“Is there a good house on Mountjoy Square?” Desirée Shortt asks mischievously. She qualifies herself, “It’s a rhetorical question!” She is talking about the condition of the houses, not the architecture. Ireland’s greatest living china restorer lives a safe block away in the genteel North Great George’s Street. Her neighbours include Senator David Norris and Grade I Conservation Architect John O’Connell. “Dublin is a very beautiful city,” Desirée qualifies herself even further. “Edinburgh is the only comparable city.”
It doesn’t help that Mountjoy Square shares its name with a fairly infamous prison. Slowly, though, the four terraces facing the green are shedding their shady past and early signs of gentrification are shining through on a sunny winter’s morning. There’s something more impressive about Georgian Dublin townhouses than their London counterparts. The brick is redder, the fanlights wider, the first floor windows taller, the basement areas deeper. It’s all about scale: bigger really is better. Everything’s looking up.
John Heagney writes in The Georgian Squares of Dublin, 2006, “Developed by the Gardiner Estate, Mountjoy Square was laid out in 1791 and built between 1793 and 1818. It has the distinction of being Georgian Dublin’s only true square since each of its four sides measures 140 metres in length. Mountjoy Square earned this tribute from contemporary commentators Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh: ‘This square, which is now completely finished, is neat, simple and elegant, its situation elevated and healthy … the elevation of the houses, the breadth of the streets, so harmonise together, as to give pleasure to the eye of the spectator, and add to the neatness, simplicity, and regularity everywhere visible, entitling the square to rank high among the finest in Europe.’”
He continues, “But perhaps more than Dublin’s other Georgian squares, Mountjoy Square has suffered the depredations of time: after the 1800 Act of Union, it went into decline and many of its fine buildings became tenement dwellings, while a period of protracted neglect during the 20th century led to extensive loss of houses on the west and south sides of the square. The survival of the north and east sides is due largely to the heroic determination of individuals and families who pledged themselves to its continued existence and have laid the foundations for the future renaissance of Mountjoy Square, while a renewed interest in rescuing and cherishing Georgian Dublin bodes well for the future of this important part of the city’s streetscape.”
A driver’s experience is of a cohesive set piece of urban planning and architecture. A streetwalker’s experience is of the finer grain. Cut granite flags, moulded granite paving plinths, cut stone half arches spanning basement areas, cast iron boot scrapers and lantern standards. And those fanlight doorcases with their leaded umbrella like-spokes, miniature glass lanterns, sidelights, columns and friezes. The typical three bay five storey house on Mountjoy Square has 590 square metres of floorspace. Size matters.
It’s all change on and off Baggot Street in Ballsbridge, south Dublin. The Unicorn and l’Écrivain restaurants are history. Larry Murphy’s watering hole has closed although Searson’s and The Waterloo continue to serve thirsty customers. Wilton Place, where Baggot Street meets the canal, is being transformed. Wilton Park House and the other office blocks are demolished, waiting to be replaced by architects Henry John Lyons’ on trend glazed office led mixed use scheme which will include LinkedIn’s European headquarters.
Wilton Park House was the home of the Industrial Development Agency. Architects Tyndall Hogan Hurley’s block was, perhaps, an acquired taste, an unforgiving sort of beauty, but it had an impressive fortress-like appearance with its granite walls and horizontal bands of irregular spaced windows interspersed with stainless steel panels. Those windows held significance: the higher the grade of IDA manager, the more windows they could claim for their office. Not every commercial building can boast of status denoting fenestration. Hierarchy continued with the tea trolley: plain biscuits on the first to fifth floors; chocolate coated biscuits for senior management on the top floor. The ground floor staff restaurant serving subsidised meals was a place for everyone to gain their “IDA stone”.
Pembroke Road is a continuation of Baggot Street to the south of the canal. Little has changed along this stretch of grand Georgian terraces and villas. Architectural details only have been updated. Dublin based architect John O’Connell points out, “The patent reveals of the sash windows were painted white in Victorian times to reflect light.” Pembroke Hall on Pembroke Road is a tall two bay three storey over basement mid terrace townhouse. It has that wall to window ratio so pleasing to the eye that Dublin does best. And of course a grand doorcase with fanlight. An internal fanlight extends natural light through the entrance hall and up the staircase.
