Category Archives: History

Powerscourt – A place of dreams

Powerscourt House

Powerscourt House

Although it is less than thirty minutes from the Dublin city centre Powerscourt seems almost to be from a different, fantasy world. There is so much on show that it is understandable why it is ‘a must see’ and has been recognised internationally. The renowned National Geographic listed the Gardens No. 3 in the world, and Lonely Planet voted Powerscourt one of the Top Ten Houses in the World.

Sugar Loaf from the Terrace

Sugar Loaf from the Terrace

The site in Enniskerry, Wicklow was originally owned by a man called La Poer (anglicised as Power) who built a castle there in the 13th century. Richard Cassels, the German-born architect (he also designed Leinster House and Russborough House), spent ten years altering the house into the Palladian masterpiece you see today. It was suitably grand enough to have King George IV as a guest when he came to Ireland in 1821. Sadly, the house was badly damaged by fire in 1974, but reopened in 1997, although not to its former glory.

Japanese Gardens

Japanese Gardens

The ground floor houses a variety of craft and design shops, and the popular Terrace Café offers a magnificent view of the Italian Gardens with the Sugar Loaf Mountain as a spectacular backdrop. You can also visit Tara’s Museum of Childhood that features dolls, toys, dollhouses and is recognised as one of the greatest collections in the world.

The gardens include the beautiful, formal Italian Gardens (inspired by gardens in the Palace of Versailles) that lead down to Triton Lake; the tranquil and colourful Japanese Gardens; and the Walled Gardens. Nearby are the quaint Pets’ Cemetery, and the not-to-be-missed Pepperpot Tower. From the top there is a great view of the estate and the cannon guns are an interesting feature.

Apart from all this there are two championship golf courses to enjoy, and I can’t forget the Powerscourt Waterfall that is the highest in Ireland. Powerscourt has much to offer, so plan your visit!

Pepperpot Tower

Pepperpot Tower

Powerscourt Waterfall

Powerscourt Waterfall

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Sir Hugh Lane – Art Lover

Sir Hugh Lane

Sir Hugh Lane

If ever one man made a difference, then the contribution of Sir Hugh Lane to the cause of promoting art in Ireland must be celebrated. His gesture in setting up the world’s first gallery for modern art in Dublin was far-sighted, and done with the love and understanding of an expert. The city and country are forever in his debt, and after more than a hundred years of business, the gallery is stronger and more exciting than ever.

Lane, who was born on the 9th November 1875 in County Cork, spent most of his early life in Cornwall, England. By the 1890s he was working in the London art market where he was known as a shrewd and knowledgeable investor, especially in the works of the Impressionists. Over time he bought a significant number of paintings and it is these that form the core of the permanent collection that now bears his name.

WB Yeats

WB Yeats

In the early 1900s Lane often spent time with his aunt, Lady Augusta Gregory, at her home in Coole Park, County Galway where he met many of the leading figures in Irish art, including W.B. Yeats, Edward Martyn and AE Russell. In 1901 after he had attended an exhibition by Irish artists in Dublin, he was determined to open a gallery in the city for contemporary work from both Ireland and abroad. He persuaded some rich friends to help provide funds and the artists, Jack B Yeats and Roderic O’Connor, to donate paintings to the gallery that opened on 20th January, 1908 on Harcourt Street. This was meant to have been a temporary venue, but after Dublin  Corporation’s rejection of his plans for a gallery (designed by Sir Edward Lutyens) on both sides of the Liffey, he offered his paintings to The National Gallery in London.

This action would have very serious consequences after Lane died on board the Lusitania when it was sunk on 7th May, 1915, about 11 miles from the Old Head of Kinsale, in his native county. (Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard 1,198 lost their lives.) Before boarding the ill-fated ship he had changed his mind, and will, about the disposition of the ‘39’ paintings (The Lane Bequest), but unfortunately the document, although signed by Lane, was not witnessed. This led to long and painful discussions with the National Gallery in London who had possession of the paintings, that were finally resolved in 1993. The Lane Bequest was split so that 31 of the paintings came to Dublin permanently while the remaining 8 paintings, although staying in London, were to be shown in Dublin every 6 years. All 39 paintings were reunited for the first time in Dublin in 2008.

