21 October 2016

Georgian Museum gives an insight
into life in Dublin 200 years ago

The Georgian Museum at 29 Fitzwilliam Square gives unique insight into middle class life in Georgian Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Last Friday afternoon [14 October 2016], during a walk around Dublin after lunch, I visited the ESB Georgian House Museum at No 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street, for the first time. The museum, which is run by the ESB (Electricity Power Board) in partnership with the National Museum of Ireland, presents images of life in Georgian Dublin in the period 1790-1820.

The displays throughout the house are supplemented by story boards giving information on each room and explaining life of an upper middle class family in a townhouse in Georgian Dublin. Visitors take a tour from the basement to the attic, through rooms that have been furnished with original artefacts as they would have been in the Georgian era.

No 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street was first occupied in 1794, during a time of great change and expansion in Dublin. The first person to live here was the widowed Mrs Olivia Mary Beatty. The museum offers an opportunity to experience what life was like for families who lived townhouses like this, and for the people who worked in them.

Olivia Beatty (née Bell) moved into No 29 in November 1794. She was the mother of seven children, Edward, Thomas, David, Robert, Frederick, Maria and Olivia. Edward, her eldest son, was then 11, while Olivia, the youngest child, was just two.

Olivia Bell was 21 in 1782 when she married David Beatty, a prominent Dublin wine merchant and paper manufacturer of Saint Andrew Street, in Saint Anne’s Church, Dawson Street. His father, Edward Beatty, had been a paper merchant, and one-time stationer to the Revenue Commissioners. Trade directories at the time shows that both father and son traded from No 1 Saint Andrew Street, and they probably lived above the shop.

However, Olivia was only 33 when she was widowed when, after a few days illness, David Beatty died on 7 January 1794. In September 1794, his father Edward Beatty died in Blackrock at the age of 78. To compound Olivia’s grief, one of their daughters, Maria, died later that year.

David Beatty left no will, and so it was through the estate of her father-in-law, Edward Beatty, that Olivia gained the means to support herself and her children. Over and above her marriage settlement, she received the ‘sum of £100 for life,’ and the choice of either her father-in-law’s country or town house. Although the house had been built by John Usher, an apothecary, who leased to Olivia Beatty, the land lease from the Fitzwilliam Estate was held by one William Osborne.

She bought No 29 for £320. Yet it must have been with a heavy heart that the widowed Olivia moved with her surviving children that November into the house on the corner of Lower Fitzwilliam Street and Upper Mount Street, across from the corner of Merrion Square.

According to Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, that November saw severe weather conditions in Dublin, with flooding in the lower yard of Dublin Castle, boats plying the area around Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and numerous deaths around the city caused by drowning.

Mrs Beatty left Fitzwilliam Street in 1806 and sold the lease for £700 to Ponsonby Shaw (1784-1871), then a young Dublin banker from Bushy Park House, Terenure. He was a founder of the Royal Bank of Ireland and his first cousin, Bernard Shaw, was the grandfather of the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).

The interior design of No 29 reflects the dominant architectural and decorative style of the period 1790-1820. It is in the neo-classical style, epitomised preferred by figures such Robert and James Adam and represented in Dublin by fine buildings such as the Customs House and Four Courts by the English-born architect James Gandon. The emphasis in neo-classical design is on the formal and on the sense in which all of the individual parts of a plan, from a scheme for a room to the façade of the building, fit together to form a harmonious whole.

By the beginning of the 19th century, greater variety had been introduced into decoration, with a range of new styles introduced in architecture: the Empire Style frequently drew inspiration from Egypt, stimulated in part by Napoleon’s military campaigns; the Neo-Grecian style can be seen at the General Post Office designed by Francis Johnston; and the neo-gothic style, which took its inspiration from Northern European architecture of the mediaeval period, was a reaction against the restraint of neo-classicism. All of these trends can be seen in the pieces and decorative finishes of No 29. =

The furniture, glassware, ceramics, and painting on display are mostly Irish from the late 18th century or early 19th century. To meet the rising demand of an expanding Dublin, manufacturers of luxury goods prospered in the city. In 1798, Dublin had at least 25 coach builders, over 30 gold and silversmiths, and nearly 50 cabinet makers, all supplying the residents of the new large townhouses in Merrion Square and Saint Stephen’s Green, and increasingly to those moving into the more moderate developments in areas such as Mountjoy Square, Fitzwilliam Square and Fitzwilliam Street Lower. Many fine cabinet makers worked in Dublin in the late Georgian period, such as William Moore and the 19th century firm of Mack Williams and Gibson. Examples of work by both these makers can be seen in the house.

Few homes, however, were entirely fitted out from one period. So, most of the furniture on display in No 29 today is contemporary with the building and the first residents occupation of the house and dates from the period 1790-1820. It includes furniture from earlier in the 18th century. In the hallway there is a long case clock, manufactured by John Sanderson, a second generation Huguenot refugee whose father had fled religious persecution in France. In the back drawing room, there is a fine example of an Irish Chippendale drawing room chair.