The house has been sensitively restored and converted to accommodate 12 bedrooms for holiday lets. Contemporary furnishings include steel framed desks designed by Patrick McKenna of Wabi Sabi and headboards designed by Helle Moyna of Nordic Elements. There’s more change to the southeast of Pembroke Hall. The Berkeley Hotel (famous for its late 20th century tapestries) and Jury’s Inn (infamous for its all-nighter Coffee Dock) have been replaced by new luxury apartment blocks called Lansdowne Place.
“We acquired the house in 2017. It had been in use as a guesthouse previously but it was closed for some years after the economic difficulties of 2008. We refurbished the house extensively over six to eight months, keeping faith with its history and historic features. Our online reviews are nine plus and we are delighted and thankful for that.”
“We believe Pembroke Hall is very special. We want to provide guests with a very comfortable experience when they, stay based on three elements: a good night’s sleep in a super comfy king or super king sized bed; excellent WiFi; and a super shower. We decided not to do food because our location is minutes away from fantastic eateries that provide wonderful food all day. We are just a 15 to 20 minute walk from the city centre.”
“Our location is wonderful. The Aviva Stadium is moments away and is the home of Irish rugby and soccer. On 13 November 2021 Ireland won against the All Blacks at the stadium – our third victory against this world winning team! There are an array of local eateries, parks and transport facilities on our doorstep. You can walk to the city centre for shopping, Trinity College, Dublin Castle, government buildings and Dublin’s wonderful art galleries. Not forgetting the Guinness Storehouse too. We hope this gives you a feel and flavour for Pembroke Hall.”
A Hymn to the Lost Pastoral World of the Anglo Irish
Top Irish architect John O’Connell knows Cushendun well. “Clough Williams-Ellis represents his era correctly,” he affirms, “using a fine palette. His architecture is so reticent. There is an early German flavour to it. He was blessed with a prudent patron at Cushendun.” Clough was a strong believer in contextualism, commenting, “How often one may see new houses that are like swaggering strangers… that have insolently plunked themselves down on the edge of a cosy little gossip party and been properly left out in the cold. They have made no gesture of salutation, no concessions, no effort to make themselves agreeable to the architectural traditions of the place, and in return the old village just will not, cannot, know them.”
Belfast based architectural historian James Curl wrote a seminal feature on Cushendun titled “Antrim’s Discreet Holiday Resort” for Country Life in 1976. “The area known as The Glynnes, or Glens, of Antrim comprises the northeasternmost part of Northern Ireland. This article will describe the character and development of Cushendun, a small village on the shore at the eastern end of Glendun, one of The Nine Glens of Antrim. The coastal regions of The Glens are in sight of Kintyre and Islay, and from the earliest times there has been a close relationship with the lands across the Moyle. Yet The Glens are essentially Irish in character. Gaelic was spoken in the valleys until comparatively recently, and the area is rich in its own legends and history. From these glaciated valleys an adventurous people set out to establish rule over much of what is now Argyll, and the first kingdom of Dalriada was established. The hardy, independent nature of the Glensmen ensured prolonged resistance to Elizabeth’s generals in the 16th century, while the territories’ isolated position left language and religion relatively intact.
Taken as a whole, The Glens contain some of the most beautiful scenery in Ireland. While each has its own champions, Glendun inspires its own partisans, for it has a gentle charm quite unlike its more spectacular sisters. To the west, it is narrow and wooded, where its river tumbles over dark stones seta mong mosses, heathers, and ferns. It widens at its eastern end, and becomes a lush landscape of small fields with hedges that in summer are aglow with wild fuchsia.
