Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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In 1792, the Liffey rose so high that the tidal waters smashed through the riverside defences of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and gushed so far south that, according to the Dublin Chronicle, the Duke of Leinster ‘sailed over the low ground in the south lotts and landed safely at Merrion Square’.

That tale serves as a useful reminder for just how much of central Dublin is built upon what is effectively a reclaimed boggy marsh. The soggy land upon which the very first houses of Merrion Square were built in 1762 would certainly have tasted a little salty.

Back in the 18th century, nobody lived in these remote southern parts of Dublin. Indeed, when the ambitious young Earl of Kildare began constructing a splendid new country-style mansion in the area, his friends thought he was crazy. They feared he would become isolated from society, which was then based on the fashionable northside.

But remoteness has its own charms and Lord Kildare and his wife passed the time by becoming parents of 19 children, including Lord Edward FitzGerald. Kildare was also made Duke of Leinster and his new Dublin townhouse was accordingly renamed Leinster House, the seat of the present day Dail.

The land upon which Leinster House was built belonged to Kildare’s friend, Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, whose family had been in Ireland since the Elizabethan Age. They owned a vast 1300 acre estate running south from Merrion Square across open fields and the River Dodder to the fledgling seaside resort of Blackrock, the fishing village of Ringsend and the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains.

The Duke had long wagered that society would follow him south of the Liffey. Fitzwilliam was quick to cotton on that the Duke was almost certainly correct. Inspired by the squares of Paris – and the success of earlier developments at Rutland Square (now Parnell Square) on the northside, and St. Stephen’s Green on the southside - he set his sights on constructing a smart residential square around an ornamental park.

In 1762, Fitzwilliam commissioned Dublin surveyor Jonathan Barker to design just such a square for a site just south east of Leinster House. Barker duly devised an imposing square with a double row of trees around the perimeter of the central park.

Fitzwilliam then put five plots of land at the north-western end of this site up for lease. Snapped up by builders, the first five townhouses of Merrion Square soon arose from the ground.

Whilst the birth of Merrion Square was reasonably smooth, its adolescence proved rather more complicated. Despite the Duke of Leinster’s magnetic presence, developers remained cautious.

They were wary about the precise terms of the Fitzwilliam leases. Each house has to be four storey’s high above a basement where the kitchens and servants were to be quartered. There was to be an 8-foot area to the front, and a garden running to mews and stabling to the rear. This was to be a strictly residential area; commercial activities such as alehouses and soap boilers were banned.

Furthermore, the thrifty Fitzwilliam insisted that all the stones used for the walls, window sills, coping and steps came from their family-owned quarries at Ticknock. Likewise, every one of the tens of thousands of russet red bricks that were carted in to the square came from Lord Fitzwilliam’s extensive brickworks at Merrion Gates in Sandymount. No alternative materials were permitted. Brick-making was such an unhealthy business that even the Georgians agreed. In 1771, the Irish Parliament passed 'An Act to prevent the pernicious practice of burning bricks' so that, by 1794, the Fitzwillaim brickfields were abandoned and the clay pits full of water.

However, as time advanced, more developers came on board and the square took shape. The houses were generally designed and built in groups of two or three which ultimately meant that, while the overall style is uniform, a subtle variety in the heights of the windows and parapets creates a vital harmony. This works particularly well with the diverse – and internationally famous - doorways with their richly decorated fanlights and door-cases.

As was typical of the era, the first tenants were the developers themselves – the bricklayers, carpenters, builders and architects, as well as a painter and a plumber. But it wasn’t solely a man’s world– the wife of Fitzwilliam’s agent was Barbara Verschoyle whose name leaps out from the archives as a formidable dame who kept a close eye on every aspect of the construction.

By the time the square was completed in the early 19th century, there were 91 houses – 32 on the northside, 17 on the east, 35 on the south and just 7 on the west. The grassy expanse of Leinster Lawn rolled out from Leinster Houses to the western side of the square. The north side was completed by the mid 1780s and included Antrim House, the largest house on the square, which was designed by John Esnor, a student of Cassells, for the Earls of Antrim. This house, which enjoyed magnificent views of the Dublin mountains, was demolished in 1936 to make way for Holles Street Hospital.

Development of the east side by architect Samuel Sproule began in the age of Grattan’s Parliament in the 1780s, and then came the taller south side which was developed in line with Upper Mount Street.

