29 January 2010

A tribute to my great-grandfather

Daniel O’Connell is among those remembered in The Irish House, one of Dublin’s most colourful and eccentric buildings

The Irish Times today [29 January] includes the following feature which pays tribute to the work of my great-grandfather as a stucco artist and one of the architects of The Irish House (1870):

An Irishman’s Diary

Frank McNally

I don’t know if there can ever be such a thing as a “national architecture”, and a nationalist one seems an even odder idea. But although it fell well short of amounting to a school, never mind a movement, there was indeed an attempt in late 19th-century Ireland to express through bricks and mortar the yearning for national self-determination. And, ironically or otherwise, its finest achievement was a pub.

For almost 100 years after it opened in 1870, The Irish House – as the premises was called – was one of Dublin’s most colourful and eccentric buildings.

It was the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of a famous city character. And although rather small, by the standards of urban architecture, it had a big presence. This was partly because of its corner site, on the junction of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay. But it was mainly because, per square foot, it had more to say for itself than any other building in the city.

To quote from a new booklet on the subject by the Dublin Civic Trust, The Irish House’s exterior was “like an elaborate code for 19th-century constitutional nationalism, drawing inspiration from Celtic legend, the Psalms, the Book of Lamentations, Shakespeare, the 1608 Irish language edition of the Bible, early-Christian Irish art, Byron’s Hebrew Songs, and [the] patriotic parliamentarians Grattan and O’Connell, all within [what CP Curran called] ‘the mirage of Tom Moore’s history’.” Most of this was achieved via stucco: the use of which for expressing nationalist sentiment had until then been more common in Ireland’s southwest, especially in such towns as Listowel and Abbeyfeale.

Thus the (otherwise functionless) upper storey of The Irish House featured painted friezes of Erin embarking on her tour of Ireland, Grattan making his last appeal to parliament, Erin (again) weeping on her stringless harp, and O’Connell clutching the repeal document. Pilasters featured wolfhounds, ancient drinking cups, and the Stone of Destiny. And the pub’s crowning glories were six miniature round towers, distributed along the roof ledge like chimneys.

The complete ensemble had its critics at the time. An 1870 edition of the Irish Builder dismissed The Irish House as yet another “gin palace”, calling the round towers “ludicrous imitations,” and condemning the whole edifice as “the production of some juvenile [. . .] who has derived all his architectural knowledge from enlarging details upon a panel in a carpenter’s workshop.”

But if not by that critic, the building came to be appreciated by others. It was a classic gesamtkunstwerk, if you’ll pardon the German: a “total artwork” combining the various forms – poetry, painting, music, etc – into a single, extravagant vision. And it certainly represented the career climax of stucco artist James Comerford: until then been better known for his work on Gothic revivalist churches.

It was interesting as a history lesson too. Although built just after the Fenian uprising of 1867, which itself followed the Young Ireland movement, The Irish House’s politics were anything but republican. Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet did not feature on the building, which was very much an expression of romantic but constitutional nationalist sentiment.

As such, it represented what was still mainstream opinion in 1870. But the pub survived the imminent rise of a more militant Ireland. And despite a precarious location in central Dublin – its corner was diagonally opposite the Four Courts – it also survived the shells and bullets of the revolutionary period, which were particularly hard on stucco art.

What finally did for it, as for many of Dublin’s older buildings, were the dreaded 1960s; and in particular Dublin Corporation’s infamous plans for Wood Quay. The Irish House was a piece of the jigsaw that had to be dismantled to make way for new Civic Offices. It duly was, in 1968.

Were it ever to be rebuilt, James Joyce would be no use in the operation, despite his boast that the entire city could be recreated from the pages of Ulysses. The Irish House seems not to have merited even passing mention in his masterpiece: an achievement in itself.

In fairness to Joyce, he did namecheck the family of the stucco artist when he had Molly Bloom remembering a party at the “Comerfords” in 1893, “[the year] the canal was frozen”. But this was probably an accident. It’s quite likely Joyce had merely thumbed through Thom’s Directory, noticed there were Comerfords living a couple of doors away from Bloom’s fictional birthplace in Clanbrassil Street, and got lucky.

In any case, thanks to Guinness’s, we don’t need Joyce. When The Irish House faced demolition, Lord Moyne of the brewing family intervened to save the building’s decorations, which were stored at St James’s Gate for years and later passed on to the Dublin Civic Trust (DCT), in whose possession they remain, pending the creation – some day – of a new Dublin Civic Museum.

In the meantime, the famous pub is the subject of an exhibition in the DCT’s headquarters at No 4, Castle Street (opposite Burdock’s chip shop), which will continue indefinitely. It also features in the aforementioned booklet, with contributions from Sean Lynch, Kevin B Nowlan, Graham Hickey, Peter Walsh, and others. The booklet is available to anyone visiting the exhibition. But if you can’t make it to Castle Street, you can also order online from next week at http://www.dublincivictrust.ie/

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