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Public Architecture in Ireland 1680-1760

By Edward McParland. Paul Mellon Centre/Yale University Press, 2001. 241pp. £35

In one of the buildings best known to Dublin visitors, Trinity College Library, Edward McParland asks questions such as: why does it look like this?

Why is it enriched only in parts? What explains its interior organisation? And why did it take so long to build? 'It is not surprising that some cannot be answered, 'he writes. 'More interesting is the fact that hardly any of the available answers have anything at all to do with the need for a college to accommodate books.'

This may suggest McParland's sceptical and tenacious approach to compiling this history of the period in which Ireland's 'representative buildings'were constructed - key public works such as Parliament House (now the Bank of Ireland), the Royal Barracks (now the National Museum of Ireland), Dublin Castle and Trinity College (pictured right is the Old Library's Long Room before 19th century alterations).

As one would expect of a Paul Mellon Centre volume, the footnotes, bibliography and index all speak of diligent research, but McParland's case studies - enriched by quotations from contemporary sources - are not just dutiful. 'The telling of the story involves some harsh judgements, 'he says. And he makes them, as well as finer discriminations, such as his comment on William Robinson's Royal Hospital, Kilmainham:

'However French the building may look, no French architect would have failed to articulate the corner pavilions in his roofline.' This critical spirit also informs some captions: 'The rustication is unsure, but the keystone has aspirations.'

The question of influence looms large, especially that of London, within whose orbit McParland places Irish Neo-Palladianism of the 1720s and '30s (though by no means exclusively).

His chapter on Edward Lovett Pearce's Parliament House (1729-39), which he hails as 'one of the finest buildings of the time in Europe', is particularly germane. Examining Pearce's Grand Tour annotations in his copy of Palladio's Quattro Libri, and other aspects of his 'wide eclecticism', McParland sees him as an architect 'who slips the Neo-Palladian leash'- for the good. (In this same chapter, 'sexual contortionist'Lady Margaret Allen makes an intriguing brief appearance. ) McParland supplies a provincial context for the major works - so including buildings such as the Presbyterian Meeting House at Corboy, County Longford (pictured right) - in a book that profits from David Davison's new photographs in colour and black and white.

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