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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Opening of the Custom House in Dublin

custom-houseThe Custom House (Irish: Teach an Chustaim), a neoclassical 18th century building in Dublin which houses the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, opens on November 7, 1791. It is located on the north bank of the River Liffey, on Custom House Quay between Butt Bridge and Talbot Memorial Bridge.

A previous Custom House had been built in 1707 by engineer Thomas Burgh. However, by the late 18th century it is deemed unfit for purpose.

The building of a new Custom House for Dublin is the idea of John Beresford, who becomes first commissioner of revenue for Ireland in 1780. In 1781 he appoints James Gandon as architect, after Thomas Cooley, the original architect on the project, dies. This is Gandon’s first large scale commission. The new Custom House is unpopular with the Dublin Corporation and some city merchants who complain that it moves the axis of the city, would leave little room for shipping, and is being built on what at the time is a swamp. Purchase of land is delayed and proves exorbitant and the laying of foundations is disrupted by the High Sheriff and members of the Dublin Corporation with a mob of several thousand. However, Beresford is determined to complete the project and ignores the protests.

Construction begins in 1781, and for his assistants Gandon chooses Irish artists such as Meath stone-cutter Henry Darley, mason John Semple, and carpenter Hugh Henry. Every available mason in Dublin is engaged in the work. When it is completed and opens for business on November 7, 1791, it has cost £200,000 to build – a considerable sum at the time. The four facades of the building are decorated with coats-of-arms and ornamental sculptures by Edward Smyth representing Ireland’s rivers. Another artist, Henry Banks, is responsible for the statue on the dome and other statues.

As the port of Dublin moves further downriver, the building’s original use for collecting custom duties becomes obsolete, and it is used as the headquarters of local government in Ireland. During the Irish War of Independence in 1921, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) burns down the Custom House in an attempt to disrupt British rule in Ireland. Gandon’s original interior is completely destroyed in the fire and the central dome collapses. A large quantity of irreplaceable historical records are also destroyed in the fire. Despite achieving its objectives, the attack on the Custom House is a setback for the IRA as a large number of Volunteers are captured either during the attack or when falling back.

After the Anglo-Irish Treaty, it is restored by the Irish Free State government. The results of this reconstruction can still be seen on the building’s exterior today. The dome is rebuilt using Irish Ardbraccan limestone which is noticeably darker than the Portland stone used in the original construction. This is done as an attempt to promote Irish resources.

Further restoration and cleaning of the stonework is done by an Office of Public Works team in the 1980s.

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Birth of Irish Statesman John Beresford

john-beresfordJohn Beresford, Irish statesman, is born in Cork on March 14, 1738. He is a younger son of Sir Marcus Beresford who, having married Catherine, sole heiress of James Power, 3rd Earl of Tyrone, is created Earl of Tyrone in 1746. After the death of the earl in 1763, Beresford’s mother successfully asserts her claim suo jure to the barony of La Poer. John Beresford thus inherits powerful family connections. He is educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College, Dublin and is called to the Irish bar.

Beresford enters the Irish House of Commons as member for Waterford County in 1761. In 1768, 1783, 1789 and finally in 1798, he stands also for Coleraine, however choosing each time to sit for Waterford.

His industry, added to the influence of his family, procures his admission to the Privy Council of Ireland in 1768, and his appointment as one of the commissioners of revenue two years later. In 1780 he becomes first commissioner of revenue, a position which gives him powerful influence in the Irish administration. He introduces some useful reforms in the machinery of taxation and is the author of many improvements in the architecture of the public buildings and streets of Dublin. He is first brought into conflict with Henry Grattan and the popular party in 1784, by his support of the proposal that the Irish parliament in return for the removal of restrictions on Irish trade should be bound to adopt the English navigation laws.

In 1786, Beresford is sworn a member of the Privy Council of Great Britain, and the power which he wields in Ireland through his numerous dependants and connections grows to be so extensive that a few years later he is spoken of as the “King of Ireland.” He is a vehement opponent of the increasing demand for Catholic Emancipation and when it becomes known that the Earl Fitzwilliam is to succeed John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1795 for the purpose of carrying out a conciliatory policy, Beresford expresses strong hostility to the appointment. One of Fitzwilliam’s first acts is to dismiss Beresford from his employment for corruption, but with permission to retain his entire official salary for life, and with the assurance that no other member of his family will be removed. Fitzwilliam has been encouraged in this course of action by William Ponsonby. Beresford immediately exerts all his influence with his friends in England, to whom he describes himself as an injured and persecuted man. He appeals to William Pitt the Younger and goes to London to lay his complaint before the English ministers.

