Turtle Bunbury

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MOUNTJOY SQUARE, DUBLIN

Nobody was quite sure why Luke Gardiner, 1st Viscount Mountjoy, took it into his head to gallop straight at the enemy lines like that. Some said he was seeking a parlay with the rebels. There’s merit in the argument. The 53-year-old property developer had long been a friend of Catholic Ireland. Twenty years earlier, he successfully introduced a bill for Catholic Relief into Grattan’s Parliament. Moreover, the Dublin militia, which he commanded for the Crown during the 1798 Rebellion, was a predominantly Catholic unit.

Nonetheless, his decision to ride out alone was a foolhardy one. There was little desire for negotiation in New Ross, County Wexford, in June 1798. The Viscount was knocked from his horse and spent the last moments of his life lying in a gateway before a Wexford pikeman stepped forward and finished him off.

It was an ignominious end for a man who had arguably done more than any of his fellow peers to champion the cause of Catholics.[i] Death also robbed him of his dream to see the completion of a Georgian city square on Dublin’s northside. The square was nonetheless finished and over 200 years later, it still carries his name – Mountjoy Square.

Hard at is to conceive in the present day, Mountjoy Square occupies the summit of a small hill overlooking what was once a large marshland swamp washed over by tidal rivers like the Liffey, the Tolka and the Poddle.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, ingenious engineers began to tame these rivers with stone quays and the early versions of the North, South and East Walls. As the rivers became contained, so the high ground above them became increasingly sought after.

During the Middle Ages, much of the land on the northside – including the hill upon which Mountjoy Square stands - belonged to the Cistercians of St Mary’s Abbey. The abbey, which stood just off Capel Street, was the most powerful in Dublin, with landholdings of over 17,000 acres.[ii] With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII and its lands were confiscated.

During the early 18th century, much of this land was purchased by Luke Gardiner, one of the leading officials in the Irish Treasury. Gardiner’s origins are hazy. Having somehow acquired a sound education, he is rumoured to have started out as a butler in Leixlip Castle before finding work as a clerk in the old Custom House.[iii] Having amassed a small fortune as a wine merchant, he leapt up the social hierarchy when he was married in 1711 to Anne Stewart, fifteen-year-old niece of the 2nd Viscount Mountjoy.[iv] (The Mountjoy title would be revived by the Gardiner’s grandson Luke when he became Baron Mountjoy 1789.)

Gardiner subsequently became manager of the Mountjoy’s property and, as was the custom of the time, he purchased his way up through the ranks of officialdom, becoming an MP in the Irish Parliament and deputy Vice-Treasurer of Ireland. He also co-founded a bank on Castle Street, Dublin, which was considered rather a bold step for a Treasury official. [v]

However it was in the streetscape of Dublin that Gardiner was destined to make his most lasting mark. Spurred on by an intensive rivalry with the Fitzwilliams on Dublin’s southside, he laid a number of major streets across Dublin’s northside, including O’Connell Street (formerly Sackville Street), Dorset Street and Henrietta Street, probably the finest street in Dublin.[vi]

Following Gardiner’s death from a ‘paralytic disorder’ in 1755, his rather dissolute eldest son Charles Gardiner succeeded.[vii] Aside from running up large debts, Charles’ greatest legacy was the completion of Parnell Square (formerly Rutland Square).[viii]

With the death of Charles in 1769, the combined Gardiner and Stewart estates now fell to his 24-year-old Cambridge-educated son Luke II (later Viscount Mountjoy).[ix] Luke, a noted connoisseur and patron of art, was married in 1773 to Elizabeth Montgomery, one of three beautiful daughters born to a Scottish baronet. He would later name Montgomery Street in honour of his in-laws; now called Foley Street, it was destined to become rather better known as the Monto, Dublin’s infamous red-light district.

Luke Gardiner II represented County Dublin in ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ from 1773 to 1789, proving himself both a liberal and a friend to Ireland’s beleaguered Catholic majority. He was also appointed one of Dublin’s Wide Streets Commissioners, tasked with bringing order to the layout of the city’s streets.

The Chief Commissioner was the Rt Hon John Beresford, Luke II’s brother-in-law, who orchestrated the construction of a new Custom House for Dublin right on the southern banks of the Beresford and Gardiner estates, as well as new bridge (now O’Connell Bridge) to link their property to the heart of the south-side of the city at College Green.