Casino at Marino

Casino at Marino

So, after a difficult start, the gallery finally found a home in Charlemont House, Parnell Square, Dublin. This wonderful building was designed by renowned English architect Sir William Chambers in 1763 for James Caulfield, 1st Earl of Charlemont. Caulfield had met Chambers in Italy while the younger man was on his Grand Tour, and asked Chambers to design a ‘town house’ for him. (Chambers also designed the Casino at Marino for Caulfield.) The building has changed little over the years and it is recognised as one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in Dublin. Lane, sadly, never got to see the gallery, but I am sure he would agree that Caulfield’s magnificent house is a most suitable place for his collection to call home.

Charlemont House

Charlemont House

 

 

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Serendipity – what a surprise!

Bewleys - colour fun

Bewleys – colour fun

The aroma of coffee was strong and intoxicating, but then it always was in Bewleys. Paul and I were sitting in one of the red banquettes enjoying sticky buns, surrounded by the hum of lively conversation that was unique to the place. It was now almost midday and the sun was shining, filling the café in a magical light. It lit the stained-glass window opposite sending shafts of red, blue, yellow and green light dancing across the floor. I had to admire the craftsmanship that was now seen at its best in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colour.

‘They really are something else,’ Paul said, noting my interest in the window and the changing colours.

‘Yes…they are brilliant.’

Paul continued. ‘They are by Harry Clarke, Ireland’s greatest stained-glass window artist. The man was a genius!’ We looked closely at them, watching as tiny motes of dust floated aimlessly in the shafts of technicolour light.

‘You’re not joking,’ I replied ‘they’re fantastic.’ Of all the times that I had been in Bewleys – and they were many – I had never seen the windows in such a wonderful light and the effect was exciting.

Paul offered. ‘I studied his work when I was in college, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The detail is so good that it takes your breath away. He was a real artist.’

‘Absolutely,’ I agreed.

‘He’s done plenty of other work,’ Paul added, ‘all around the country. Some of the best are in a church in Castletownsend, in west Cork, and well worth a look the next time you’re down there. You should check them out.’

I looked forward to my next visit to Baltimore, from where I could easily visit the small town where Harry Clarke’s windows were waiting. We had a date.

Over the next couple of weeks I did some research into the works of Harry Clarke and was impressed with what I found. He learned his craft from his father, before attending college where he was awarded gold medals and scholarships. He worked on various commissions and also did many illustrations for books. But it was his skill as a master worker in glass that made his name and ensured his place in art history, before he died, aged only 41.

St Barrahane's Church

St Barrahane’s Church

And so it was on a bright day in early May that I drove down the hill, around the tall sycamore tree in the middle of the road that acted as a natural roundabout, and pulled up outside St Barrahane’s Church in Castletownsend. I climbed the 52 steps (one for every Sunday in the year!) and looked out at the still, blue waters of Castlehaven Bay where small boats bobbed in the warm breeze. It was a tranquil scene with only the sound of gulls cawing as they swooped and played in the sunshine.

HC's - Rich colours

HC’s – Rich colours

The old door creaked as I pushed it and stepped into the cool, quiet darkness. I waited for a few moments in the stillness taking in the atmosphere, and then walked slowly up the aisle. Above the old, weathered pews the sun shone through three colourful windows that were created by James Powell of London, the most famous glassmaker of his day.

HC - a lifelike image

HC – a lifelike image

But it was the works of Harry Clarke that drew me forward. Then I stopped, lost in wonderment, as I was bathed in the myriad shafts of colour. The images on the glass were so lifelike, infused with sunlight, that they might have been moving. In the quiet, almost eerie, silence I felt that I was not alone. The work is indeed the stuff of genius, and I was happy to have made the journey.

