Harry Mount

Fighting the bulldozer

Harry Mount on the fate of Georgian country houses in Ireland

Fifty years ago, when the Irish Georgian Society was founded, the bulldozer was a familiar sight in Ireland, trundling along elegant urban terraces and drawing up at the gates of country houses. One of the bulldozer’s prominent Dublin victims half a century ago was No. 2 Kildare Place. This 1751 gem, just next to the Dail, was in excellent condition; the house was only destroyed because the state, which owned the building, had no desire to maintain it. One government minister even said of the Kildare Place demolitions, ‘I was glad to see them go. They stand for everything I hate.’

Fifty years on, and things are a lot better. The passage of time — and a booming Irish economy — have meant that Georgian buildings are no longer associated with a rich, foreign Ascendancy class.

In the interim, there have been grievous losses. Lots of great houses are now only remembered in the name of a housing estate or shopping centre — like Santry Court and Frescati House, both in Dublin. But many splendours escaped the wrecking ball, too, thanks to Desmond Guinness — offspring of the beerage — and his wife Mariga, who founded the society together in 1958. Guinness still remembers his heartache at coming out of the Shelbourne Hotel in that year to see workmen ripping the slates off the Kildare Place roofs.

In the capital, the Tailors’ Hall, St Catherine’s Church and Mountjoy Square were saved by the society. Elsewhere, Roundwood in Laois, Damer House in Tipperary, and Doneraile Court in Cork were further triumphs, among many others. Perhaps the most famous of the survivors is Castletown House, Kildare — Ireland’s earliest and finest Palladian mansion.

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