Saturday, 18 February 2012

Victorian delights in Dún Laoghaire

The interior of the dome in the restored Victoria Fountain in Dún Laoghaire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Passing through Dún Laoghaire yesterday [Friday] on my way back from Killiney and Dalkey, I regretted not stopping to have a more careful look at the Town Hall, or a walk along the pier. I returned this afternoon – and despite the heavy burst of rain during the visit and cold and biting breeze, enjoyed an hour or two, with a few surprises.

Dún Laoghaire Town Hall, on the corner of Marine Road, was built in 1878-1880 and houses the offices of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. The building was designed by John Loftus Robinson (ca 1848-1894) in the style of a Venetian palace.

Dún Laoghaire Town Hall, a fine example of the Venetian-style Victorian architecture of JL Robinson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Town Hall is a fine example of Venetian-style architecture with its arched windows, circular pierced balconies and coloured stonework. The clock tower is a local landmark, and the building also served once as the court house.

Robinson was the town’s principal architect in the 19th century, and also designed Saint Michael’s hospital, the People’s Park and the spire of Saint Michaels Church. He received his architectural training in the office of Edward Henry Carson, and worked from 198 Great Brunswick Street. His commissions were chiefly for Roman Catholic churches and religious houses in the Dublin area, but he also did some commercial and domestic work.

He was an “ardent Parnellite,” secretary to the Nationalist Party in Kingstown, and chairman of the Kingstown Town Commissioners for many years. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The Victoria Fountain ... erected to recall Queen Victoria’s fourth visit to Ireland

Across the street from the Town Hall is the beautiful Victoria Fountain, erected to commemorate Queen Victoria’s visit to Dún Laoghaire in 1900. It was manufactured in Glasgow by Walter McFarland & Co.

The Victoria Fountain is described by the architectural historian Peter Pearson in his book Kingstown as “a beautiful monument, a defenceless symbol of the bygone age.” The drinking fountain and the lamp standards are fine examples of 19th century architectural ironwork and are part of a significant collection of Victorian ironwork in the Dún Laoghaire area. Over each arch are the quaint words: “Keep The Pavement Dry.” There was little hope of that in this afternoon’s rain.

The monument was vandalised in 1981 but has been restored by Heritage Engineering of Glasgow, the successors of Walter McFarland & Co. The replacement works were based on the original patterns used by McFarlands in 1900. Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company underwrote the cost of restoring the Victoria Fountain, funding through the restoration work revenues from “Pay and Display” parking in the harbour area. Restoration work on the fountain began on 29 January 2003, and took about a week.

The restored fountain retains many original features, including the fountain itself, the mosaic and granite base and two cast iron lamp standards that were part of the setting for the fountain. The colour scheme faithfully retains the original colour scheme.

Dusk envelops the harbour in Dún Laoghaire this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From the fountain, two of us walked on past the Royal St George Yacht Club, with its neo-classical face, and the National Yacht Club – two of the four yacht clubs in a very small area – to walk along the East Pier of the Harbour.

The expanse of Dun Laoghaire Harbour embraces nearly one square mile of water, and the East Pier is more than 1 km long.

Building work on Dún Laoghaire Harbour began in 1817. The harbour was designed by John Rennie from Scotland, one of the greatest engineers of the day – his other works include London Bridge and London Docks.

Before the ‘Asylum Harbour’ was built, Dun Laoghaire was just a small fishing village near today’s west pier. The village was near the fort of King Laoghaire, High King of Ireland in the fifth century. During his reign, Saint Patrick began his mission to convert Ireland to Christianity. King Laoghaire’s fort was demolished in the early 19th century.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Dublin Bay was notoriously treacherous. On the night of 18 November 1807, in gale force winds and heavy snow, two ships, the Prince of Wales and the Rochdale, were wrecked at Blackrock and Seapoint, north-west of Dún Laoghaire, each carrying troops to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, and with the loss of hundreds of lives.

The Victorian bandstand on the East Pier in Dún Laoghaire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The harbour remains the largest “man-made” harbour in Ireland, and also one of f the most important sailing centres in Ireland. It has the largest marina in Ireland, with over 500 berths and four yacht clubs. The oldest of the yacht clubs, the Royal Saint George, was founded in 1838.

In 1821, Dún Laoghaire was renamed Kingstown in honour of a visit by King George IV. Following the visit, the town’s name was changed to Kingstown, the main street was renamed George’s Street, and obelisk was erected overlooking the East Pier – although William Thackeray later described the it as “a hideous obelisk, stuck on four fat balls and surmounted with a crown on a cushion.”

Royalist fervour aside, Daniel O’Connell was accompanied by 100,000 people as he marched from Dublin to Kingstown in 1830 on his way to Westminster to take his seat in Parliament. In 1891, Charles Stewart Parnell’s body was brought back to Ireland for burial through the Carlisle Pier at Dún Laoghaire. The town continued to be known as Kingstown until 1920, when in a more nationalistic time it was renamed Dún Laoghaire.

Evening lights along the East Pier in Dún Laoghaire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

This evening, as dusk fell on the town and the harbour, I walked out as far as the Victorian bandstand on the East Pier. As I walked back, the lights stretched along the coast as far as Sandycove, and the clock of Robinson’s town hall and the bells on his surviving tower at Saint Michael’s Church chimed and rang in unison – it was six o’clock.

Fading lights east of the East Pier this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)