No 29 also has an interesting and varied collection of prints, oil paintings, watercolours and sketches, from well-known and lesser-known artists, including Thomas Roberts, Gilbert Stuart, GF Mulvany, Martin Archer Shee and Nathaniel Hone, including some of particular interest to the history of Dublin.

There is a view by Thomas Snagg, an English actor turned painter who came to Ireland initially to perform in the Smock Alley Theatre. Over the fireplace in the back drawingroom is an unusual portrait of the Irish revolutionary, Robert Emmet, by the Scottish born painter, James Petrie. This portrait is at the centre of an historical mystery. Tradition says it was painted by Petrie for Emmet’s sweetheart, Sarah Curran, the daughter of a Dublin barrister, Jonathan Phillpot Curran. Petrie is said to have produced the portrait from Emmet’s death mask as Emmet’s body lay in Kilmainham Gaol after his execution in 1803.

On the reverse of the canvass are two significant pieces of documentation. The first is a trade label from Jackson of No 5 Essex Bridge. The second is a hand-written note: ‘Susanna Boulton to her beloved sister Mary Wilson July 1 1805.’

The artist’s son, the antiquarian George Petrie, recalled a woman he was told was Sarah Curran being shown the portrait in his father’s studio in 1804, but no concrete information has come to light yet about the identity of these two sisters.

Other most interesting pieces in the museum include two early 19th century dolls’ houses in the nursery, illustrating the pastimes of children who would have lived in a house such as No 29. The children’s quarters were tucked away in the attic at the top of the house, free from unnecessary decoration, such as carpets and plaster work. The children educated at home may have had a governess who taught them English, history, geography, music, needle work, and a continental language, probably French.

After lessons, late morning and early afternoon presented the family with an opportunity to take some air, possibly in the park nearby in Merrion Square. In dark winter evenings, children’s evening entertainment was formal , perhaps performing a song or a word game for their parents and their guests before going to bed.

By contrast, poorer children would have worked hard in such houses. For example, chimneys were swept by children, despite the existence of machines that could do this job ‘with superior cleanliness and effect.’ Until 1829 or even later, children in Dublin were being sold into the service of master sweeps, suffering injury, deformity, and often death, from the age of seven until they grew too large to fit the narrow chimney passages of Dublin.

In the Beatty family, at least three of the boys, Edward, Frederick, and Thomas, went to Trinity College Dublin, where they most probably were boarders. Their sister, Olivia, married at the age of 15.

When she left Dublin and No 29 in 1806, Olivia Beatty moved to Co Wexford, where some years earlier her husband had bought Borodale, a house on the banks of the River Slaney, near Enniscorthy. When she died on 9 September 1843 at the age of 83, she was buried in Kilurin churchyard.

Edward Beatty (1784-1858), the eldest son of David and Olivia Beatty, married Elizabeth Mansergh in 1813, and around 1820 he rebuilt Healthfield Manor, near Killurin, Co Wexford, taking advantage of the panoramic vistas overlooking rolling grounds and the meandering River Slaney.

The family story is told in Killurin that Mrs Beatty died twice and was buried twice in the 1840s, and that both deaths were recorded in the parish register. On 8 October 1846, she was buried in the family vault in Killurin. That night, the family butler, a man named Furlong, visited her grave at night, entered the vault, opened the coffin and tried to remove her wedding ring from her hand.

When the task proved more difficult than Furlong anticipated, he tried to amputate her ring finger. As the blood began to flow, Mrs Beatty came to life, and a terrified butler fled from the scene towards the Slaney, never to be seen again.

The revived Mrs Beatty stuggled from the vault and made her way from Killurin churchyard back to the family home at Healthfield Manor. There she knocked on the door, but the housemaid recognised the familiar knock and was too scared to open the door and let her mistress in.

However, David Beatty welcomed his wife back into the house, and a night of mourning turned into a night of celebration as she joined him at the dinner table.

Mrs Beatty died a second time on 2 March 1848, and once again she was buried in the Beatty family vault in Killurin.

Olivia Beatty of 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street was also the mother of Captain David Beatty (1787-1855) of Borodale House. In 1813, he married Elizabeth Martin, daughter of John Martin of Corle, the Sheriff of Cork. This David and Elizabeth were the parents of David Vandeleur Beatty (1815–1881) of Borodale, who married his cousin Mary Elizabth Longfield from Cork. Their son, David Longfield Beatty (1841-1904), was the father of Admiral David Beatty (1871-1936), 1st Earl Beatty.

No 29 is open on a self-guided basis, although some guided tours are also possible for pre-booked groups. As for Borodale House, the house was demolished in 1937. Healthfield Manor is run as a boutique guesthouse by Loretto and Mayler Colloton.

The basement entrance to Georgian Museum, which also gives an insight into the lives of servants and the working class (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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