In the 1790s, the west side was ornamented by the Rutland Fountain, an elaborate granite and Portland stone memorial to the Duke of Rutland, a popular Viceroy, who died aged 33. It was restored in 1975 in memory of Sybil Le Brocquy, patron of the arts and literature, and mother of the artist Louis Le Brocquy.

The streets were gravelled while the central park was planted and surrounded by the very same wrought iron railings upon which nearly 200 artists now hang their works every Sunday.

During the 1780s and 1790s, the bulk of these homes belonged to the Anglo-Irish elite who, in those heady days, were as wealthy as any aristocratic group in Europe. They duly converted the gracefully proportioned interiors of their Merrion Square homes into some of the most visually impressive in the world.

Huge rooms lined with Italianate murals and artistic masterpieces, connected by polished mahogany doors and brass handles. Fires blazed beneath exquisite marble mantelpieces. Ornamental iron balustrades rose from Portland stone floors. Plate glass windows beheld the young city as far as the Dublin mountains.

The ceilings were particularly brilliant, bedecked with some of the most beautiful, intricate decorative 18th century plasterwork in existence.

The Acts of Union of 1800 sapped Georgian Dublin’s once vigorous energy as the aristocracy abandoned Dublin for the greater joys of London. One of the most colourful commentators of this period was Sir Jonah Barrington who lived at No. 42, and whose rakish journals are a must read for anyone interested in the Georgian Age.

The townhouses of the vanished elite were now up for grabs for doctors and the professional classes such as Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who purchased No. 58 as his Dublin base in 1809.

In 1859, a visitor remarked that ‘a few ladies take within [Merrion Square’s] railings their solitary constitutional walk, and a occasional gentleman is seen crossing it, producing his key at the gate and locking it after him as would a wine cellar’.

The Victorians made their mark when they developed the left and right flanks of Leinster Lawn to become the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery. The Victorians also gave the south side a perfect focal point when they built St. Stephen’s Church, known as the Pepper Canister, on Upper Mount Street.

Another legacy of this era was the whitening of all the window reveals on the square, which usefully relieved the intensity of the redbrick facades.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Merrion Square was home to many remarkable people. No. 1, the oldest house on the square, belonged to the surgeon Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar, whose statue sprawls in the parkland corner opposite. Oscar’s mother Speranza held regular literary salons here, attended by the likes of Bram Stoker and Gothic novelist Sheridan Le Fanu (who lived at No. 70, now HQ of the Irish Arts Council).

The cultural connections continued to blossom when WB Yeats lived at No. 82 from 1922 to 1928, while his nationalist friend George W Russell (better known as AE) spent many years working at nearby No. 84 with Sir Horace Plunkett, the champion of cooperation, trade and agriculture.

Considered epitome of a Georgian square by architects the world over, Merrion Square narrowly avoided a very different destiny when, in 1930, Archbishop Byrne of Dublin purchased the park for £100,000 with a view to building a new Catholic cathedral at its centre. The plan never came off. In 1974, Archbishop Ryan gifted the park to Dublin, which was subsequently opened to the public as "Archbishop Ryan Park" in his honour. However, following the publication of the Murphy Report in 2009, which castigated Ryan for covering up sexual abuse in the church, Dublin City Council renamed it ‘Merrion Square Park’.

While much of the square’s original artwork, including the marble mantelpieces, was plundered or sold in the last century, the majority of these houses side-stepped attempts at modernization such as lifts and subdivisions. The biggest loss was No. 39, the British Embassy, which was burned down in 1972 in reprisal for the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry.

Merrion Square’s ongoing iconic status in the fashion world is upheld by world famous designer Louise Kennedy who has her workshop, showroom and home at No. 56, just as the late couturiere Sybil Connolly had hers at No. 71 in the 1980s and 1990s.

Amongst many notable organizations on the square, there is the National Maternity Hospital, the Irish Traditional Music Archive, the Irish Architectural Archive, the Irish Georgian Society, the Society of Antiquarians, the College of Anaesthetists and the Irish Red Cross.

250 years after the first houses were built, it just goes to show what you can do with a few acres of undeveloped marshland if you put your mind to it.


For more, see www.merrionsquare.ie


With thanks to Robert O’Byrne, Colum O'Riordan (Archive Administrator, Irish Architectural Archive), Donough Cahill (Executive Director, Irish Georgian Society), Aoife McElwain (Assistant Project Manager, Merrion Square Innovation Network - www.merrionsquare.ie), Sophie Flynn Rogers (sfrpr.ie) and Eimear Clowry Delaney (University of Notre Dame, O'Connell House, 58 Merrion Square).