It’s odd to think that at the time the architect James Gandon moved from London to Dublin, the largest city in Ireland was also one of the largest in Europe. It was far from the political and economic backwater it became after that other ‘Flight of the Earls’ – in this case Anglo-Irish aristocrats – in the aftermath of the passage of the Act of Union and the dissolution of the Irish Parliament in 1800.
Gandon first come to prominence by finishing second. In 1769, at the age of 26, he had entered a design for the competition for new Royal Exchange in Dublin. In case you’re scratching your head wondering ‘where is the Royal Exchange in Dublin?’ we call it City Hall these days. That competition was won by another British architect who settled in Ireland Thomas Cooley.
Gandon may have been unlucky on that occasion but he was much more fortunate in 1780 when Cooley, who was supposed to be responsible for the building of the Custom House, died suddenly before work had begun. Gandon was asked to step in and complete the job. He turned down a commission from member of the Russian Royal family to take on the challenge.
The Romanov’s loss was Dublin’s gain. However the population of the city would not have seen it that way at the time. The Custom House, which many Dubliners alleged was being built on a swamp, was the pet project of John Beresford, the most powerful man in Ireland in the late 18th century. Beresford could, more or less, ram through whatever project he wanted, but that didn’t make them popular with the taxpayers who had to foot the bill.
In order to avoid Gandon becoming collateral damage Beresford smuggled him into the country and put him up in his own house until the building was well under way and the project unstoppable. The eventual bill – footed by the taxpayers of course – was £200,000 – that’s around €40m in today’s money.
From 1780 to 1800 Dublin grew to be the fifth largest city in Europe and Beresford and Gandon were at the heart of many of the fine buildings that were constructed during that time. For a follow up to the Custom House Gandon designed the Four Courts – where, presumably, tax payers who hadn’t stumped for the Custom House could be indicted and jailed. Gandon also worked for the Wide Streets Commissioners in developing the cityscape with which we are familiar today.
Gandon also designed a number of private dwellings, the most notable of these are Emo Court in Co.Laois and Abbeville in north Dublin. The latter was the country home of Beresford but a couple of centuries later was acquired by another equally powerful Irish political figure Charles J.Haughey.
Despite the impressive architectural legacy he left behind Gandon was never popular while he worked in Dublin. His costly public buildings were resented by those who had to pay for their construction. He was frequently lambasted in the, largely unionist, press of the day. When the 1798 rebellion broke out Gandon figured he might become the victim of some nifty work with a pike and fled to London.
He did come back though and died in his house in Lucan in 1823. But the city he had helped to create was slowly destroyed by the Act of Union and the loss of the Irish parliament. By the end of the 19th century it had been surpassed in population and wealth by Belfast. It’s ironic that his two great creations survived the animosity of the late 18th century only to be destroyed in the revolutionary period of the early 1920’s.
The first stone was laid on the Custom House site 233 years ago, on this day.
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