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).