Dublin Squares Day and Conference

Chris Sumner writes...

St Stephen's Green
St Stephen's Green - Dublin's equivalent to St James's Park
Fitzwilliam Square
Fitzwilliam Square - the sole remaining privately owned C18 square in Dublin
Parnell Square
The Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square

Dublin Civic Trust hosted its fourth Dublin Garden Squares Day on 14th September, preceded on the 13th by a conference organised in association with the Mountjoy Square Society Ltd. on maximising the city's Georgian heritage. A party of us from London attended both events and, as ever, were welcomed most hospitably.

LPGT President Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, former trustee Drew Bennellick and I were among the many conference speakers, who also included the Irish Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan TD), and Geraldine Walsh, CEO of the Dublin Civic Trust. The emphasis of the conference was on the two North Dublin Squares, Mountjoy and Parnell. Todd, author of The London Square, spoke on The Square in the Town Plan; Drew, now at the HLF, spoke on The Campaign for Londonís Squares: A Tale of Two Funders, and I gave An Outsider's Perspective - Appraising Dublin s Squares.

Dublin has five major C18 squares, two in the north and three in the south. St Stephen's Green in the south was enclosed from common land by Dublin Corporation in 1663 and the garden covers 27 acres, originally accessible only to key-holders but laid out as a public park at the instigation of Sir Arthur E Guinness (later Lord Ardilaun) in the 1870s, and it now serves as Dublin's equivalent to St James's Park. Merrion Square, also now a public park but with a much less coherent plan than St Stephen's Green and of about half the size, was built to the east of Leinster House after 1750. Fitzwilliam Square was laid out to the south east of the city in 1791 and construction continued until 1828. It is the only garden square still in private ownership and retains its original gates and railings (as do the other squares), a large rectangular central lawn, double perimeter paths with forest trees and flowering and evergreen shrubs. It is immaculately maintained, with gravel paths, sharp edges to the lawn, and recently renewed herbaceous planting, but is little used, as most of the surrounding houses are now commercial premises. Fitzwilliam Square opened its gates for Squares Day, and there were guided tours and visits to neighbouring buildings, art classes, music and dancing, there and in the other five squares and in Iveagh Gardens. Dublin is both like and unlike London. It is much less green, but the streets are wider, thanks to the CI8 Wide Streets Commission, and its red-brick Georgian terrace houses are generally taller, wider and externally very gaunt except for their varied door-cases and fanlights. The richness of the internal plaster work and joinery comes as a delightful surprise to the privileged visitor.

The story of Mountjoy Square is both tragic and inspiring. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the country's Georgian buildings were little appreciated and unprotected, the terraces dating from the 1790s were acquired by speculators and many houses on the south and west sides especially were demolished or allowed to fall into decay. A campaign by the Irish Georgian Society, the Dublin Civic Trust and committed groups and individuals to frustrate further depredations led eventually to the formal recognition at local and national levels of the importance of the city's Georgian architecture and to the reconstruction in external replica of the lost buildings. However, North Dublin is very mixed economically and ethnically, and the rebuilt façades of Mountjoy Square disguise crowded modern tenements and conceal many social problems. The square garden - geometrically a perfect square - is popular and well tended as a public park but is currently compromised by ill-designed and ill-sited structures, security fences, hedges and areas of hard standing.

Historically and architecturally, Parnell (formerly Rutland) Square is the most interesting and most challenging. The four-acre garden was laid out as pleasure grounds by Dr Bartholomew Mosse in 1748 to fund a lying-in hospital, now the Rotunda Hospital, built in 1751 at the south end. The Rotunda was added as an assembly room in 1764, and the Pillar Room, where our conference was held, was built as a ballroom in 1784. Starting in the 1750s, grand terraced houses, most of which survive, were built to the north, east and west and include Charlemont House (the Hugh Lane Gallery) designed by Sir William Chambers. The original plan of the pleasure gardens is recorded in Rocque's map of 1756 and included a cross-terrace labelled The Orchestra, formal wildernesses on the steep north slope, a large sunken lawn, groves and walks, and an octagonal bandstand. During the C20 much of the garden vanished under unsightly hospital extensions and car parks, and in the l960s the Garden of Remembrance was constructed across much of the northern part. There is currently under discussion a particularly damaging proposal to build next to the Garden of Remembrance a memorial to victims of clerical abuse. What good that will do any one it is difficult to imagine, and, if constructed, the monument will destroy yet more of Dr Mosse's philanthropic and innovative mid-C18 pleasure grounds.

Dublin City Council intends to convert the group of mid-CI8 houses adjoining the Hugh Lane Gallery into the new City Library; and reclaiming Parnell Square from the present clutter of hospital outbuildings and car parks as a public garden would add a wonderful and much-needed amenity to the proposed new cultural quarter.