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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 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.