 Leaving the church I noticed a ship’s oar at the bottom of the stairs that led to the organ balcony. It was from the Lusitania that had been sunk not too far from where I stood, in May 1915. I ran a finger along the blade and felt a shiver run up my back. It was a surprise to come across a reminder of that day when almost 1,200 people lost their lives, now resting awkwardly with the beauty and calm of Harry Clarke’s window.

Outside, I was confused by what I had just experienced. I was delighted to have seen Clarke’s work, and I was now determined to find out about the tragic events that had brought the oar to this beautiful place. The old saying that ‘one thing leads to another’ never seemed so true. Serendipity indeed.

Castlehaven Bay

Castlehaven Bay

 

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CS Parnell – Uncrowned King of Ireland

Avondale House

Avondale House

Although I was familiar with his statue at the end of O’Connell Street, I had never been to his home, Avondale, in Rathdrum, County Wicklow until recently. It is a wonderful Georgian building designed in 1777 by James Wyatt for the barrister Samuel Hayes, who was a pioneer of reinstating forests in Ireland. When Hayes died, in 1795, he left his property to his friend Sir John Parnell, the great-grandfather of CS Parnell.

.CSP on O'Connell Street

CSP on O’Connell Street

CS Parnell was born on the 27th June 1846 in Avondale and was named after his maternal grandfather Charles Stewart who was a hero of the War of 1812 (1812-1815). He was a naval officer who commanded the USS Constitution when it captured two British ships, HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, on the same day, 20th February 1815. In fact, the Admiral’s mother, Parnell’s great-grandmother, was a member of the House Of Tudor and, therefore, related to Royal Family. His father, John Henry Parnell, was the grandson of the Sir John Parnell who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Grattan’s Parliament, who lost his position in 1799 when he opposed the Act of Union. With such a lineage it was no surprise that CS would himself one day be involved in the business of politics.

Early on he was sent to school in England and later went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, although due to financial concerns at Avondale he never graduated.

He was first elected as an MP for Meath in 1875, and later as MP for Youghal, Cork from 1880-1891. Later, he became president of the Irish National Land League on 21 October 1979 when it was established in the Imperial Hotel, Castlebar, Co Mayo. This brought most of the groups that were involved in land agitation and the rights of tenants together, with the following aims:

  • to bring about a reduction in rents, and
  • to achieve ownership of the land.

In December 1979 he travelled to America, visiting 62 cities, and helped raise £70,000 for famine relief in Ireland.  In Washington he met President Hayes before being invited to speak to the House of Representatives. The tour was a massive success and Parnell was soon hailed as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland.’

By the late 1880s he was at the peak of his power and pushing Prime Minister Gladstone on the issue of Home Rule. They pair held meetings in March 1888 and in late 1889, but he was brought down when news of his affair with Mrs Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea was made public in 1890. Although the League passed a resolution that confirmed Parnell’s leadership, the Catholic Church disagreed, distressed by news of his immorality, and decided it could no longer act as his ally.

On 25th June 1891 he married Katherine and they moved to Hove, England where he died of pneumonia on 6th October 1891. His body was returned for burial, on the 11th October, in Glasnevin Cemetery where a crowd of 200,000 attended. The renowned historian AJP Taylor commented: ‘More than any other man he gave Ireland the sense of being an independent nation.’

.Avondale - path to house

Avondale – path to house

.Avondale forest

Avondale forest

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Top of Dublin

I just found this video and thought it had to be shared. It’s taken by a guy who climbs, in daylight, to the top of one of the twin towers at the Poolbeg Power Station, Ringsend. Thankfully for him it was a good day to climb, and it’s the first time that I’ve seen such footage. Scary stuff, but magnificent panorama of the city! (Not for the faint-hearted.)

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Pigeon House – Refuge from the storm

Pigeon House

Pigeon House

By the mid-1750s entry to and from Dublin Bay was a hazardous operation and the city governors decided something drastic needed to be done to improve the situation. So a plan was drawn up to construct a wall into the bay that would stop the silting up of channels and provide a safe place for passengers to board.