Until just over a century ago, Glendun was one of the most inaccessible of The Glens, but this was dramatically changed when the Royal Military Road was constructed in 1833 to 1834. This road brought tourists to the fashionably romantic landscapes, and, ultimately, to enjoy the newly approved bathing in the wide and lovely bay that joins Glendun to the sea. Thus, from the reign of William IV, Cushendun developed as a discreet holiday resort, in a landscape of ravishing beauty. In 1817, R S Dobbs could describe the hamlet of Cushendun as ‘handsome’ and having ‘some very romantic spots in it’, including the curious caves of conglomerate rock that lie south of the village proper, and through which access may be had to the Caves House, formerly the home of the Crommelin family. Although tiny, Cushendun is the nearest port to Great Britain in Ireland, and it was this that prompted the Crommelins in 1830 to commission a design from John Rennie for a harbour known as Port Crommelin. However this scheme never materialised. Today, there is a modest harbour at the mouth of the river, and the natural features give us a clue to the name ‘Cushendun’, for the Irish Cois-abhann-Duine means ‘the end of the brown river’. The stone bridge at the western end of harbour was constructed in 1860 and recently has been inelegantly widened…
The building of the churches, the opening of The Glens, the fashion for sea bathing, and peace helped Cushendun to prosper, and sturdy dwellings replaced the humbler huts of the past. The architecture of Cushendun is mostly of a traditional 19th century vernacular type usual in Irish villages. The main street of Cushendun leading from the bridge to the parish church has its post office and shop, while McBride’s Pub, near the river, provides a convivial focus…
To the west of Main Street is the first group of outstanding character. This is known as The Square, and consists of two storeyed terraces planned symmetrically around a courtyard garden that is entered between massive gate piers. The terraces are linked by arches at the corners. An elliptical slate tablet in the central gable is inscribed with a date and the initials ‘RMcN’ and ‘MMcN’ commemorating Ronald McNeill and his wife Maud who were largely responsible for the appearance of modern Cushendun. Maud was Cornish and ‘loved The Glens’, according to her tombstone under a Celtic cross in the Parish courtyard, and it was largely through her that Clough Williams-Ellis was commissioned to enhance the village, starting with The Square, built in 1912.
After the ‘bathing lodge’ was burned down, Williams-Ellis designed and built Glenmona House in 1923 for the McNeills in a pastiche Regency style. The architect then added Maud Cottages, by the Green, in 1925. These consist of two storey terrace houses, with the upper part slate hung in the manner of Cornish coastal villages. The contribution of the architect and the McNeills to the beauties of Cushendun cannot be overestimated.
Main Street, the church, Glenmona House, and the cottages are all to the north of the river. To the south is a range of hotels. Following the war years, the future of Cushendun caused concern. It was recognised that the village and its surrounding area were of great beauty and importance, and so in 1954 some 62 acres of Cushendun north of the river were acquired by the National Trust through the Ulster Land Fund, and further acres adjoining the beach were purchased in 1965 with the aid of Enterprise Neptune Funds. There is a considerable problem with erosion of the beach, not only through over-use by holidaymakers but through farmers removing sand for agricultural purposes. Boating interests are encouraged by the Trust with improvements to the harbour, while grazing rights on surrounding lands are leased on the conacre system.
The Trust, mindful of the desirability of encouraging a traditional way of life, lets cottages to local people rather than to persons requiring holiday homes. There were problems in upgrading the existing houses to comply with modern standards, but generally this has been achieved with little damage to architectural character. The Trust, by means of covenants, ensures that properties are adequately maintained, and more care than is usual in Northern Ireland has been taken over the design of 24 new dwellings for public housing. While covenants appear to work in the Trust’s own lands, proper conservation policies for Cushendun as a whole are necessary. A Conservation Area should include the Caves, the hotels, and the whole of the village, and enhancement of this national treasure should be the goal.”
“The Giusti Gardens are very simple and rather English!” exclaims architect John O’Connell. “So beautiful, not heroic, just green. They have lots of trees, paths and shade, and were much admired by Mozart and Goethe though not at the same time.” What did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe have to say on Giusti Gardens in his Italian Journey? “… where huge cypresses soar into the air like awls. The yew trees, which are clipped to a point, are probably imitations of this magnificent product of nature… judging from the date when the garden was planted, these cypresses must already have reached such a great age.” Diana and Apollo | a grotto and a belvedere | a precipice and a pavilion | a labyrinth and a tower | lizards and lemons. Amazing.