In 1787, Luke II commissioned Thomas Sherrard, Ireland’s foremost land surveyor, to draw up a plan for a new Georgian square to crown a small hill overlooking the new Custom House. Three years later the first bricks were laid on the square, which was duly named ‘Mountjoy Square’ because Luke II has just been created Baron Mountjoy. In 1795, he was bumped up to Viscount Mountjoy.

Unlike all other Georgian squares in Dublin, Mountjoy Square was an exact square, comprising of four 140 metres long sides, each bordered by terraced, red-brick, four-storey houses. The only variation was that whereas the North, East and West sides were to have 18 houses, the South had 19.[x] The garden at its centre was designed by John Sutherland, the most celebrated landscape architect in Ireland at the time.

No bakers, distillers, butchers, soap-boilers, tallow chandlers or other tradesmen were permitted to reside on the square. However, builders and craftsmen were allowed, particularly those who helped build the square. This included many stuccodors, or plasterwork specialists, such as Michael Stapleton who not only leased but decorated three houses on the square in the exquisite Neoclassical style.

While many Georgian houses sank into decay during the recession that followed the passage of the Act of Union in 1800, Mountjoy Square had its fair share of luminaries during the Victorian Age including many of the city’s leading politicians, barristers and solicitors.

The founders of the modern Irish state were well acquainted with Mountjoy Square. When the provisional Dáil was forced to go underground during the War of Independence, the assembly managed several meetings at No. 3, home to Walter L. Cole, a wealthy Sinn Féin alderman. In 1916 Cole similarly hosted a meeting attended by five of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Tim Healy, the first Governor-General of the Irish Free State, lived at No. 1.

The playwright Sean O’Casey lived in a tenement at No. 35; all three of his Dublin plays - The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars - are set in similar Georgian tenements. James Joyce spent his eleventh year living just off the square. W. B. Yeats is another literary giant who knew the square, having stayed at No. 53, home to his Fenian friend John O’Leary whose death in 1907 prompted the poet to write:

‘Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.’

In recent times, Mountjoy Square featured prominently in the film Oncewith Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová singing the Oscar-winning ‘Falling Slowly’ from one of its houses. It was perhaps an apt song given the square’s downward spiral amid the inner city decline that befell Dublin during the mid to late 20th century; several of the original houses had already been demolished.

In 1964, the Hon. Desmond and Mariga Guinness of the Irish Georgian Society purchased No. 50 and set up the Friends of Mountjoy Square in a bid to halt any further dilapidation on the square. Desmond Guinness had a natural connection to the square as Arthur Guinness, his brewery-founding ancestor, died at his home on the square in 1803.

Over the next few years, a disparate group that included millionaire Ivor Underwood, the spirits distributor Edward Dillon and the republican Uniseann MacEoin purchased a number of houses on the square which they then set about restoring.[xi]

However, 22 of these decaying houses were snapped up by property developer Matt Gallagher whose lawyer subsequently declared that ‘a comprehensive development of all four sides of Mountjoy Square in a modern idiom’ would be ‘desirable’. A showdown ensued between Gallagher and the Georgians, leading the developer to demolish the two houses he owned on either side of the IGS’s headquarters.

By dint of an enormous fund-raising campaign, the IGS managed to buy the remaining houses from Gallagher but the cost of then conserving the houses proved impossible. Moreover, many local residents were inclined to think any monies raised should be spent helping the destitute families of the area rather than on restoring 18th century Neoclasscial plasterwork.

The enthusiasm for preservation faded away. By 1979, almost all of the original houses on the south and west sides had been demolished, including No. 50, which the IGS grimly sold in 1978. Before they left, the IGS secured a rule that any new facades had to be copies of the original.

As for the Gardiners, following Viscount Mountjoy’s death in New Ross, he was succeeded by his son Charles, who became Earl of Blessington in 1816. Thirteen years later, the Earl unexpectedly died without a male heir. Both titles became extinct and the Gardiner Estate was split up and sold.

FOOTNOTES

[i] The Dublin militia was largely Catholic and Gardiner was held in high esteem by many Irish Catholics.

[ii] Founded by the Benedictines in 1139, St Mary’s Abbey came under the control of the Cistercians just eight years later who converted it into the most powerful of the ten abbeys that surrounded Dublin. At its peak, the abbey’s landholdings amounted to 17,000 acres while the abbey itself was considered the finest assemblage of houses in Dublin. The King’s Council frequently met at St. Mary’s Abbey. When Silken Thomas launched his ill-fated rebellion in 1534, it was here that he epically flung his Sword of State to the ground and renounced his allegiance to the Crown.

