nick Thompson recalls him as ‘an ornament to the Chapter, as well as an inspiration… in its Golden Age’. Friends were inveigled into opening their doors to the Chapter — one Persian-Irish couple owned a house in Mallord Street, its previous owners had been Augustus John and then Gracie Fields. Thanks to Desmond, a wonderfully exotic evening was spent lolling on ottomans and eating Persian delicacies, accompanied by the music of The Chieftains. David Mlinaric, a very close friend, was another who caved-in to visitations.

Desmond persuaded his father, Lord Moyne, to allow the Chapter to visit Biddesden in Hampshire, [an unforgettable tour by torch-light] and to be received by his aunt ‘Debo’, the Duchess of Devonshire, at Chatsworth. His friendship with John Paul Getty Jr resulted in playing the Georgian Group twice at cricket according to the 1744 rules on his private cricket ground at Wormsley [near High Wycombe], Desmond provided replica 18th century bats and organised the IGS team — sadly beaten soundly — while members enjoyed a stunning picnic lunch! We also visited Getty’s private house in Cheyne Walk where Rossetti had once lived. The extraordinarily wealthy Edward James was another great friend and he often lived at Leixlip in the years before his death in 1984. We visited both of James’s houses — West Dean itself [where Desmond gave a brilliant talk about his friend], and Monkton, a house on the estate designed for his mother in 1902 by Lutyens and that James had surreal-ised in the 1930s.

Chapter lectures during those years attracted large numbers of London members and other devotees. Desmond said modestly that he had only one lecture, with several titles. He spoke brilliantly on Castletown and the work of the Society, and once about the White House, having managed to commandeer the US Embassy as the venue, complete with drinks!

The London Chapter gave a number of fund-raising parties, often in costume. Desmond always loved such events. Fascinated by Carlos de Bestegui’s famous Bal Oriental of 1951 at the Palazzo Labia in Venice, he gave a lecture about it to the Chapter, with members of his family [including grand-daughter Jasmine] dressed in the harlequin costumes worn by the acrobats who’d entertained Bestequi’s guests. He supported the Ruby Ball of 1998 for the IGS’s 40th anniversary, and the Emerald and Gold Ball for its 50th in 2008. Many of Desmond’s wealthy and famous friends attended in 2008 through their loyalty to him and, by association, the work of the Society.

The Chapter has always adhered to Desmond’s serious agenda: to educate, and to support conservation projects in Ireland. Castletown, Ledwithstown, and Headfort are three of many beneficiaries. His work and example will continue to inspire London as it supports the Society’s work by providing its Conservation Grants Scheme with €330,000 since 2014 to help fund about 70 projects.

John R Redmill, Patron, IGS London. This was originally featured in the Irish Georgian Society Review (2020).

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Remembering Desmond Guinness (1931-2020): 'At the Castle Coalface'


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Desmond with JP Donleavy at the Castletown IGS annual cricket match, c. 1980s (Photo: Christopher Moore)

Frank Sinatra (who I never met) was always known as Mr Blue Eyes, but my first introduction to Mr Irish Blue Eyes was in 1973 when I was looking for a job and heard that Desmond Guinness was seeking a secretary. So I found myself invited over to Leixlip Castle to meet him one evening and without much ado he asked when could I start. I explained that I was just about to go on a trip to Kenya with my mother and brother so I wouldn’t be available immediately. When I started about a month later, Desmond handed me the final draft of the manuscript for “Lost Demesnes” by the Knight of Glin and Edward Malins to re-type (on an electric typewriter) as he was about to go off on a lecture tour in America and he thought this might keep me busy for the duration — how right he was!

There were no computers in those days and the finished copy had to be perfect. He went to the United States once or twice a year and was in constant demand to undertake lecture tours there, in England and elsewhere, promoting the Irish Georgian Society which he had co-founded with his wife Mariga in 1958. These were fundraising tours and were very important as such. One never knew what would happen next when working for Desmond. There were endless visitors from all over the place including a lot of tour groups, mostly Americans, who always exclaimed on how green the grass was in Ireland! During the summer we might host three lunches or dinners a week in the Castle. Desmond was incredibly polite and friendly to everybody and always made them feel at home in Leixlip even if he did gently glide from one group to another leaving each engrossed in their conversation!

He was generous too and once sent me off on a holiday when asked by a French couple (Bernard & Nicole de Claviere) who were renting an apartment at Castletown and had asked Desmond if he knew anyone who might like to accompany Nicole in their car back to France, he said “Audrey needs a holiday, I’m sure she’d love to go” — so I did. Some 47 years later I was still going to Leixlip up to the time of his death in August to do a variety of administrative duties! Over that long period of time I found it very easy to work with Desmond and he was very supportive of any initiatives I might propose: The Delany and Dixon tablemats were a prime example and are still being eagerly bought. He enthusiastically threw himself into projects and often got involved at the initial stage — I remember him overnighting in Co. Tipperary as he led a group of young volunteers to work on the Shanahan Mausoleum. In latter years I felt a great sadness going to the Castle as Desmond’s memory was fading as he slipped away from all of us. Desmond Guinness gave his life to conservation and the current level of appreciation of Georgian architecture in Ireland is due entirely to his pioneering spirit.

Audrey Emerson worked from 1973 at Lexlip Castle with Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgian Society. This was originally featured in the Irish Georgian Society Review (2020).

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