The recall of Fitzwilliam, which is followed by such momentous consequences in the history of Ireland is, as the viceroy himself believes, mainly due to Beresford’s dismissal. There has been a misunderstanding on the point between Pitt and Fitzwilliam. The latter, whose veracity is unimpeachable, asserts that previous to his coming to Ireland he had informed the prime minister of his intention to dismiss Beresford, and that Pitt had raised no objection. Pitt denies all recollection of any such communication, and on the contrary describes the dismissal as an open breach of the most solemn promise. In a letter to Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, justifying his action, Fitzwilliam mentions that malversation had been imputed to Beresford. Beresford sends a challenge to Fitzwilliam, but the combatants are interrupted on the field and Fitzwilliam then makes an apology.

When John Pratt, 1st Marquess Camden, replaces Fitzwilliam in the viceroyalty in March 1795, Beresford resumes his former position. On the eve of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 his letters to William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland, give an alarming description of the condition of Ireland and he counsels strong measures of repression. When first consulted by Pitt on the question of the union, Beresford appears to dislike the idea but he soon becomes reconciled to the policy and warmly supports it. After the union Beresford continues to represent County Waterford in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and he remains in office until 1802, taking an active part in settling the financial relations between Ireland and Great Britain.

In 1760, Beresford marries Constantia Ligondes, who dies in 1772. In 1774, he marries Barbara Montgomery, a celebrated beauty who figures in Sir Joshua Reynolds‘ picture of The Graces. He has large families by both marriages. His sons include Marcus Beresford, George Beresford, and John Claudius Beresford. John Beresford dies near Derry on November 5, 1805.


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Birth of James Gandon, Influential Irish Architect

james-gandonJames Gandon, possibly the most influential architect in Irish history, is born in New Bond Street, London, on February 20, 1743. His better known works include The Custom House, the Four Courts, King’s Inns in Dublin, and Emo Court in County Laois.

Gandon is the only son of Peter Gandon, a gunmaker, and Jane Burchall. He is educated at Shipley’s Drawing Academy where he studies the classics, mathematics, arts, and architecture. Upon leaving the drawing academy he is articled to study architecture in the office of Sir William Chambers. Chambers’s palladian and neoclassical concepts greatly influence the young Gandon.

In 1765, Gandon leaves William Chambers to begin practice on his own. His practice always remains small but is successful. His first commission is on Sir Samuel Hellier’s estate at The Wodehouse, near Wombourne. Around 1769 he enters an architectural competition to design the new Royal Exchange in Dublin. The plan submitted by Thomas Cooley is eventually chosen but Gandon’s design comes in second and brings him to the attention of the politicians who are overseeing the large-scale redevelopment of Dublin.

During the following years in England, Gandon is responsible for the design of the County Hall in Nottingham. Between 1769 and 1771, he collaborates with John Woolfe on two additional volumes of Vitruvius Britannicus, a book of plans and drawings of Palladian revival buildings by such architects as Inigo Jones and Colen Campbell. During his English career he is awarded the Gold medal for architecture by the Royal Academy, London in 1768.

In 1781, at the age of 38, Gandon accepts an invitation to Ireland from Lord Carlow and John Beresford, the Revenue Commissioner for Ireland, to supervise the construction of the new Custom House in Dublin. The original architect on that project, Thomas Cooley, had died and Gandon is chosen to assume complete control. The Irish people are so opposed to the Custom House and its associated taxes that Beresford has to smuggle Gandon into the country and keeps him hidden in his own home for the first three months. The project is eventually completed at a cost of £200,000, an enormous sum at the time.

This commission proves to be the turning point in Gandon’s career and Dublin is to become Gandon’s home for the remainder of his life. The newly formed Wide Streets Commission employs Gandon to design a new aristocratic enclave in the vicinity of Mountjoy Square and Gardiner Street. Gandon also designs Carlisle Bridge, now O’Connell Bridge, over the River Liffey to join the north and south areas of the city. In 1786, he is charged with completing the Four Courts in 1786, which is also originally a Thomas Cooley project.

The success of Gandon’s designs and commissions are not reflected in personal popularity as he attracts huge criticism from his enemies. The taxation symbolised by the Custom House is to taint the appreciation of his work throughout his lifetime. It is even claimed that Gandon designs buildings to boost his self-esteem.

In 1798, revolution breaks out on the streets of Ireland and Gandon, an unpopular figure, hurriedly flees to London. Upon returning to Dublin he finds a much changed city. James Gandon dies in 1823 at his home in Lucan, County Dublin, having spent forty-two years in the city. He is buried in the church-yard of Drumcondra Church.