[iii] The father of Luke Gardiner (c. 1680-1755) is believed to have been a Dublin merchant called William Gardiner who received a grant of arms in 1683. Legend holds that Luke initially worked as a domestic servant but Anthony Malcolmson contends that it is rather more likely that he started as a secretary or clerk ‘in the lackey line’, not least as he was proficient in ‘reading, writing and accounts’.

In 1695, he moved into the household of John South, a commissioner of the revenue, where he became friendly with South’s stepdaughter Henrietta Crofts. From there, he advanced to a position of influence in the Custom House, whilst amassing a considerable fortune as a wine merchant. Others allege he was a ‘protestant discoverer’. In 1708, he was made secretary to Dublin’s newly created Ballast Board.

[iv] The marriage to Anne Stewart provided Gardiner with opportunities for self-enrichment as he became manager of the Mountjoy’s property, while he also became a joint patron of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce’s theatre on the corner of Aungier and Longford Streets.

[v] Following the Hanoverian succession to the throne in 1714, Gardiner bought his way up the ranks of officialdom, as was the custom of the day, including the purchase of borough seats in the Irish Parliament for Tralee (1723-7) and Thomastown, County Kilkenny (1727-1755). In 1725 he became deputy Vice-Treasurer of Ireland which was useful when he, rather brashly, cofounded a bank on Castle Street, Dublin, in 1733 with Arthur Hill, later 1st Viscount Dungannon.[v]

[vi] Gardiner named Henrietta Street for his old friend Henrietta Croft, step-daughter of his early patron John South, who was now wife of the hen-pecked Duke of Bolton, the Viceroy of Ireland at this time. The Gardiners lived at No. 10 [later called Mountjoy House, and later still Blessington House] while his architectural friend Nathaniel Clements lived at No. 7.

In 1793, Lord Mountjoy leased an open meadow at the top of Henrietta Street called the Plover Field to the treasurer of the King’s Inns. By 1800, Gandon had built the King’s Inns upon this very site.

Large numbers of country people arrived to work on these developments as labourers and artisans. Doctors, lawyers, agents, civil servants and clerks soon filled these houses, while there was also a commensurate explosion in the population of tradespeople and domestic servants in the area.

Nathaniel Clements was closely involved with the development of the Gardiner estate in north Dublin. Amongst others involved was Edward Archdall of Castle Archdall in County Fermanagh who joined the Gardiners in their developments on Temple Street, Gardiner Street and North Great George’s Street.

[vii] Charles Gardiner sat in Parliament from 1742 to 1760 and held numerous offices, including Keeper of Phoenix Park.

[viii] Jacqueline O’Brien hailed Parnell Square as one of the family’s ‘most distinguished and successful compositions.’

In August 1769, Charles Gardiner inherited the substantial estates of his cousin William Stewart, 3rd Viscount Mountjoy and 1st Earl of Blessington. However, just over three months later, Charles was also dead.

[ix] His sister Anne was married to the 1st Earl of Clancarty, with whom she had 19 children.

[x] The three principal builders on the south side were John Scott, J. Handley and Archibald Manning.

[xi] In 1967, Thom’s Directory noted that just three of the 68 houses on the 1.8 hectare square were owner occupied. As to the rest, 13 were occupied as tenements, 12 were already demolished, 11 had been converted into flats, 11 were used for small-scale industry (including an upholsterer, an electrician and a silk screen printer) while 4 were occupied by religious institutes.

Through an enormous exertion of time, networking and fund-raising, the IGS managed to buy all 22 houses from Gallagher for £68,000 in 1969. However, while the IGS recouped some of their expenditure through resales, there was still a huge challenge in paying for the actual conservation. Moreover, many Dubliners, particularly residents of the square, were understandably inclined to think any monies raised should be spent on looking after the destitute families of the area rather than on restoring 18th century Neoclasscial plasterwork.

FURTHER READING

The Year of Liberty: The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 by Thomas Pakenham (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1969)

Dublin: A Grand Tour by Jacqueline O'Brien and Desmond Guinness (Weidenfled & Nicholson)

The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of Nelson's Pillar, by Donal Fallon (New Island, 2014)

The Blessington Estate by Kathy Trant (Anvil, 2004)

Modern Dublin: Urban Change and the Irish Past, 1957-1973 by Erika Hanna (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Nathaniel Clements by Anthony Malcomson (Four Courts Press, 2005)

Dublin: The City Within the Grand and Royal Canals and the Circular Road with the Pheonix Park by Christine Casey (Yale, 2005)


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