Great South Wall

Great South Wall

This work to build the Great South Wall took over thirty years and was complete in 1795 with safer passage for travellers and an improvement in trade. During the lengthy construction John Pidgeon was the caretaker of the storehouse for the equipment used during the building, and he began selling refreshments to travellers who often waited for days until the weather improved to travel. As a smart businessman he also offered trips around the long wall which was one of the longest in the world when completed.

Twin Towers

Twin Towers

Business improved and Pidgeon (the ‘d’ in his name was dropped a long time ago) built a small hotel to cater for the needs of the growing number of travellers. In 1793, years after John Pidgeon had died, a new building was erected and operated for many years. This building still stands and lies in the shadow of the twin towers of the Poolbeg Station. Not long afterwards with the whiff of revolution in the air and the 1798 Rebellion a recent memory a fort was constructed near the hotel and it became known as the Pigeon House Fort. Today, the canon guns outside the entrance to the ESB power station were originally facing out to sea anticipating a possible French invasion that never came.

The place also made its literary mark on a young James Joyce. In his first great work Dubliners he tells of two boys playing truant (no doubt he was one of them!) as they went to the exotic building and the long wall that stretched seemingly forever into the bay in his short story An Encounter:

We arranged to go along the Wharf Road until we came to the ships, then to cross in the ferryboat and walk out to see the Pigeon House.

The guns stayed silent

The guns stayed silent

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Sir John Gray – The water bringer

On O'Connell Street

On O’Connell Street

Once described as a Renaissance Man and by being a doctor, surgeon, journalist, newspaper proprietor and politician the commentator was ‘spot on’. It is rare that a person should excel in so many different disciplines but then John Gray was the exception to all the rules. He was born on 13th July 1815 in Claremorris, Mayo and entered Trinity College, Dublin where he studied medicine. In 1839 he graduated as a Master in Surgery from Glasgow University, returned to Dublin, married Mary Dwyer and worked in a hospital on North Cumberland Street.

Although from the Protestant ruling class Gray became the political editor of the nationalist newspaper The Freeman’s Journal and was co-owner from 1841. He used the newspaper to discuss important issues and in 1843 backed Daniel O’Connell’s call for the Repeal of the Act of Union and both men were sentenced to prison. However, due to the impetuousness of the prosecutor who challenged Gray’s defence to a duel, neither he nor O’Connell went to gaol.

At Vartry Reservoir

At Vartry Reservoir

In 1850 he became sole proprietor of The Freeman’s Journal and reduced the price and considerably increased its readership. With his interest in local politics he was elected an alderman of Dublin Corporation in 1852. He put the issue of clean water for the city at the top of his agenda and did everything to promote the Vartry Scheme. This was a massive project and necessitated building a series of water pumping and filtering stations from the Vartry River to Dublin. Due to chronic overcrowding and bad housing conditions in the city the introduction of clean water was vital in defeating the regular outbreaks of typhus and cholera that claimed so many young lives. On the day the project came into operation, 30th June 1863, Gray was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Reservoir and Tower

Reservoir and Tower

In 1865 he stood as a Liberal Party candidate in the general election and was elected as MP for Kilkenny City. During his time at Westminster he was a busy and successful campaigner for the reforms espoused in The Freeman’s Journal, such as the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland, improving the educational opportunities for Catholics and reform of the land laws. His fight for the provision in the new Landlord & Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870 of fixity of tenure gathered great support and was eventually conceded by Prime Minister Gladstone.

Vartry Reservoir

Vartry Reservoir

He died in Bath, Somerset on the 9th April, 1875 and his remains were returned to Ireland. As a man held in the highest esteem he was honoured with a public funeral and burial in Glasnevin Cemetery. And, shortly afterwards, a public subscription raised the necessary funds for a statue on O’Connell Street. It was unveiled in 1879 and is dedicated to the ‘appreciation of his many services to his country, and of the splendid supply of pure water which he secured for Dublin’.

Through the gate

Through the gate

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