Lavender’s Blue visit one of Dublin’s grandest and most historic houses. Following a herculean £5 million restoration, Ely House has never looked better, adapted and ready for its fourth century of continuous use. Now that’s what we call sustainable development. Back in 1771 when the house was built, Dublin’s population had quadrupled in a matter of decades making it the seventh largest city in Europe. Still smaller than the modern day London Borough of Wandsworth. The Wide Streets Commission of 1757 paved the road (no pun) for the development of streets and squares. Now that’s what we call town planning. Building leases on plots dictated height, mostly four storeys over basement, and often even each storey height. A pleasing uniformity was the outcome.
Exteriors are typically devoid of ornament, relying on quality of brick and pleasing proportion of wall-to-window ratios for their beauty. Except of course for what have become known as the famous Dublin doors. Extraordinary zest was invested into creating eye catching arrangements of heavily panelled doors, lead paned sidelights and semicircular fanlights. Wrought iron railings and balconies are the only other relieving features. This architectural restraint makes the explosion of exuberant interior plasterwork all the more stimulating. And if you think the recent boom was party time, it doesn’t hold a (Georgian) candle to the shenanigans our bewigged predecessors got up to in these ornate settings.
Chronicler Mrs Delaney, the Lavender’s Blue of her day, recorded one of her meals, “First Course: soup, rabbits and onions, veal, turkey pout, salmon grilde [sic]. Second Course: pickled salmon, quails, little terrene peas, cream, mushrooms, apple pye [sic], crab, leveret, cheese cake. Dessert: blancmange, cherries, Dutch cheese, raspberries and creams, sweetmeats and jelly, strawberries and cream, almond cream, currants, gooseberries and orange butter,” [sick]. Potatoes are not mentioned because they were not considered part of a set ‘dish’; they were handed round. Vast quantities of wine, chiefly claret but also port, accompanied the food. In The Four Georges, Thackeray writes, “Singing after dinner and supper was the universal fashion of the day. You may fancy all the dining rooms sounding with choruses, some ribald, some harmless, but all occasioning the consumption of a prodigious deal of fermented liquor.”
Built by Henry Loftus, Earl of Ely, Ely House on Ely Place opposite Ely Wine Bar faces down Hume Street towards St Stephen’s Green. It spans the full width of Hume Street and true to form is four storeys over basement with particularly elegant wrought iron railings, balconies and even lamp standards. A parapet partly conceals the roof. But where most Georgian Dublin houses are three bay, Ely House is a full gloriously greedy seven. Red brick from Bridgewater, Somerset, was an inspired choice of material. The Loftus family seat was Rathfarnham Castle, south of Dublin city centre. Their townhouse, or rather town-mansion, was a fulcrum of 18th century social life. Michael Stapleton, the fashionable stuccadore, was commissioned to undertake the interior plasterwork.
Stucco acanthus fronds, acorns, arrows, bay leaves, bows, brackets, cherubs, consoles, corbels, cornices, festoons, friezes, helmets, medallions, panels, plaques, putti, quadrants, quatrefoils, ribbons, roses, rosettes, scrolls, shells, swags and two turtle doves await us. There are more fireplaces than the Lassco Summer Sale. Cararra marble, Sienna marble, oak, take your pick. In fact somebody nearly did. Just before we arrived a wannabe thief tried to make off with one. Both outside and in, Ely House is a template of grand Georgian design and layout. Beyond the Doric Palladian doorcase is a squarish outer hall. Sedan chairs would once have been parked on the stone flagged floor. A dentilled cornice is a subtle hint of the plasterwork to come. On one side of the outer hall, the morning room, now an oratory, is equally serene with windows overlooking Ely Place. But on the other side, the dining room shows Stapleton in full flow. As the panelled window shutters are pulled back, the soft Irish light casts shadows across the moulded walls and ceilings in all their glory. The dining room is painted Mount Panther blue, highlighting Stapleton’s three dimensional wonders.
Straight ahead of the entrance door, the outer hall leads into the inner hall; what a spectacle! Behold Dublin’s finest staircase, raising the functional to the fantastical. Here is the first clue, all six feet of it, that Stapleton or possibly Loftus was a fan of ancient classical mythology. A statue of Hercules, carved out of the same Portland stone as the three flights of stairs, acts as a human sized newel post. Under a mahogany handrail and below small lead medallions and squiggles, groupings of plant-like wrought iron balusters alternate with giltwood figures representing the Labours of Hercules. In ascending order are the Erymanthian boar; the Stymphalian bird; the Nemean lion; another Stymphalian bird; the Cretan bull; the Arcadian stag; and the three headed dog Cerberus. The staircase basks in natural light from a Palladian window framed by Corinthian pilasters. An obligatory secondary staircase, connecting the basement to the top floor and all levels between, is a marvellous counterfoil to the main staircase. It’s an essay in refined understatement with plain timber balusters.
The first floor is laid out with typical 18th century taste. An enfilade along the front of the house is formed by a reception room on either side of an anteroom. In this instance the anteroom is a single bay music room. One of the decorative plasterwork roundels on the wall is hollow to improve acoustics. The Pillar Room was once known as the Attic Theatre. This space was created by the Earl’s widow. When Henry Loftus died in 1783 his young widow, the girl about town Dowager Countess, threw together two rooms to make a theatre. Ionic columns and pilasters support the ceiling of the enlarged space. The muted colours of the drawing room allow the plasterwork to do the talking. Romulus and Remus appear with the wolf in the central marble relief of the mantelpiece.
Ely House was the home of Sir William Thornley Stoker from 1890 to 1911. His brother Abraham (Bram) Stoker was author of Dracula. Since the 1920s the house has been the headquarters of the Order of the Knights of St Columbanus. This Order was founded in Belfast by James K O’Neill to promote Catholic faith and education. His experience as the priest of an inner city parish led him to believe that intelligently applied Catholic principles would remedy social ills and permeate society with the charity of Christ. This was the basis of the programme of study which continues to underpin the Knights’ endeavours. Canon O’Neill died in 1922. Mid 20th century offices built in the rear garden provide a source of income for the Order. It’s not many buildings that over the course of their history have housed a raucous aristocrat, religious order, a Thai restaurant (the previous use of the Knights’ members’ room in the basement) and hosted a gothic horror writer. Now that’s what we call provenance.